Saturday, December 15, 2012

Sonic Chooses Uptown For First Chicago Restaurant

No, there's not a Sonic Drive-In sign in the empty parking lot at Kenmore and Wilson -- yet -- but there may be one there soon.

In August 2011, UU broke the story that Sonic was considering opening its first Chicago restaurant in Uptown, one of three locations it was looking at.  Then nothing happened.  We gave up on it.

Now we are hearing from a reader that it's back on, and it's looking like it's close to being a done deal.

"Hello!  I went to a meeting with a representative from Sonic, Alyssa from Uptown United, and some other Truman Square residents at the alderman's office last week.  Sonic has chosen Uptown as the location of its very first Chicago store!  It will go into the large parking lot at Kenmore and Wilson (1016 West Wilson), across the alley from McDonalds.

The representative of the franchise group, Mark Kinnare, showed us some drawings and plans.  He also answered our questions.

Why Uptown?  Uptown was chosen over other site contenders because of Target and the new Wilson L.  The first Sonic in Chicago will be a big deal and heavily promoted!  Sonic was looking for a central location where people from Lincoln Park and Rogers Park already come, and Uptown's Target is a proven draw that brings people to Uptown from all over the North Side.  The plans for the new improved Wilson L, just a block away, solidified Uptown's appeal.

Why not the old El Pollo Loco site at Wilson & Sheridan instead?  El Pollo Loco signed a long-term lease at that location that is bringing the owner a very big rent check each month, in excess of the current market rate.  The owner would lose a ton of money if he terminated his guaranteed lease with El Pollo.  Alderman Cap has tried to get him to budge and rent to another business at that corner, but he is not willing to break his very lucrative lease with El Pollo, and I can't say I blame him.  Unless he has a change of heart, he will wait for the lease to run out before anything new can go there.

What about zoning?  The lot at Kenmore is already zoned for a business like Sonic, so no zoning change or approval is needed.  The drive-through will require a special use permit.  They will also need to get approval from CDOT for the entry and exit curb cuts onto Wilson.  That's something that changed from the plans presented last year, which had an entrance/exit onto Kenmore.  Neighbors didn't like that, so they changed it so all traffic enters and exits onto Wilson instead.

When will it happen?  The soonest it can open is August 2013, and that's if everything goes perfectly with the permits from the City of Chicago, which has been very red-tape-y lately.  It takes about 75-80 days to build a Sonic.

What about security?  They are very aware of the "challenges" Uptown presents and will have security officers on the premises at all times.  Mark specified that only experienced security personnel will be hired.  It is not a cookie-cutter Sonic store, it was designed especially for the site, and security for customers and employees was a high priority when they designed it.  I remember how safe Pollo Loco was, so I believe they will be able to achieve this if they do it right.

So, what makes this design different?  It will have an indoor/outdoor dining area in front, with a 12' canopy over the outside part.  It will be a 2700sf building, and the bathrooms will be inside rather than outside, as in a regular Sonic layout.  Most Sonics rely on the drive-through, but in the city, so few people have cars that this one will concentrate much more on pedestrian traffic.  There will be a double drive-through because that's what people expect these days, but the store will be much more focused on carry-out and eat-in orders than the usual Sonics.  It will have a six-foot stockade fence on the north and east sides of the lot, a wrought-iron fence on the south and west sides, and 10-12 drive-up stalls.  There will be a bike rack, many trash cans, and a lot of landscaping, particularly on the north side of the lot, to help keep noise down.

Speaking of noise....  The Sonic will be competing directly with McDonalds, so it will probably have the same hours:  Dining area open until around 10pm, with a 24-hour drive-through.  The drive-up stalls, served by carhops, will be on the east side of the building.  They will turn off Sonic Radio, that plays through the stalls' speakers, at 10pm or 11pm, to avoid bothering the neighbors.  Mark said they have angled the speakers in the drive-through away from the buildings to minimize noise, as well as putting in fences and foliage to help keep it away from the homes.  I asked if the drive-through speakers could be moved to another part of the lot, farther from people's homes, and closer to Wilson or the alley, and he said no, but that he would be willing to discuss with the community ways to keep it quieter, and is open to a sound study.  He stressed that Sonic believes in working with the neighbors, because the neighbors are their best customers.

