America’s Not-So Secret Love Affair with Sonic Ice
On Wednesday, January 5, 2022, I hesitated to open an email with the subject line: “More Ice.” Since writing a piece on McDonald’s ice, and the fact that you can purchase a whole bag of it for parties, I’d received a few nice notes from readers, but the majority of responses sent my way have been quite…angry. One cross reader, Donna, demanded to know “what kind of ‘investigative journalism’” I had forced across her desk. (I was flattered she considered my work investigative, or even journalism.) Another, Tim, begged me to stop writing forever or give him back the minutes of his life I had stolen. So when I opened this email, I was surprised to be met with a delightful little poem:
Loved the Mc-Ice story
The Real Story is
Ice from..... Wait for it.......
About the size of a Raisinet.
Why the fuss.
At home after recovering from a Double Knee replacement
Saved the Day!
Chilled those wounds + scars.
Leftover ice with Coke!
The kind reader wished me a happy New Year from Michigan, along with a thumbs-up selfie. A digital defibrillator, it sent an electric surge to my heart. I had found the Deep Throat to my Woodward. Maybe it was time for some more investigative journalism. (I use those words lightly, Donna.) But this time, I’d take my reporting to the next level: Instagram.
So on a mid-January afternoon, I polled my followers as to whether or not they’d ever gone to Sonic Drive-In, the American fast food restaurant—where, psst, according to their website, Patty Melts are back!—to buy ice. The response was astounding. My Deep Throat was on to something, something bigger than the both of us. I followed (almost) every single lead that dropped into my DMs.
Pooja Reddy, a New York City comedian responded, “I love Sonic omg.” I pushed for answers. “Do you love their ice??” I journalismed. Reddy replied: “Yes! I haven’t been in years but it was the place to go in high school and I loved the crushed ice.” Aaron Nathaniel told me the ice is “best for cocktails.” (This felt important.) But I still felt the sting of Donna’s words. I had to dig deeper. So, to willing participants, I sent a survey and 50 percent (three people) responded.
The data, collected from my survey and DMs on Instagram, indicated four major themes surrounding the stan culture of Sonic ice:
4. High school memories
A superior design
Great design is form meets function, and Sonic’s ice seems to score perfect tens in both categories. “In my view, the brilliance of Sonic ice stems from the fact that it arrives in crunchy, small pebbles,” Ward Brown, 60, of Liberty, Missouri wrote me. It seems this golden surface-area-to-volume ratio creates an ideal environment for soda pop, cocktails and miscellaneous imbibements. Emily Perry, 27, from Columbia, Missouri elaborated, “[You] can fill up almost an entire cup and your drink sort of absorbs the ice so that the ice doesn't get all clumped together. It also seems like even with a bunch of Sonic ice in your cup, you're still getting a lot of liquid. It also doesn't melt the same way other fast food ice does.”
While other ice sloppily melts and dilutes a drink’s flavor, devotees revel in Sonic ice’s ability to elevate the drinking experience through the last sip. In fact, Brown contends that the ice retains the taste of the soda, “which certainly is an extra treat at the end.”
With traditional cubed ice, I am usually disappointed if my drink contains too much ice,” Brown told me. “But just the opposite is true with Sonic ice…too little ice is unacceptable. In fact, many order their drinks with ‘extra ice’ at Sonic in a preemptive effort to avoid this problem.”
A Cherry Coke. An Arnold Palmer. A Route 44 Powerade Mountain Berry Blast Slush. Jessica Able of Louisville, Kentucky tells me that buying a bag of the good stuff is how she elevates her annual Kentucky Derby party. “There are a couple of signature drinks (Mint Julep and Lily) that are traditionally made with crushed ice. The Sonic ice just elevates it a little in my opinion. People are always excited when they see it :).
Perry agrees. When asked how often she goes to Sonic for ice, she responded simply: “As much as humanly possible.” When she lived near a Sonic, she would even make it a multi-stop occasion, “If I'd buy lemonade at the grocery store, or want to make iced tea at home, I'd really want Sonic Ice to make a perfect Arnold Palmer. It somehow tasted better with Sonic ice.”
But enthusiasts are also thinking outside the cup. Television producer Lara Wilinsky is a self-proclaimed lifelong Sonic ice lover, who put her money where her mouth is while working on a BBQ competition show and suggested the ice for the meat “beauty shots.” It became her job to load up on bags of Sonic ice before each shoot. For the “whole hog” finale, she recalls it took two cars and two Sonic locations to get the shot. For Wilinsky, it was worth it.
And let’s not forget our friend in Michigan who, thanks to the ice’s shape and size, used the moldable and flexible ice during his double knee replacement recovery. What can’t this ice do?
As the messages rolled in, it became abundantly clear that chewing ice is America’s favorite pastime. Nearly all my informants seemed to be spiritually moved by its chew factor. “The best chew of any ice. Also never TOO cold or...icy. No slipping around in your mouth, the texture is rough so easy to absorb liquids and, again, best chew,” penned Smith. I envisioned her reciting it as a spoken word poem at an open mic in the back of a Sonic. Snaps all around.
Popular belief seems to be that Sonic ice won’t chip your teeth, but Smith warned that any ice chewing can result in “micro cracks.” Essentially my own one-person Spotlight team, I knew I had to follow the ice. So I called an informant—my dad, a dentist. Together, we drove to a Sonic where we ordered a bag of ice, two Diet Cokes, a burger (for him) and fries (for me).
Here’s a transcript of that event:
Dad: This is for work?
