The unmistakable Arby’s tagline is voiced by Golden Globe–winning actor and unmistakable baritone Ving Rhames, who has saved the world time and again by crafting spy gadgets as Luther Stickell in the Mission: Impossible franchise. For Arby’s, he presents “the meats”—an equally essential weapon in the fast food arms race.
“We put a bold flag down,” says Jim Taylor, Arby’s chief marketing officer, of the tagline that launched in 2014. “If you are someone with us, who shares a passion for high-quality meat cooked the right way as deliciously as possible, we’re going to be a place you can get an abundance of different types of meat as a centerpiece for every sandwich.”
Indeed, in the age of plant-based Impossible burgers and Beyond Meat, Arby’s has not only decided to resist the rising tide of veganism and flexitarianism, it’s positioned carnivory as a “with us or against us” values system, going so far as to recently launch its first “megetable,” which it called a “marrot”—a shameless troll of a carrot that’s made entirely out of meat.
“Here’s our philosophy: If you try to stand for everything, you end up standing for nothing,” says Taylor, who also leads menu development (including megetables). “At some point you have to draw a line. This is what we’re going to say our brand is all about. We made a decision [that] our brand is going to be about real meat, and there will be other people who get into plant-based, but our true north is we have the meats, and real meats.”
To “have the meats” isn’t just an existential anchor. A decade ago, it was a revenue lifeboat. Arby’s sales dropped 5.8% in 2008 and 8.2% further in 2009. “Arby’s performance is amongst the worst in modern restaurant history,” wrote a J.P. Morgan analyst in 2010. That year, as sales and margins continued dropping with no turnaround in sight, the market began speculating that the chain would go up for sale—for as much as $600 million. In 2011, Arby’s did indeed sell to a private equity group, but for a mere $130 million, less than half what the lowest estimates had wagered a year earlier.
Arby’s is currently run by Inspire Brands, which is majority owned by affiliates of Roark Capital Group, investors in meatatarian brands including Buffalo Wild Wings, Hardee’s/Carl Jr.’s, Sonic, and Culver’s. The chain recruited Paul Brown from Hilton to become CEO in 2013, ushering in a new, flesh-based renaissance with same-store growth every year since, for a total of $3.9 billion in revenue in 2018 (or nearly 4x what it made in 2011). Under Brown’s leadership, Arby’s now offers eight different types of meat on the menu all the time, and other varieties are featured in limited-time specials. A brisket sandwich, launched in 2013, contains meat that’s hand-smoked by a multi-generation, family-run business in east Texas. Another sandwich layers bacon atop roast beef. Yet another features thick-cut pork belly. Arby’s even introduced hand-carved gyros nationwide, with a blend of beef and lamb sliced right off the spit.
It’s a strategy involving not just meat, but as Arby’s dubs it, meats. Each menu item requires Arby’s to develop new expertise in sourcing products and preparing cuts in-house. Witness the company’s push into selling game, which began when Arby’s launched a limited-edition venison sandwich in 2016. The move was shocking to the press, largely because blander options like beef and pork dominate fast food menus, along with those of American restaurants in general.
“We said, in this world, who is passionate about meat? Who loves meat? Hunters,” recounts Taylor. It was “a group that overindexed pretty hard with Arby’s. And we thought, we should do something for them.” “Them” being the 20 million people in the U.S. who kill their own food but can only taste deer seasonally. Arby’s marketed the new product with the tagline “Meat Season” and promoted it with a sign reading, “You say hunting, we say sandwich gathering.”