Meet Taylor Cain, the 26-year-old who owns all Sonic Drive-Ins in Northern Nevada

Johnathan L. Wright
Reno Gazette Journal
Taylor Cain, 26, heads her family company that owns five Sonic Drive-Ins in Northern Nevada, with a sixth on the way in South Reno. She assumed control after the sudden death of her father in 2016. She owns the company with her two younger brothers.

Taylor Cain's first day on the job, she steamed and sprayed.

It was the spring of 2017. She was just about to graduate from the University of Nevada. Eight months earlier, her father had died of a heart attack; her mother was already dead. She had two younger brothers to worry about.

As she emerged from her grief, she decided, improbably, at 22 years old, to assume leadership of her family company, founded by her father and uncle, that owns five Sonic Drive-In franchises across Northern Nevada.

She had moxie; she also had a stupendous amount to learn.

But you have to begin somewhere, and so on that spring day, she joined Jana Wettig, the company's business manager, in hoisting pressure washers to scour the dumpsters behind the Reno Sonic, followed by coats from spray painters to spruce them up.

"The magnitude of where to start . . . ," she said the other morning, remembering the day and what lay ahead. "Routine maintenance is something the stores always need."

And with that acknowledgment, at once obvious and essential, Cain was on her way to discovering there is far, far more to running a Sonic franchise than making bacon cheeseburgers and pouring cherry limeade and running them out to cars (something she'd done as a teenage carhop).

It was a journey Cain didn't have to make. It would have been easy for her to sell the company, take the money and issue travel bulletins via Instagram from various points deluxe.

"That never crossed my mind," she said. "I knew if I didn't try, I would regret it. I never felt like I was missing out on partying or going places because this is where I needed to be and this is where I wanted to be. It was a family legacy."

From the boss' daughter to the boss

Cain just turned 26. Her brother Ian, 23, works on the financial side of the company. Her brother Quinn, nearly 20, is on the construction crew of the family's new Sonic being built in South Reno (more on that later).

"It's as much their business as mine," Taylor Cain said. 

Still, she is the managing member of the company, the signer of all the checks, which makes her the boss — who used to be the boss' daughter. That fact alone presented a challenge for Cain — and for the company's 125 or so employees — when she took over. Given her age, how could it have been otherwise?

Sonic Drive-In owner Taylor Cain, right,  talks with longtime Sonic employee Magaly Guerra, left, inside the Sonic Drive-in on North McCarran Boulevard in Reno on June 16, 2020.

Her dumpster bona fides established, Cain said she proceeded to learn the other parts of the business: food service, cleaning, repair, payroll, human resources, franchise relations, licensing, permitting, and purchasing, "down to how much money we spend on uniforms each year," Cain said. "I asked a lot of questions."

Learning to communicate

Of course, there were stumbles.

"At first, her timing wasn't always right on being in the different stores," said Carlos Alonzo, general manager of the Reno Sonic, who has worked for the company for almost 14 years. "She needed to communicate more.

"She started going to each store and seeing how she could help. She started making herself available. She's more receptive to ideas. We feel now we have that open door to go to her and give her ideas."

Taylor Cain, 26, center, talks with employees inside the Sonic Drive-In on North McCarran Boulevard in Reno on June 16, 2020. Taylor heads the family company that owns all the Sonics in Northern Nevada.

And if age meant, in part, inexperience, it also meant "a fresh look, a fresh mind, not relaxing," Alonzo said. "Maybe her father had started to relax a little bit. When you're 26, you want to conquer the world."

The other morning, Cain looked back, too, at her progress.

"As time has gone on, I think they see I'm not just a trust fund kid," she said of the employees. "I want to build upon what my parents built."

Passing muster with the suits at corporate

It wasn't certain, in the beginning, that Cain (and her brothers) would be able to build on anything.

When their father died, Cain was studying marketing and hoping for a career in event planning, "not just here but around the world," said Wettig, the company business manager, who has known the Cains since they were children.

When Taylor Cain decided to lead the family business, "never in her wildest dreams did she understand, at first, the operational work it would take to do all that," Wettig said.

What's more, the siblings had to be vetted by Sonic corporate.

"It wasn't a foregone conclusion that just because Dad had the franchises, it would go to the kids," Wettig said. "Sonic could just as easily have forced Taylor and her brothers to sell this territory and put them out of the Sonic business.

"They had to sit down with senior people at Sonic corporate and give a business plan and say what they planned to do in this market and sell themselves to become some of the youngest franchisees."

A new Sonic rises in South Reno

In fall 2017, the family received approvals from Sonic corporate, including a development agreement that made possible the company's latest Sonic, No. 6, rising on South Virginia Street across from Whole Foods Market in South Reno.

The restaurant is scheduled to open in August, Cain said, around the fourth anniversary of her father's death. The restaurant, in the works for the past two years, is the first company build for which the siblings will have been entirely responsible.

Siblings, from left, Ian, Taylor and Quinn Cain take a moment on site at the Sonic Drive-In being built on South Virginia Street across from Whole Foods Market in South Reno. Their company owns all the Sonics in Northern Nevada.

"I'm excited. I'm scared. I'm overjoyed. I'm nervous," Cain said of the $1 million-plus project.

Because 90 percent of all Sonics, including the five in Northern Nevada, don't have dining rooms and rely mainly on drive-through or drive-in service, they have adapted fairly well to the pandemic.

The new Sonic, however, will have a dining room, along with the standard patio, drive-through and drive-in.

"We decided we wanted to give people a place to eat at Sonic in the winter that wasn't in their cars," Cain said, adding the company had purchased land in Fernley for a seventh Sonic.

Under Cain's direction, besides a new restaurant, there has been a shift "to the narrative that we're local. There was never any social media marketing before when my Dad ran the company. I really want to make sure we're present on social," Cain said, not surprising from a member of a digitally native generation.

There is also, for her, networking with other franchisees at meetings and conventions.

"I get mistaken for the wife or the girlfriend a lot," Cain said.

And then she tells them otherwise.

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Johnathan L. Wright is the food and drink editor of RGJ Media, part of the USA Today Network. Join @RGJTaste on TwitterFacebook and Instagram