In the world of fast food, the hamburger reigns supreme, with more chains offering this classic sandwich as their flagship item than any other type of food. In distant second place would be the franchises based around fried chicken, from originators Kentucky Fried Chicken to recent upstarts like Zaxby’s and Guthrie’s. But if I were pressed to name the most successful fast food franchise not based around one of those two classics, I’d have to go with Arby’s.
The Arby’s chain has been around for what seems like forever. The first Arby’s opened in Youngstown, Oh. in 1964, the year I was born. The chain was founded by brothers Leroy and Forrest Raffel and initially served just the classic Arby’s roast beef sandwich, potato chips and beverages. By the 1970’s Arby’s had several locations in the Birmingham area. I have always enjoyed Arby’s as a change of pace from hamburgers when looking to remain at the typical fast food price point.
At the end of the twentieth century a whole new category of fast food, the sub sandwich, exploded across America and Arby’s has expanded their menu to compete. For my taste, they have always offered a variety of subs that are superior to most, and at a competitive price point. I was shocked on my most recent visit to find that Arby’s had discontinued their chicken salad sandwich, which over the years had become a personal favorite.
Apparently, lots of changes are happening at the Arby’s chain. A bit of internet research revealed that, as of last month, Arby’s was splitting with its corporate partner Wendy’s and charting an independent course in hopes of attracting new ownership. A visit to any Arby’s location will reveal that they are trying some bold moves with their menu in an attempt to redefine the company. Like every other fast food competitor, the food served at Arby’s bears little resemblance to the pictures of the sandwiches on the menu board. More than once I have been tempted to ask, “How much would it cost for me to get a sandwich that looks like that picture?”
I’ll admit that when it comes to food I am not a price conscious shopper. I want something tasty and satisfying, and it really makes no real difference if my lunch costs five, ten or fifteen dollars. Arby’s has apparently gotten feedback from other customers like me, and now offer their Classic Roast Beef and Beef and Cheddar sandwiches in three different portion sizes, for three different prices. It’s a great improvement that should keep all customers happy. Value shoppers still have the original choice, while hearty eaters like me can finally get a sandwich that looks like the one we ordered. It’s a win-win.
The other change is one I am totally confused by, but am also enjoying quite a bit. Arby’s has been selling the same signature roast beef since they opened in 1964. No roast beef sandwich anywhere else has a product that tastes like Arby’s roast beef. The closest thing to it is probably the very thin processed beef sold in bags at supermarkets by the Carl Buddig Company. However, in recent weeks Arby’s has joined the Angus Beef marketing craze and is now offering a new sandwich with different roast beef. Their new Angus Three Cheese & Bacon Sandwich pairs oven-roasted, thinly sliced Angus beef with swiss and cheddar cheeses, parmesan peppercorn ranch sauce and pepper bacon served on a toasted Italian-style roll.
I had one a few weeks back, and at $4.99 it is far superior to any five dollar foot long offered at any sub shop. You might miss the lettuce, tomato, and pickle, but you’ll be happy to know that on my next visit they were happy to dress the sandwich with veggies at no extra charge. Arby’s has plans to introduce two other Angus roast beef sandwiches if this first one is well received. Surely one of those will be a fully dressed sub, as Arby’s already offers several varieties of sub sandwich. I’m not one to buy all the hype that has been built up around the Angus designation, but there is no denying that this new roast beef is much tastier than the traditional Arby’s roast beef. You can taste the onion and garlic in the marinade, and it has a more pleasant and heartier mouth feel. It’s as if the Toyota dealer started offering Lexus vehicles, but forgot that he should charge more for them.
I don’t think that Arby’s could ever eliminate its traditional roast beef from the menu without a customer backlash, but it would not surprise me if the new Angus-style roast beef came to dominate their offerings in the years to come. But with the company aggressively seeking new corporate ownership and rebranding itself as “Good Mood Food”, we are likely to see many more changes as the odd man out in the fast food biz gets even more unique.
Dee Marcus writes food-centric commentary for Birmingham Weekly. Please send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.