What about jobs?  Sonic puts a high priority on local hiring, and expects to hire about 90% of the workers from Uptown.  Mark expects about 100 workers will be hired to start, with all the promotion that Sonic will put into the first Chicago store.  After a while, it will level off to about 65-70 employees.

Local advantages?  The last time the lot was used for anything was way back in 1980.  It hasn't produced any sales taxes for more than 30 years.  The new Sonic will put a lot of money into the tax rolls and bring people to Uptown who may not have been here before.

Mark said in email later:  Please let the community know how excited we are to be building the first Chicago Sonic in Uptown.  We'll get through winter and permitting, and hopefully be in the ground building the newest Sonic before we know it!

There will be a meeting for people living in Truman Square (since they are the ones who will be most affected by the new store) to ask questions about the project, see the plans, voice their concerns, etc., on Monday, January 14th, time and place TBA.  Please check Truman Square Neighbors Facebook page for more details as we get closer to the date."

click to enlarge

Update:  RedEye Chicago has a little more information about Sonic.  So does Huffington Post, which credits UU for the info (always appreciated!)


  1. It is an absolute crime to put such auto oriented, low density development here. I know Uptown thinks it is desperate for development but it should not be THIS desperate. I'd tell them to design it for pedestrians or not at all. Make people take the el. Ideally this site should be reserved for mixed use.

  2. A suburban development 1/2 block from an el stop :(

  3. "They will turn off Sonic Radio, that plays through the stalls' speakers, at 10pm or 11pm, to avoid bothering the neighbors. " I really, really, really don´t like the idea of a Sonic. Noise until 11 p.m.!!!!!! So the people adjacent to this, cannot come home to a quiet space but have to put up with "their music" until 11 p.m. We already get to pick up tons of trash from McDonalds, Now we´ll have to pick up Sonic trash, as well. Personally, I would want zero music unless they are playing adagios or Mozart´s nocturnes in the piano.

  4. Yes, Andy, you are correct. There are obviously absolutely no cars in Chicago. That is why the Kennedy and LSD are always empty and we do not need stop lights... (rolling eyes)

    I guess you will be putting up the couple of million needed to purchase, build and employ 100 people for your Pedestrian Only business...

  5. Hooray! Sonic is AWESOME!

  6. Dear Uptown SuperHero, you can make your point without being mean to someone for expressing their view.

  7. "I'd tell them to design it for pedestrians or not at all."

    You're not getting it. The zoning exists for a Sonic to go in the parking lot. You can't "tell them" how to design their restaurant any more than they can tell you how to decorate your front room. They are meeting with the community as a courtesy, not coming hat in hand, hoping for approval.

    The zoning is there. They don't need any approvals. They sure as hell aren't accepting any ultimatums.

  8. Man, I love me some Sonic. Welcome to Uptown!

    And for those of you who have never had the extreme pleasure of southern gas station fried chicken...holy smokes...Chesters is incredible.

    Between Sonic and Chesters, I will eat myself to death within 24 months. But, will go out with smile on my face and full tummy.

  9. I don´t think the question is whether the food is good or not. Those are individual tastes. The question is whether this is positive for the neighborhood. I am far from convinced that it is.

    Also, if they are meeting with the neighbors as a courtesy, but do not intend to listen to what they say, then what is the purpose? It would seem rather arrogant at best.

  10. etro, my impression is that a huge commercial lot that has sat empty, producing no income for 30 years, on one of Uptown's major retail corridors, is not positive for the neighborhood.

    A restaurant with a cult following that attracts people to the neighborhood and will swell the tax base is better. But that's just my opinion.

    But regardless of what you and I think, Sonic is coming.

    Perhaps my use of "courtesy" was tone-deaf. Sonic does not have to meet with the community at all. The fact that they have chosen to is, to me, the opposite of arrogant.

    The original article said that Sonic agreed to move the driveways off of Kenmore because of community reaction. It also said that Sonic was open to doing a noise survey.

    Will they decide not to put a Sonic there? Probably not.

    Are they willing to make reasonable accommodations based on community input? Probably.

  11. I say let them built anything new in Uptown that doesn't require low income housing, especially any new business to the area.
    I welcome you Sonic.

  12. I don't think I've ever been in a Sonic, but this is good news for Uptown.

    I love it when a plan comes together.

