Jason Hoffman/Thrillist
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist

While Nobody Was Paying Attention, Arby's Became Fantastic

While the world was freaking out about Doritos Locos Tacos, Arby’s was hawking brisket.

The launch of Taco Bell’sgame-changing mash-up food announced to the world that the drive-thru wouldn’t be left out of the Insta craze. Suddenly, fast food was getting brasher: the undeniably delicious DLT opened floodgates that had been dammed since the Double Down made its quick splash back in 2010. Suddenly, the world was thrown into a cacophony of brash excess: Mac & cheese was rolled in Cheetos and fried at Burger King. Jack in the Box threw double cheeseburgers between grilled cheeses. Value meals became value boxes, transforming chicken sandwiches and nuggets into side dishes to be served alongside burgers and fries.

And while all this was happening, Arby’s quietly toiled away, ignoring the trend of being flashier, louder, bigger, and wilder. Slowly, surely, and without a lot of fuss, Arby’s became great.

The brisket -- which launched to skepticism, as all Arby’s offerings do, after a long process that included finding a Texas smoking family that could scale the 13-hour smoked meat into something scalable -- was a gamble. But of late,  Arby’s has increasingly taken risks with its innovations, from the debut of the ill-fated pork belly to its new short rib.

Sometimes those gambles work and they get a core item like Smokehouse Brisket. Sometimes, they launch items like pork belly and porchetta to little fanfare.

Think about that. Arby’s, an old-school drive-thru mega-chain, with nearly 3,500 locations, made porchetta. While everyone else was coating meat in smashed up chips, Arby’s launched a mass-produced take on an artisan Italian roasted pork product. That’s just insane. This is a chain famous for its off-color roast beef with neon-orange cheese sauce.

But that’s kind of the beauty of Arby’s, and what makes them arguably the best nationwide fast-food chain out there.

Oh, did you think this was an unbiased report on Arby’s? It’s not. At the risk of being accused of taking money from the giant-hatted conglomerate or drawing concern that Ving Rhames has me in a trunk right this moment, I absolutely adore Arby’s. I have since childhood. It's not a popular opinion, but I stand by it.

I mention this because, as a fan, I’ve long been keeping an eye on anything and everything that comes out of Arby’s, even if I only actually eat there a few times a year. The public perception of Arby’s has long been that it’s kind of a grandpa sandwich, a milquetoast piece of lost Americana that piles plain roast beef on a plain bun, maybe hits it with cheese and Arby’s sauce, and calls it good.

The public perception of Arby's has long been that it's kind of a grandpa sandwich.

But if you look at fast food trends across the board, you’ll see that Arby’s has always been well ahead of the trends. Long before the current value-box arms race, Arby’s was selling five original roast beef sandwiches for $5 and likely sending cabinet freezer stocks skyrocketing in the midwest. Years before other chains realized a fried chicken sandwich could include more than mayonnaise and iceberg lettuce, Arby’s was selling stuff like its Chicken Cordon Bleu filet. Healthier choices? The Market Fresh sandwiches and salads were at the forefront. Chicken tenders instead of nuggets? Arby’s.

That's innovation, but it isn't loud. In fact, the Meat Mountain -- a massive sandwich loaded with all the meats except fish -- is the closest Arby’s has come to a stunt food. Rather than being brazen, Arby’s has basically become the fast-food equivalent of a non-kosher Jewish deli.

“It’s not the best reuben I’ve ever had, but for a reuben I can eat in my car, it’s amazing,” said Todd, an automotive worker from Flint, Michigan. Yes, automotive workers still exist in Flint, which is part of the Arby’s Beef Belt.

And that kind of nails it. Arby’s is making variations on classic sandwiches beyond roast beef. They’re innovating not by reinventing the wheel, but scaling it.

“We try to bring stuff that kind of pushes the limits of innovation, and if they scale and people fall in love with them, we try our best to to bring them to the core menu,” says company president Rob Lynch, who came to Arby’s from Taco Bell just as the stunt-food boom was kicking off. “We’re super proud of our roast beef. It’s our heritage. But the sandwiches that really are game-changers for us are the Smokehouse Brisket, the reuben... we sell 27 million gyros a year. That’s not something people would think of when they go to Arby’s.”

That core menu is no slouch, either: it’s absolutely loaded with bangers. The classic Beef & Cheddar is an exercise in simple perfection. The curly fries are arguably the best in the whole of fast food. The chicken sandwiches are on point. No other mega-chain can touch the chicken tenders. And as new items have been added, it's gotten better: the often-overlooked mozzarella sticks aren’t just the best in fast food, they’re the best of any chain out there, period. In fact, I’d say they beat 99% of the mozz sticks you’d find at a bar. And the brisket is actually tasty as hell.

