Case in point: In 2016, Arby's killed Bambi. Ok, it didn't do that directly. But Arby's did launch a flashy venison sandwich. Putting wild game on the menu grabbed headlines, but it was no mere stunt. It was a "thank you" to its fan base. The limited-time sandwich was only available in states like Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Georgia. What do these places have in common? They all have a ton of hunters. And they all have a ton of Arby's locations.
This wasn't typical sliced-up Arby's meat, either. It was a thick, New Zealand-sourced venison steak -- the kind you'd usually only see at a wild game restaurant -- on a bun with fancy steak sauce and fried onions. And it had fans and naysayers alike lining up like camo-covered distant cousins of the nerds who flocked to McDonald's for Szechuan Sauce.
It wasn't a moneymaker, but it did what it was intended to do: Show that Arby's was paying attention to the folks who made them a national brand while also drawing curious customers in with the promise of something different. It also served as an important reminder for defectors that, hey, Arby's is pretty good.
It's a highbrow/lowbrow duality that serves the restaurant well, but it's a duality that contributes Arby's identity confusion in the public eye. Truckers, farmers, and blue collar folks appreciate the venison steaks and love an old-school sandwich dripping with Arby's Sauce, but have no idea what the hell porchetta is. Meanwhile, items like short rib and pork belly represent the kind of stuff you'd see at a trendy sandwich shop favorited by hipsters obsessed with filters who might scoff at jalapeno poppers and neon cheese.
But duality is also a strength. A young customer on a nostalgia kick might go for some curly fries, then get roped in by something like a turkey sandwich that ditches deli meats for house-roasted bird. And a heartlander far from big-city trends might suddenly get their hands on a gyro for the first time.
“We’re not about introducing people to new-to-world, upcoming things from fine dining and the food truck world, but we can play a critical role in introducing Americans to something they didn’t get an opportunity to try, new flavors they didn’t have access to or weren’t able to afford,” says Taylor.
That means trying lots of new things… and abandoning more than a few. Neville Craw, the chain's executive chef of 14 years, has spent his career throwing meats at the wall of the HQ kitchen in Atlanta to see what sticks. Sometimes it's a hit like Smokehouse Brisket. And sometimes he launches a limited-time item that goes the way of the porchetta, which came and went.
“(We're not about) finding the best way to bring unique offerings to life rather than creating something that didn’t exist in the world yesterday,” says Craw. "At the end of the day, (porchetta) may have been to the point that less people had heard of it, and there wasn’t a point of reference for them. When people tried it they did love it, but we might have gone too far in reaching on something that (many) people hadn’t heard of.”
Still, Arby's keeps trying, and largely succeeding, despite its reputation as the grandpa of the fast-food arena. It's long been marketed as an alternative to burgers, but it's quietly grown into something even more unexpected: the fast-food equivalent of an old-world deli or a trendy sandwich shop, one where something new is always on offer, but the thing that was always there -- those old, reliable roast beef sandwiches -- is still pretty perfect.
And they arrived here with little braggadocio. While everybody with futzing around with stunt food, Arby's went from a good restaurant you tend to forget until you're desperate on a road trip to fast food's most innovative and consistently impressive empires.
If you claim to hate Arby's, chances are you haven't had it in a while. Or you've been brainwashed by old pop culture. Too bad. You're missing out on those mozz sticks at the very least.