“Meats are what fuel brotherhood,” says a recent Arby’s advertisement marking the fall hunting season.
To that end, the $1.2 billion company with over 3,300 restaurants -- and a devoted following due to its competitively priced, quick-order deli meat sandwiches -- announced that it will test market venison sandwiches in six U.S. states.
This sandwich, which includes what the company describes as layers of thick-cut venison steak, deep fried onions and a Cabernet wine-infused juniper berry sauce on a toasted roll, will make its debut on Halloween in Nashville, Tennessee. During the weeks leading to the Thanksgiving holiday, the venison sandwich will appear at a total of 17 outlets in Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
According to Arby's, the venison sandwich will pay homage to the fall deer hunting season that is a popular tradition within those states. The Georgia-based company also filmed a series of commercials celebrating hunters and their passion.
The venison is free-range and grass-fed: and sourced from a producer New Zealand. But USA Today reported the meat is from free-range farmed deer that graze on natural grass. Although plenty of bloggers make the case that hunting and raising venison for meat is relatively sustainable compared to the beef, pork and poultry industries, such reasoning is not behind Arby’s campaign at all. Indeed, this is the manliest of manly man campaigns, but there is no reason why women, and non-hunters in general, would also not show interest in this menu item. So far, the company has been pleased with the response.
"The guest response has been incredible. We sold out of the sandwich in 5 hours on our first day in Nashville on Monday," said an Arby's spokesperson in an emailed statement to TriplePundit. "We received feedback from serious deer hunters as well as guests who had never tried venison, and they all loved the sandwich."
While its competitors in the fast-food industry struggle with NGOs calling them out for questionable food sourcing practices and concerns over animal cruelty in their supply chains, Arby’s for the most part has been able to fly under the radar. Across the industry, chains such as Yum! Brands’ KFC, Wendy’s and McDonald’s replied with promises including the elimination of preservatives and experiments with organic options on their menus. More consumers, especially millennials, have in turn expressed how they feel about these companies with their feet as they walk into fast casual chains like Panera Bread and (until recently) Chipotle instead.
In contrast, while Arby’s endured its share of protests by NGOs and through social media campaigns, the company and its 74,000 employees have been largely excluded from the debate. The company has said it will phase out pork suppliers using gestation crates, will source only cage-free eggs by 2020 and is also a founding member of the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef. In part by steering clear of the controversies that have bogged down other restaurant chains, the company began a resurgence since a private equity firm purchased the chain from Wendy’s in 2011. Customers continue to walk in to satisfy their protein fix, and sales in turn are healthy.
Although Arby’s insists its venison promotion is little more than paying homage to its customers who are passionate about hunting, the company could be onto something here. As Oliver Thring opined on the Guardian a few years ago, the posh history behind venison is amongst the many reasons why this meat has never had widespread popularity. Furthermore, while there is scant evidence suggesting whether venison is a more healthful and sustainable option versus beef or other animal meats, consumers have proven in recent years that they are willing to try new products if they lessen any impact on the planet. Venison, quite frankly, has just been never given a chance.
For years, Arby’s was the butt of jokes, especially from John Stewart when he hosted "The Daily Show." The company took those criticisms in stride, and let’s face it: There are hipster and millennial consumers out there who want to try new things to stand out in the crowd, but do not necessarily have the budget. Venison could be one step in Arby’s scoring more success in what is a very competitive, and yet struggling, industry.
Image credit: Arby’s
Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's worked an lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.