If you’re slapping your head, consider this: When was the last time you actually went to Arby’s? Because my long standing theory is that most people who claim to hate Arby’s -- and they’re numerous -- have never actually been there, or haven’t tried it since childhood. And most anti-Arby’s sentiment is likely based on pre-internet urban legends and antiquated pop culture references.

You've been poisoned. But not at Arby's.

I’m So Hungry I Can Eat at Arby’s

At the risk of throwing my snowflake cred into turmoil, Jon Stewart was dead wrong. At least about Arby’s. The highly influential Daily Show host made Arby’s his regular punching bag, throwing out a series of fake slogans -- “Arby’s: the Hannity of Roast Beef Sandwiches” and “Arby’s: The Meal that’s a Dare for Your Colon” were among the best -- that pummeled the restaurant relentlessly and hilariously. It also stuck in the brains of people who made the show a hit.

A decade or so prior, The Simpsons famously had obnoxious twin Sherri quip “I’m so hungry I could eat at Arby’s,” which cemented itself in the heads of quote-hungry millennials for eternity.

The restaurant makes a brief cameo in the Coen Brothers’ classic Fargo, too, in a brief scene in which extremely pregnant Marge Gunderson and stamp-loving husband Norm feast on classic roast beef sandwiches and discuss nightcrawlers. It’s a very sweet sequence, but Arby’s seems like kind of a prop, a simple sandwich eaten by old-school, earnest, hardworking people that shows their simple values and simpler tastes. Hell, Margie doesn’t even eat curly fries: she gets the straight ones. The sequence is later recalled in Noah Hawley’s wonderful anthology series of the same name, this time with Arby’s serving as a celebratory meal for Carrie Coon’s cop whose defining characteristics are her earnestness and the fact that she’s so old fashioned that modern technology doesn’t respond to her. It’s a callback that’s both sly and slightly backhanded to Arby's place in the world.  

Well before that, Arby’s was part of a widely spread urban legend that posited that the meat was made from some sort of liquid goop that solidified upon cooking. Despite the fact that the legend would imply that Arby’s had concocted some sort of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs machine and could easily solve world hunger if it existed, it’s as ridiculous as Mikey dying from Pop Rocks… and just as enduring to the easily duped.

More currently, Arby’s presence in pop culture has gotten surreal. The show Baskets -- which, like Fargo, airs on FX -- is as obsessed with Arby’s as it is with Costco. And the popular parody Twitter Nihilist Arby’s has culled nearly 350,000 founders with a series of tweets like “Did I die? Whatever. it was pretty much the same, honestly. I can tell you this: there are no Arby's in heaven because there is no heaven. But there are many Arby's in hell, for this, my friends, is hell. Please continue to enjoy Arby’s.”

But for their part, the folks at Arby’s have taken it all with stride. The team countered Stewart by sending lunch to his staff. When Nihilist Arby’s founder was identified, Arby's senior VP of marketing showed up at his office with a bag of sandwiches and a puppy with a note that read “Cheer up, buddy. You live in a world with puppies… and sandwiches.”

“It’s ok to be self-effacing and laugh at ourselves. It’s an opportunity to invite somebody into the conversation who’s a skeptic,” says Jim Taylor, Arby’s chief marketing officer. “The Jon Stewart thing was a great activation of that: We’re not afraid to laugh at ourselves.”

So, while Wendy’s was out beefing with McDonald’s on Twitter, Arby’s was going viral by killing people with kindness.

Arby's beef and cheddar
Beef and cheddar sandwich | Arby's

The duality of Arby's

That, too, speaks a lot to Arby’s earnest image, but that’s also a tremendous balancing act. Because Arby’s isn’t exactly hip. And loving Arby's publicly generally means being prepared for pushback. It has its high-profile allies in the food world (no, not me!). Chicago super chef Stephanie Izard of Girl and the Goat extolled the virtues of the curly fries to GQ. LA chef Michael Bryant of Fellow dropped Arby’s in with his list of his favorite bites in the country, telling LA Weekly,  “Ever since I was a child, I have loved the roast beef sandwich with just Arby's special sauce and extra pickles." (In a follow up message, he told me he hates to admit it, but still loves Arby’s.)

Regardless of praise or innovation, Arby’s carries the same image it has since it started slinging sandwiches as an alternative to burgers back in 1964. But the thing is, Arby’s owns that too. While other chains play to the coastal liberal crowd, Arby’s remains as committed to its heartland base, throwing out simple upgrades on its classics (the bacon beef and cheddar) and pulling off grand gestures with the dual purpose of playing to fans' tastes and getting new asses in seats.

So, while Wendy’s was out beefing with McDonald’s on Twitter, Arby’s was going viral by killing people with kindness.

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 was 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.

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Senior editor Andy Kryza grew up saving his allowance to buy Arby's French dips… yet another sandwich that was way ahead of its time. Follow him as he uncovers the fate of Oven Mitt @apkryza.