  13. Yes, it is positive for the neighborhood.

  14. A Sonic is better than an empty lot. The streetscape on Wilson from Broadway to Marine can use more excitement/attention other than the abhorrent collection of empty lots, currency exchanges, abandoned buildings and social services. Maybe in a few years we'll even get a Jack in the Box!

    On another note, I read somewhere once that Wilson was a high-class street in roaring 20's Chicago where women once paraded around in gowns and heels and men in tuxedos. Sometimes I look at the beautiful, old Sheridan Plaza building and wonder if we'll ever see that class return.

  15. to the commenter who wrote that health is a matter of personal taste.

    I go to the Lake on Wilson twice a run in the am and to commute to the Loop. The level of obesity in Uptown is shocking..particularly among its poorer residents.

    Another restaurants serving high calorie, high fat meals with no nutritional value is a disaster.

    These fast food restaurants are the norm now it seems.

  16. While I understand concerns about density, especially so close to the upcoming Wilson rehab, there's other locations where this can go, and for now, turning an empty lot into a revenue generating restaurant is a win. I'm sure that while there'll certainly be people from Lincoln, Rogers, and Buena Parks who'll dive here, all of us who want to patronize this new employer should be smart and walk, especially with the attention paid to foot traffic. Lastly, blaming fast food restaurants is like blaming bars for drunk driving. There's plenty of people, like me, who enjoy a Big Mac or Whopper without being a lardass. It's all about self-control, and there'll always be people who don't have that.

  17. IrishPirate said: "I don't think I've ever been in a Sonic, but this is good news for Uptown...."

    Don't fool us, IP. You remind me of the guy who sits in the passenger seat of the car in all those Sonic television commercials.

  18. To Irish=Like Pirate, I believe another 4 years unfortunately..

  19. Craig,

    Hell, I don't recall ever even seeing a Sonic commercial.

    That being said the wonder of the internet has provided me with some insight to your mild witticism.

  20. El Pollo Loco was loco for signing such a long lease. When did they open and close? It seems like they signed a 15 year lease and only used it for like 3 years. What a waste of money for the company. I know of two Dominick's locations where they did the same thing, and have paid for at least 10 years at each site for an empty building. No wonder Safeway isn't doing well right now.

  21. Did a keyword search on UU, and EPL opened in March 2008 and closed in January 2010. Several of their restaurants closed the same time Uptown's did.

  22. I'm excited for Sonic. I'm from Tennessee originally and Sonics are all over. It's really good food. And it'll be great to have a vibrant business rather than an empty parking lot.

    Also, the guys from the Sonic commercials are TJ Jagodowski and Peter Grosz. TJ is of TJ & Dave fame and lives in Uptown.

  23. Of course this is great for Uptown and that empty lot. That whole stretch of Wilson between Sheridan and Broadway is a disaster.

    Public transport is great, walking is healthy, but cars are a legitimate way of getting around the city too!

    Sonics are always clean, well-maintained and the food is very tasty.

    I'd like to see a Portillo's replace the Pollo Loco! One with a 1920's gangster motif would be appropriate down the street from the funeral home where Dillinger was prepared for eternity.

  24. Wow. Can't believe that. The landlord who owns that lot got a sweet deal.

  25. Why don't the owners of El Pollo Loco negotiate a buy-out? They could probably get a discount to the total payments owed and that way the owner could begin to evaluate other uses for the lot. Win-win.

  26. What a bunch of depressing praise for a disaster of a development. Exurban sprawl in the middle of the city...just the type of garbage that killed many of the best blocks in our community. What a disaster.

  27. While I'm not a fast food fan by any means, Sonic seems to have quite a draw which will bring in money from those outside the neighborhood.

    Having said that, is there any news on Rokito's? For the short time it was here, I loved that place and anyone coming through the neighborhood I made sure they swung on by.

  28. I'm happy for Sonic burgers (fond childhood memories and all that), but between it's coming and Papa Ray's, it's sad to think of the affects on Uptown Pizza across the street. I'm hoping this family owned business will not go under because of it. I personally would rather support a local, small business like Uptown, even though I do like Sonic's food.

  29. Sonic doesn't serve pizza, so it should be fine. There's room for different restaurants. Any news on the progress on this?