Stop 1: Sonic Promos
Gaithersburg, MD

When our GMC Acadia rolled into Sonic Promos (asi/329865), which is tucked inside a small office park in Gaithersburg, MD, we were immediately put to two tests. The first test: We had to meet the approval of Chaka Khan, an elderly black Chow who patrols the office like she owns it. The pet of Sonic husband-and-wife owners Seth and Julianne Weiner (Seth started the business with a friend in 1997), Chaka is considered the company’s HR rep: One growl or snarl, and a potential hire is out the door. “She really has a good sense of character,” deadpans Julianne Weiner. Luckily, Chaka sniffs us and even poses for a picture wearing one of our Best Places to Work T-shirts, so we obviously pass muster.

The second test: The Sonic team puts us through a round of Minute to Win It, a version of the TV game show that the staff has carefully designed for visitors. “It’s a great way to break the ice at vendor meetings,” Seth Weiner says. Just recently, a BIC rep had to build houses for three little pigs out of BIC pens, and blow them all down within 60 seconds. As the staff of 10 assembles around us in the company’s front room, Seth explains our task: He hands Melinda a logoed Frisbee, and Joe and Andy must stand on either side of the room, attempting to throw six ping-pong balls into it. Everyone cheers wildly as Melinda holds the Frisbee steadily and Andy and Joe frantically try to land the balls within 60 seconds. Luckily, we’re victorious, and Seth promises us logoed fanny packs for our efforts.

This is only one of the antics you might find if you visited Sonic. On any given day, staffers might be having high tea for a coworker’s anniversary, heading out for laser tag or painting one of the many Ben Franklin heads they scored from a supplier. George’s likeness has been turned into, among other things, Shrek, Hannibal Lecter and a crash-test dummy.

While fun activities like these keep employees’ creative juices flowing, they also serve another purpose: The Weiners post videos of office frivolity on Facebook and see it as a good relationship-builder among clients and vendors, Julianne says. For example, when supplier reps view the videos of their competitors playing Minute to Win It, “there’s a lot of trash talking on our Facebook site,” she says. “People complain if we give a competitor an easier task than they got when they were here. It’s pretty funny. But what it really does is show off the human side of the company.”

With a handshake and a promise of fanny packs to come, we bid good-bye to the Sonic crew and head off to Bethesda, where we meet Chris Huebner, the president and CEO of Mac Mannes.

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