Many customers arrive at the Sonic Drive-In on U.S. Highway 45 in Columbus ready to buy a large Diet Coke or an order of mozzarella sticks. Inside is General Manager Rico Collins, not dictating his employees’ duties but instead assisting them in cooking, making drinks or whatever help they may need at the moment.
Collins is not an ordinary Sonic supervisor. He said the purpose of his job is not to be a stern manager but an empathetic leader with whom his employees can connect.
“I can actually relate to that new cook I just hired that I see is nervous,” Collins said. “I can relate to that carhop who is having trouble with the money situation. I’m the store manager, but I’m still making onion rings or changing the grease.”
Collins, 35, began working for Sonic in West Point as a cook at age 15, and he hasn’t worked for another company since. He went on to work at Sonics in Aberdeen and Tupelo before becoming the general manager at Columbus, a position he has held for a decade.
He understands his employees’ concerns or struggles because he was once in their shoes. His philosophy of being a manager is to remember his life when he was a young crew member himself.
“It’s just relating to the employee because I was once them,” Collins said. “It just works out. You take care of them. They take care of you. Everybody wins.”
Collins’ compassion also extends to Sonic customers.
Knowing customers’ orders and their personal stories is what makes good manager-customer relations, he said. Many of his “regulars” and people around Columbus have grown to know him as “The Sonic Guy” because of his personable demeanor and friendliness.
“If someone were to say, ‘Let me talk to the store manager.’ I would say, ‘Yeah, I don’t know that guy,’” Collins said. “I’m Rico. I’m the Sonic Guy.”
Collins said he is immensely thankful for the support the city of Columbus has for his store and choosing to be the place they spend their hard-earned money. He tries to repay resident customers as often as possible.
For example, a woman he said he knows comes to Sonic every day with her husband. She has a collection of approximately 50 Route 44 cups in her car. Collins said he offers to pay for their meals sometimes because of their love and dedication to Sonic.
Giving back to the community is a large priority for Collins. In order to improve relations with business customers, he delivers products through “shake and shakes” or giving a milkshake — or other food or drink — to local businesses as a way to interact with them and show support.
Collins said his Sonic location is not just a place where people can buy food and drinks, but a place where they can find comfort and are welcome.
“This one gentleman was diagnosed with cancer,” Collins said. “When he found out, he left the doctor and backed his truck up against the fence here, and he ordered a root beer float. He told me, ‘I didn’t want to go anywhere else but here.’”
Along with lunch orders, Collins hands out 50 copies of The Dispatch to customers every day.
Collins credits his humility and generosity to managers and supervisors that have come before him. He said their hard work and influence are what shaped him into the leader he is today. He is a “cluster of a bunch of different people and ideas.”
While sporting his black company shirt, Collins said Sonic is more than a job to him — it is a way of life. From meeting his wife to being able to purchase his first vehicle, every important event during his lifetime happened because he worked at Sonic.
When Collins graduated high school, Sonic gave him a plaque stating, “Thank you for your three years of hard work at Sonic.” Little did he know that those three years would turn into the 20 most impactful and transformative years of his life.
“Sonic has taught me so much about life,” Collins said. “Sonic has taught me more in my 20 years than anything else. Sonic has enabled me to do all of the things I’ve wanted to in life. I’m thankful that I decided Sonic was my first job.”