Nate Wieland continues to grow his restaurant business
You could call Nate Wieland an early adopter.
At 14, he was flipping burgers and filling orders at his parents’ Sonic Drive-In. His first of three daughters was born when he was 18. At 20, he got married. And at the age of 24, Wieland opened his first of two Sonic restaurants in Grand Island, Neb.
He’s 41 today.
That first job at the age of 14 was in Ulysses, Kan., where Wieland grew up. He worked at his family’s Sonic Drive-In through high school and then attended college for a couple of years. After he married his wife, Jennifer, the two moved 190 miles south to Amarillo, Texas.
“We moved there without knowing hardly anybody,” Nate said. “I applied for a management position at one of the Sonic’s down there and worked as a manager for about a year.”
In 1997, the Wielands moved back to Ulysses, where Nate ran his parents’ Sonic. In 2000, Nate and Jennifer decided to move to another city where they didn’t know anyone: Grand Island.
“The first time we came to Central Nebraska we fell in love with it,” Nate said. “Grand Island is a growing, dynamic city, full of amazing people and opportunities and we were excited to make it our home.”
This is ‘how they Sonic’
With about 3,500 Sonics in the United States, Sonic Drive-Ins are a few locations shy from matching restaurant chains like McDonald’s (which has over 14,100 U.S. locations) and Burger King (which has about 7,400 U.S. locations).
And that suits the Wielands just fine.
“We love the food. We love the drinks, the atmosphere, the carhops, the old-time feel where you can order from the stalls, and the carhop will bring it out to you,” Nate said. “We do most of our business through drive through now, but we still do have carhop service. It’s unique.”
The Wielands opened their first Sonic in Grand Island in 2000. Business has been brisk since day one, much to the surprise of some people.
“When we came up here and checked into a hotel, the receptionist asked us what we were doing in Grand Island, and I said, ‘We’re opening a Sonic.’ And she said, ‘Oh, well I don’t know about that, I don’t think we need any more hamburger joints right now,’” Nate recalled.
Six years later, the Wielands opened their second Sonic location in Grand Island.
“Don’t get me wrong, we’ve had struggles, but every year, pretty much every year, has gotten better,” Nate said.
Connecting with the Grand Island community
For the Wielands, being part of the Grand Island community means being a business that the community can be proud of. So they’ve gone out of their way to contribute to the United Way, the Central Nebraska Humane Society, many youth sport teams and leagues and the public school system in Grand Island.
“One thing we do is give away thousands of free drinks to the kids each year. This morning, one of the marching bands was out training and they wanted some slushies, so we gave 250 slushies away at 9:30 in the morning,” Nate said.
Gestures like this keep the Wielands, their Sonic restaurants and their 50 to 70 employees (depending on the season) connected to the Grand Island community, Nate said, adding that he’s not alone in giving back to the community.
“We have some great role models in town to look up to, running successful businesses and giving back to their community and in turn making it a better place. It gives guys like me something to strive for, and it’s what makes Grand Island so special.
“I’m sure everybody is partial to their town, and Grand Island is not my own hometown but I’ve lived here longer than I’ve lived anywhere else so I kind of feel like it’s my hometown now. You know, it’s an extremely charitable town. The business leaders in Grand Island set an example by being extremely generous with donations.”
Finding a bank that ‘has your back’
In 2005, when the Wielands were making plans to open their second Sonic location, there was a lack of enthusiasm from the bank they were using at the time at the prospect of the Wielands growing their family business. It’s the same reaction they received from their local bank in Ulysses.
“They didn’t want to loan us money, they thought we were making a big mistake. And I had been recording profits for years,” Nate said.
So when it came time to secure financing for their second location, the Wielands decided to make a change.
“The First National Bank in Grand Island had opened around 2005, and they were right across the street from my Sonic,” Nate said. “John Hoggatt (then the Executive Vice President of First National Bank in Grand Island, now President) came over and introduced himself and brought his business card and we kind of kicked around the idea of opening a second location in Grand Island. He said, ‘Well, if you ever need anything we’d love for you to bank with us; we’ll help you out in any way we can.’
“So we switched to First National and they loaned us money for the second location, and we’ve been partners with them ever since.”
When Nate needed help with a remodeling project on one of his Sonics; when they had to update their computer systems; when they needed new equipment; when they needed to repave a parking lot – each time, First National was there. And Nate says First National will no doubt be there when his family decides to open a new restaurant in the future.
“Anytime we’ve needed anything like that, there’s no hassle – they’re more than happy to work with me in any way possible … They’ve gone above and beyond.”