Sonic’s roller-skating carhops zip and zoom

The Route 44. It’s the uber-refresher at Sonic Drive-Ins, packing 44 ounces of carbonated goodness into a tallish cup that tapers at its bottom so as to fit perfectly into a cup holder.

For Sonic carhops, the Route 44 is their sword in the stone, the instrument of their professional baptism, the ultimate test of their art.

You see, when it’s filled with 44 ounces of sloshing liquid and ice, a Route 44 can become a bit top-heavy, and delivering a tray that holds four of them from kitchen to awaiting car-bound diners — while wearing roller skates, no less — makes, carhops agree, the Route 44 the trickiest delivery on Sonic’s menu.

But pulling it off time and time again just adds to the cachet of Sonic’s carhops, the modern-day descendants of 20th-century pop culture icons who, in an age of impersonal speaker-equipped drive-thrus, have become as rare as rotary telephones.

But not at the Sonic Drive-In at 7390 W. Cheyenne Ave., where a corps of wheeled carhops still zips in, by and around each other and the occasional startled pedestrian to deliver trays of sodas, slushes and good eats with both swiftness and style.

Patrick Lenow, corporate spokesman for Oklahoma City-based Sonic Corp., says carhops have been a signature feature at Sonic drive-ins ever since the 1950s, when the company was founded.

Back then, many chains, and even mom-and-pop drive-ins, employed carhops who’d run out to a waiting car — “carhop” reportedly comes from their tendency to hop onto cars’ running boards before the vehicles even came to a halt — take diners’ orders and then serve them, usually off of a tray hung on a half-open window.

Although technology — via the rise of automated ordering systems and the spread of drive-thrus — and labor costs ultimately would deliver a knockout punch to carhops, they remain an iconic feature at Sonic’s more than 3,500 drive-ins throughout 44 states, Lenow says.

“It’s been a 60-year heritage for this brand,” Lenow adds, and while Sonic’s carhops aren’t required to roller skate, “we have a lot of franchises that still utilize it, and those employees who skate generally love it because it’s a fun part of the job.”

From a business standpoint, employing roller-skating carhops helps to set Sonic apart in a crowded fast food marketplace.

“There are quick-service restaurants on every corner,” Lenow says. “We’re different. Our food is different, our drinks are different, and our service style is different. That’s key to our success.”

And, Lenow says, “customers love it.”

Carlene Curtin, 29, has been carhopping since she was 19, about three years after she had started working at Sonic. Curtin had roller skated as a kid, and her brother, who also worked at Sonic, suggested that she give carhopping a try.

“It’s a learning curve,” she says. “Even learning how to roller skate while, like, carrying the Route 44 — because they’re top-heavy — you have to get used to that. It takes practice.”

New carhops practice by transporting water-filled Route 44 cups “so if we drop it we’re not making a mess,” Curtin says. Balance — figuring out how to balance drinks and food on a tray for the trip from kitchen to car — is “probably the biggest challenge.”

And when a run goes badly? “You feel yourself losing your balance,” Curtin says. “You feel it: ‘Oh my gosh, I’m totally going down,’ and you have to try to save yourself, not the food. The food and the drinks can be remade, and you don’t want to hurt yourself.”

But customers love watching carhops zip by, Curtin says. “People get excited. They’re like, ‘Oh, look, they’re on skates!’  ”

She smiles recalling customers who asked her whether she can do tricks.

“I say, ‘We try not to do stuff like that.’  ”

But “it’s very fun,” Curtin says. “It’s a good workout, too, because you’re on skates all day.”

Cherii Manthe, 34, has been carhopping for about 15 years and has been skating since she was 4. But, she says, carhop skating is “a little different” from recreational skating “because of the balancing issue.”

Skaters can swing their arms to maintain balance, but carhops holding trays can’t, Manthe says.

“It’s the difference between roller skating and ice skating, basically.”

Manthe says it took about a week of practice before she felt comfortable delivering real food on skates. From then, she says, the trick is to “make sure you know what you’re doing,” and to “be aware of your surroundings.”

Angela Galindo, 18, has been carhopping for about a year. But “I’ve always been able to skate,” she says, and applied to carhop at Sonic at the urging of a former co-worker at a KFC restaurant here.

However, most of Galindo’s previous experience was on inline skates. Switching over to the classic four-wheeled skates carhops use turned out to be “very different on my ankles,” she says.

Has she ever lost an order? Galindo laughs and recalls her first spill, when she arrived at a guest’s car with a tray filled with ice cream items, did a go-turn — a slick circular maneuver — and slipped off the curb as her feet flew out from under her.

It was embarrassing, she says with a laugh.

“Everyone got out of the car, and I’m, like, ‘I’m OK, I’m OK.’ ”

Dominique Corona, 19, has been carhopping for about a year and a half. Unlike her colleagues, she came to the job with no skating experience beyond, maybe, an elementary school field trip.

“It was pretty scary at first,” Corona says.

But, since then, she has learned how to balance a tray for maximum stability, perfected her skating skills and developed the supernatural sixth sense carhops apparently have for seeing around corners, lest nasty carhop collisions occur.

Curtin — who says the biggest order she ever has dropped was, that’s right, a couple of Route 44 drinks — says the reality of carhopping is that, eventually, you’re going to drop a drink, or something.

And then? “Just stay calm and don’t freak out,” she says.

Sonic carhops who skate receive skating training atop their normal training, says Willes Weaver, an area supervisor for Sonic stores here. Weaver notes that prior skating experience doesn’t necessarily translate to carhopping, recalling one carhop, the former manager of a skating rink, who found that “balance is a whole different deal.”

By the way: Carhops wear protective gear during their training and may choose to continue doing so on the job.

“I suggest they wear it, but they think it’s hot and don’t want to wear it,” Weaver says. “But they’re good skaters and they know how to fall and where to fall and don’t try to save the food. I can replace the food. I can’t replace the girls.”

Given the scarcity of carhops these days, guests may face a learning curve, too. Raul Melchor and Nikki Swift, visiting from Ventura County, Calif., don’t have carhops back home and said watching them do their thing here was “pretty cool.”

In contrast, Angela Garcia of Las Vegas says that her family lived in Tennessee and Virginia for a while. “They’ve got them there,” she says, “so this is like a little piece of home for us.”

Contact reporter John Przybys at jprzybys@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0280.

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