You have to hand it to Arby’s: They know their brand. The company has staked its claim to meat, even in the face of Jon Stewart’s incessant teasing. Their tag line — “We have the meats” — is almost so on the nose that it doesn’t make sense, but it does provide a clear cut mantra. While competitors like McDonald’s try to be a lot of things to a lot of people, Arby’s doesn’t even make concessions for vegetarians.
All that said, when they do meat, they do it pretty well. Their smoked pork belly sandwich was solid — it had textural elements (fried onions), a tasty BBQ sauce (if a bit over-sweet), and a fluffy bun. So when we heard that the company was taking on venison, we were curious, but not exactly wary.
Among carnivores, people who eat venison love venison. It’s tender, retains a hint of gamey-ness (we’re talking about free-range farmed, restaurant-quality venison here), and it tastes almost iron-rich. For a practiced chef, it makes a hell of a product. Does that mean that the line cooks at Arby’s will be able to prep it right when they roll out their sandwich in select markets? That’s trickier. When venison gets overcooked, it becomes notoriously tough and fast food restaurants aren’t exactly well known for leaving meat pink inside.
Even if the sandwich flops, it might not matter. This is a 17 location roll out in very specific markets, places where deer hunting is popular and Arby’s “It’s Meat Season” campaign should resonate. The whole thing might end up being just another example of the stunt menu-ing that has come to define modern fast food. But what if it goes well? What if Arby’s decides to roll this out a little wider? Could this choice actually change the game?
The answer is maybe. If people show a willingness to explore new proteins in the fast food marketplace, it will definitely draw some eyeballs. Maybe McDonald’s will feel comfortable creating a lion fish fish fillet in a few years. Perhaps KFC will decide to be the first restaurant to use lab-created proteins. How cool would that be?
“We’re a brand that’s not afraid to take risks,” Rob Lynch, Arby’s Brand President said, “and while the venison sandwich is probably the biggest stretch for us yet, it’s incredibly delicious and we can’t wait to get it in the hands of our guests. Bringing venison to our menu also allows us to continue to set ourselves apart from the competition.”
The fact that a booming company, which has been outpacing the growth of the restaurant industry, feels comfortable taking risks is a good sign. It signals the broadening of the American palate. The Food Network spilled out into the mainstream and elevated our dining habits a long time ago. Now those changes are trickling down to fast food. People are savvier than ever and, if you’re into food, that’s kind of exciting.
If this works, it’ll reinforce the idea that we’re collectively caring more than ever about food. And you can’t care more without starting to also pay attention to food sourcing. Which leads to more responsibility, which leads to… Anyway, we don’t want to pretend like Arby’s serving Bambi is earth shattering, but it is interesting to imagine how these little steps might nudge the industry forward.
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