When Taylor Cain was a 16-year-old carhop server at Sonic Drive-In in Reno, her work concerns were that of a typical teenager tasked with skating trays of burgers and ice cream treats to customers.
“I think I was worried about how many tips I was making and what time I got off work,” Cain says with a laugh.
A decade later, Cain’s place in her family’s company — which owns six Sonic Drive-Ins dotted across Northern Nevada — has drastically changed, and her concerns have stretched far beyond counting tips and clocking out.
For the past four years, the 26-year-old has been the lead owner of the business that had been previously operated by her parents, who opened their first Sonic in Northern Nevada in 1999.
Not that Cain planned to be in this position — not this soon, at least.
However, “Life,” she says, sighing, “throws you curve balls constantly.”
‘HOW DO I DO THIS?’
It was August 2016 and Cain was about to enter her final academic year of working toward a marketing degree at the University of Nevada, Reno.
Sure, she was still chipping in at her parent’s five Sonic franchises, but Cain was preparing to initiate her marketing career outside of the family business.
“I had talked with my dad about some day coming back, but he really wanted me to go off and learn from others and then eventually come back and help our organization,” Cain says. “That was the grandiose plan.”
On Aug. 11, 2016, however, those plans abruptly changed. That day, Cain’s father died unexpectedly of a heart attack. Cain, whose mother had passed away four years prior, was suddenly handed the keys to the family company. All the while, she had two younger brothers, Ian and Quinn, to look after.
Consumed by grief, Cain spent the next six months balancing her responsibilities as a big sister, undergrad and company leader. It wasn’t until she graduated from UNR in the spring of 2017 when Cain decided she “really wanted to give it a shot” as the owner of every Sonic in Northern Nevada.
Cain said she came to that conclusion despite the fact that “a lot of people” suggested that she and her brothers, also owners, sell the company, pocket the money, and close that chapter of their lives. Cain didn’t consider it for a second.
“It really wasn’t an option in my head,” said Cain, whose first role at Sonic consisted of passing out mints and ketchup packets as a 6-year-old. “It was such a big part of our life growing up. In my eyes, it really was a family business, so I figured I might as well try and see if I fit, enjoyed it, and was good at it before I went to selling.
“It was not ‘should I do this?’ It was more a ‘how do I do this?’”
LEARNING ON THE FLY
Instead of getting overwhelmed by the big picture of owning five franchises and being in charge of more than 125 employees, Cain put her head down and started small.
Her “ceremonial first day” as the company boss, she recalled, involved painting the trash bins behind the Reno Sonic.
“There’s a lot that goes into running a business and I didn’t really know where to start,” Cain said. “So, I just started picking off things that I knew I could do.”
Soon after, the young entrepreneur embraced the idea of learning on the fly. And asking questions — constantly. Whether she was pulling aside her Sonic staff or sending emails to Sonic corporate, Cain realized being shy was not an option.
“I think one of the biggest lessons is to not be afraid to ask questions,” Cain said. “I think it’s very invaluable to get everybody’s opinion on something and then take that and create your own.”
Perhaps an even bigger lesson she quickly learned?
“Take care of your people and they’ll take care of you,” she said. “I think of everybody as my team and my family. I think of myself as their partner instead of their boss. I didn’t go in one day and restructure everything and say, ‘I’m the boss now.’”
A GROWTH SPURT
More than three years later, Cain has found her footing as the head of the company, whether she’s in meetings at the office, bouncing to each franchise to check in with staff, or taking the occasional carhopping shift.
Along the way, Cain’s brothers have gotten more involved in the family business, as well, she noted.
Ian, 23, a recent UNR grad, works on the financial side of the business, while Quinn, 20, a construction worker, played a big hand in helping the company reach a new milestone this fall, she said.
In late September, the Cains opened a newly built Sonic franchise, the family’s sixth, on a 1-acre parcel at 6250 S. Virginia St. A month in, Taylor Cain is more relaxed than she had been leading up to the grand opening.
After all, Cain said, the $1 million project broke ground on March 18, a day after Nevada was shut down amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“It created some setbacks as far as submitting plans and waiting for those to go through,” Cain said. “We were a little behind schedule on when we wanted to open — our goal was the beginning of August — but with all things considered…”
Cain said the process of planning, waiting and anticipating the new location, the first since her father passed, gave her “all of the feelings.”
And the 26-year-old is not done growing the family business. Not even close. Cain said neighboring Fernley is the next area on the company’s expansion radar.
“I definitely want to give people more options to eat with us and create more jobs in Northern Nevada,” she said.
Truth is, for Cain, she’s simply trying to carry on her parents’ legacy as longtime Sonic owners.
“Every day I go to work, it’s almost like I still have a part of my parents around because it was their company,” she said. “I’m trying to add value to what my parents had built already; they built a great company. My goal was not to rip it down to the bare bones and rebuild.
“My goal is to build upon it and continue this for another 20 years.”