Dad: I don’t understand.
Me: What do you think about the ice?
Dad: It’s good!
Me: Does chewing ice cause micro cracks?
Dad (Enjoying his burger): Look, ya gotta be careful. Chewing on ice can cause micro fractures, which you can’t repair, and as you get older those can turn into cracks. But this ice seems have holes in it and has a softer feel to it. But you gotta be careful. Don’t quote me.
High school memories
In the background of every American coming-of-age story a Sonic Drive-In looms large. In Perry’s Missouri high school years, Sonic was the go-to lunch spot once they had their driver’s licenses. “Everyone would buy Route 44 Cherry Limeades or Arnold Palmers or Powerade Slushes. It was always so fun to go the rest of the school day with your massive Sonic drink, shaking the ice—everyone knew the sound.” So if you experience a Pavlovian response to that unique jingle coming from a Styrofoam cup, you can blame it on nostalgia. But there’s also the darker side of the ice on America’s youth. Tony McDonald-Neidenbach, who grew up in Georgia, remembers a high school friend who gave up Sonic ice for Lent because she was “addicted” to chewing it. No word on whether she made it all 40 days.
So, what’s Sonic’s secret?
Is it the nostalgia that tastes so good or is the ice actually better? The type of ice Sonic uses at their more than 3,500 locations is, according to Scott Uehlein, Brand Executive Chef at Sonic, “soft pellet ice,” aka nugget, pearl, cubelet or hospital ice depending on who’s making it, who’s selling it and who’s chewing it. When I asked Uehlein what machine makes their ice, he told me that they don’t have a specific ice maker to note. This sent a chill down my spine—how do all locations have the same ice but not the same machine? Was this some sort of Big Ice cover up? I dug a little deeper (Googled) and learned that one of the biggest commercial nugget ice makers is Scotsman—which claims to have invented The Original Chewable Ice® in 1981.
So, what is nugget ice? Nugget ice is made by compressing super thin flaked ice within a cylinder, and this, as Joshua Greenhaw explains in a piece on Edible OKC, is where the magic really happens. See, those layers mean nugget ice has more air pockets, which means more nooks and crannies than a traditional cube of ice. “This matters,” Greenhaw writes, “because the air pockets in pellet ice act as insulation, which allows the ice to melt more slowly. It turns out the air pockets have other benefits. They make the ice much easier to chew, and also allow some of the drink to work its way into the ice nugget. Each piece of Sonic ice is a reminder of the delicious beverage it cooled.” Like a dinosaur fossil, every nugget tells a story. And while that story is probably something like “high-fructose corn syrup, Yellow #6 and caffeine,” who’s to say any story is more important than another?
And yet, some things weren’t adding up for me. Greenhaw says the ice melts slower because it’s less dense with greater surface-area-to-volume, but wouldn’t that mean it actually melts faster? I kept digging. (Googling.) “Follow the ice,” Donna’s voice (angry as ever) compelled me. And so, I went back, back to the source: Scotsman’s website. And there it was, what Big Ice had been hiding all along: Nugget ice is good for the bottom line. The architect of nugget ice writes, “Consumers enjoy how the chewable nugget ice absorbs the flavor of beverages, while operators appreciate its lower operating costs and higher liquid displacement, which lowers syrup costs per cup.”
“Cost per cup,” Donna’s disembodied voice whispered in my ear. “Cup…cup…cup…” I muttered aloud. And then, an epiphany! The ice is only part of the equation. We’re all talking about the melting point of frozen compressed water but failing to consider the environment in which said ice typically lives: a Styrofoam cup.
Yes, Sonic still uses foam cups. In 2014, a Change.org petition with 2,357 supports implored the restaurant to stop using the material due to environmental concerns. Sonic responded that while there is no perfectly friendly environmental option—see: the harvesting of trees for paper cups—user experience is central to their decision: “Like many other restaurants, SONIC does use foam cups based on attributes customers desire, including lack of condensation or ‘sweating’ and the superior ability to keep drinks cold or hot.”
Alas, it doesn’t really matter at which speed Sonic ice changes states of matter because the foam cup creates an insulated home where all those nooks and crannies can soak up your Cherry Limeade while melting at glacial speed (a metaphor which makes less sense every day, thanks to corporate impact on climate change).
While there’s a larger discussion to have about materials and global impact, when it comes to Sonic ice stan culture, all roads lead back to chewability, not melting point. So it makes sense that those who seek out 10-pound bags of Sonic ice and enjoy it outside the walls of a Styrofoam container are not bothered if it melts a little faster than it would in a more insulated structure.
And let’s be honest, if you’re reading this, you probably don’t really care about the cups, the melting point, the air pocket or the Big Ice cover-up of the century. What you really want to know is if there a nugget ice maker we plebs can get our hands on? Uehlein conceded there are a few different makers of home units that make a similar style of ice, but the one of note is the GE Opal nugget ice maker, which goes for $500 (a steal compared to the $20,000, 2-ton machine from Scotsman). Rachel Gulmi, PureWow managing editor, who tried and tested the Opal, raves about the appliance: “It’s not cheap, but the ice is incredible.” If you don’t have $500 to drop, you can pick up a bag of Sonic’s for around $2.59 (ya know, depending on the local health department regulations, Uehlein says).
But anyone who’s on the up and up knows you can also just ask for a Route 44 of ice, which they’ll usually give you on the house when you order something else. Word on the street is that the mozzarella sticks are legit. Maybe I’ll investigate.