The order is right. She checked, twice.
The bags filled with burgers and tots are crisply folded. Peppermints are perched on each lid. No leakage? Check. Straws, condiments, salt, pepper and a fistful of napkins? Check.
With back hunched and smile wide, Donna Shelton, an icon at the Grand Avenue Sonic Drive-In with over three decades dedicated to the carhop craft, hustles with a tray in two life-weathered hands, delivering each order the same way.
With pride.
Shelton is 58 years old. She’s spent over 36 of those years at the Sonic on Grand Avenue.
In those years she’s become a fixture of the area. And for some loyal customers, a source of light and consistency in a rapidly changing city.
While the moments between emptying the tray and moving on to the next delivery are but a few brief seconds, Shelton has left an unmistakable impression on Sonic’s customers, staff, and owners over the years.
Often, she gets big tips from customers and around Christmas she’ll get presents from regulars. A lot of the time she gets nothing.
But still, regardless of the car and the customer she approaches, Shelton said she gives everything.
“I don’t treat nobody different,” Shelton said. “I break my neck to make sure everybody has got their orders right. I just try make people happy. Whatever I can do for them — I do.”
Angela Owen, one of the owners of the Sonic, said Shelton is irreplaceable.
“You can’t pay her enough for what she’s done. You can’t put a monetary value on Donna,” Owen said. “She’s become such a fixture — I can’t imagine her not working here.”
Owens said many see working in fast food as a starter job. A job to make ends meet before finding a better opportunity. Workers rarely take pride or have a passion for fast food, she said.
But Donna was different.
“She is such a light and what you experience is absolutely 100 percent sincere. She’s genuine and she wants every customer’s experience to be amazing.”
Donna, who was born in Alabama, said she grew up in a different time. Before social media, the spot to be and hangout was the local drive-in. A place with cool cars, cool kids, and cool drinks.
And when she moved with her family to Ardmore in 1979, and the Sonic on Grand Avenue was being built, she found a job that she would pursue far longer than she expected.
“I had no idea [I’d be here this long],” she said. “But I love it. I love my job. That’s my secret.”
Donna first met her current boss when she was 19 and Angela was 5. At the time the carhop worked for Owen’s father.
Nearly 40 years have passed since then. There’s been ups and downs for Donna, Owen said.
At times, she’s had no water or electricity. No bed to sleep in. But through all of that, Donna would come to work. Never complaining, much less asking for help or handouts.
“She’s had no water, no electricity. she’s been homeless, but she’d never miss her shift. She’s going to work her tail off the whole shift and know she’s going home with no water. And she wouldn’t ask for help. That’s just the person she is,” Owen said.
Owen said after one of her fellow carhop’s car broke down, Donna lent her own vehicle and walked several miles at dawn to show up to work on time.
“They’re special to my heart,” Donna said. “I’d do anything for them”
Donna’s made sacrifices. But the relationship has gone both ways.
At times, Donna lived with the Owen family. Donna said she was like a nanny to her future boss.
“She’s family,” Owen said.
The investment in each other’s lives has paid off, Owen said, for both her, Sonic, and the customers Donna serves.
“When I’m out in the community or church there’s rarely a day I don’t hear, ‘Oh my goodness we just love Donna,’ ‘The reason we come to Sonic is because of Donna,’ ‘Oh that sweet old lady, she’s the best!’” Owens said. “It’s non-stop. That’s just Donna. You know? She has a light to her. She gets away with stuff. She sets her own rules. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
On Thursday, Donna’s day off, she’s greeted by customers brimming at the opportunity to pass along their admiration and appreciation for Donna.
“I just wanted to say, this lady is awesome, I think the world of her and I respect the heck out of her,” Joh Mann, a Sonic customersaid. “She does a wonderful job and I enjoy coming here just to interact with her when I get the chance.”
Owen has ownership stakes in several Sonics across the area, but the culture of the Sonic on Grand Avenue in Ardmore is different.
While Donna might not follow the corporately-set standards for service all the time, and though she might not be as quick on her feet as she once was, Owen said she’s passed along her valuable example of how she treats customers and how she cares and sacrifices for her fellow carhops.
Now several of the carhops, especially those who work days alongside Donna, have created similar bonds with customers that the cagey veteran has showcased in her years at Sonic.
“I think that passion has bled over. It’s very rare,” Owen said. “[The other carhops that work days with Donna] see the tips. But really, they see the relationships she has. And they start doing some of the great things Donna does. It’s a different environment here.”
A lot’s changed since the Owen family first opened the Sonic location Shelton would call home for three decades and counting.
Before headsets and printed orders, touch screens, and other gadgets, she wrote down the orders by hand. The building has been remodeled. Staff turnover has churned. New ownership. But a near-constant has been Donna, who’s worked at the Sonic for 36 of the past 39 years.
During that time, Donna took on a managerial role at the drive in.
It didn’t stick..
“I didn’t like it,” Donna said. “I didn’t get to see my customers.”
And for her future, Donna said she’s happy where she’s at, doing the job and serving the customers she loves.
“I guess I’ll do it until I can’t do it no more,” she said. “I told them to give me a walker with a basket on it to carry out orders. That would be something, wouldn’t it?”