Setting a New Standard: Restaurant Pioneer Troy Smith and his wife Dollie Make the Largest Unrestricted Gift in UCO History
Troy and Dollie Smith know a smart investment when they see it.
The couple's modest investment in a small parcel of land in Shawnee with a log cabin and hot dog stand on it grew into the successful national fast food restaurant chain we know today as Sonic Drive-ins. It took trust, vision and a positive spirit to make it happen.
Applying those same ideals, their latest, not-so-modest investment promises to return the same level of success.
In January 2007, the Smiths donated $3 million worth of Sonic Corporation stock to the university, making their contribution the single largest unrestricted cash gift in UCO's history.
Smith said he had been asked for support from other universities, but what he found at UCO really impressed him.
"The difference was just amazing to me. They have such enthusiasm. I got a letter from every trustee they have on their Foundation board, and I still get nice letters from UCO."
Designating a gift of this size as unrestricted is rare, but Smith said he has confidence in the university and its President, Roger Webb.
"When I talked to Roger about his plans and when I consider what he's done so far, I thought who would I be to tell him what to do? He'll fit it in to his plans...and he's got plans for the future, believe me."
The gift comes at an ideal time for the university. President Webb and his executive team plan to unveil UCO's new vision plan in late 2007. Webb said this gift will play a critical role in the university's future.
"We admire Troy and Dollie's leadership in supporting the university at this level, and appreciate the trust in us as stewards of their gift," said Webb.
"We will take great care in selecting the best use of these funds."
The Smiths, who have been married for more than 60 years and reside in Edmond, emphasize that their conservative lifestyle has allowed them to share their hard-earned success with others in the community.
"I'm noted as saying if you cut enough corners you can live on the corners and save the rest. So, that's what I've tried to do," explained Smith.
Living "on the corners" gave Smith the resources he needed to find success in the restaurant business. When he returned from service in WWII, he and Dollie basically had to start from scratch. Dollie had worked at an aircraft factory during the war to make ends meet, and he worked a milk route and a bread delivery route when he came home.
He scraped together enough to buy a small café on Main Street in Shawnee that specialized in chicken. It wasn't a huge success, but he was able to invest in another property that had a log cabin on it, which he remodeled into a restaurant he called "an evening place" that served steak, chicken and shrimp. On that same property stood a small hot dog stand.
Smith wisely recognized that people were quickly becoming more and more dependent on their cars. So, he started a side venture out of that old hot dog stand, called the Top Hat Drive-in, adding a speaker system and canopy, so people could order hot dogs and hamburgers right from their cars.
"The restaurant was making a little more than five-percent net of the gross sales, and the drive-in, with a paid manager, was making better than 20-percent. It didn't take me too long to decide to spend my time on the drive-in."
Soon, others were looking to share in the growing success of the restaurant re-named the Sonic Drive-in. As he and Sonic co-founder Charlie Pappe began to expand their business through franchises, he realized it was important that each operator be part owner of their drive-in. He believes it made a huge difference in the success of each franchise.
"Someone asked me one time to explain why I thought it made a difference and I said if you can explain to me why a teenager will polish and shine his old jalopy and let his dad's Cadillac go to pot, I'll explain why being a part owner in these drive-ins makes a difference."
Of the approximately 1200 drive-ins he helped open during his tenure, he said they never had to go out and sell one of the franchises. Each of them came to Sonic, looking to be a part of the corporation's success.
"The franchisees are the ones really responsible for this being so successful. If you are willing to put forth the effort it takes to run one of these, they will do really well. It's a seven day a week job at first, but it's worth it," added Smith.
As he did when he purchased that small café in Shawnee, Smith has his eye on the future, and he expects big things for UCO and its graduates.
"I'm really proud of UCO, and I'm looking forward to the good things that are going to happen there. I would encourage everybody in the whole Metro area to keep an eye on UCO. It will be an outstanding school for this entire community."
(Photo: Troy and Dollie Smith at their Edmond, OK, office after donating the single largest cash gift in the university's history in January 2007.)