As a professional musician since childhood, I’ve been intimately acquainted with fast food restaurants, past and present, for years. In many cities and towns, the burger chain was often the only place open after the gig, and/or the one locale where the band could grab a quick and cheap sandwich on a 20-minute break.

I’m certain that our visitors would agree that in many locales, it’s still that way.

A partial list of these musicians’ havens through the seasons would include Hot Shoppes, Jr., Burger King, Burger Chef, Roy Rogers, Steak and Shake, Gino’s, Jack-in-the-Box, McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Arby’ s, White Castle, White Tower, Taco Bell, Hardees, Bob’s Big Boy, Steer Inn, and Carl’s, Jr. I’m certain there were others.

I ate at all of them, and I still like to stop in a new venue or sample an old standby’s latest concoction. So I couldn’t ignore the hype surrounding Arby’s new RoastBurger. After all, with catchlines like “Like Burgers? You’ll Love This,” and “Burgers Done Better,” how could I resist? And just maybe I’d discover an alternative to Five Guys’ ground beef heaven.

Although Arby’s specialty is roast beef, it should know something about hamburgers, as the parent company, Triarc Company, Inc., also owns Wendy’s. The Wendy’s/Arby’s Group, as it’s called, is the third largest quick-serving restaurant company–those in the biz don’t use the words “fast food”–in the industry, with about 10,000 restaurants in their system. 3,750 of them are Arby’s, which opened its first restaurant in 1964. The Wendy’s/Arby’s motto? “Serving fresh ideas daily.” One cannot, however, eat an idea.

As for Arby’s roast beef itself, it is, to put it gently, an acquired taste. It is not delicatessen meat as we know it, rather, a very thinly sliced, someone gelatinous-textured product that doesn’t have much taste of its own. Some years back, in response to rumors about just what the roast beef actually was, an Arby’s quality assurance manager named Jim Lowder confirmed that “Arby’s roast beef “consists entirely of beef.” The Arby’s web site gives more details. “Ingredients list/Roast Beef: Trimmed Boneless Beef Chunks (Minimum 70%) Combined With Chopped Beef For a Maximum of 12% Fat. Contains up to 9.0% of a Self-Basting Solution of Water, Salt, Sodium Phosphate.”

Still, given that Arby’s has some expertise in the world of meat, the presumption would be that it would make one heck of a hamburger. The photos of the sandwich at the drive-through look great, the various choices–All-American, Bacon/Blue Cheese and Bacon and Cheddar–sound appetizing, and that business about “Like Burgers? You’ll Love This” is definitely a great come-on.

The truth is, Arby’s RoastBurger, which went on sale February 17, is not a hamburger. It is a standard, Arby’s roast beef sandwich with what are supposed to be burger-like toppings. In short, it is an overpriced (over $6.00 for a regular sandwich and a small drink) and falsely advertised product that the company should be ashamed of. Unless you’ve seen their newly-launched television commercial or visited the Arby’s web site, customers would have no idea that a RoastBurger was not a burger.

Arby’s is calling this product–a roast beef sandwich with toppings–“a new face in fast food.” It seems that in a recent Kelton Research survey, 55 percent of burger fans complain about meat’s greasiness, and 40 percent moan about dryness. With the arrival of the Roastburger, “fast food fans finally have a refreshing departure from the standard burger,” according to the powers that be in R & D.

“Roastburgers offer a tasty new way for burger lovers to satisfy their cravings while avoiding burger boredom,” according to Steve Davis, Arby’s Chief Marketing Officer. “At Arby’s, we’re always looking for new ways to offer our customers something different and better in fast food.”

Arby’s Public Relations Director Kathy Siefert also takes the party line. “We wouldn’t let you down with a fried, greasy burger,” Siefert said in response to my complaints. “Roastburgers are made with our classic oven roasted, thinly sliced roast beef that Arby’s has been synonymous with for more than 44 years. While Arby’s Roastburgers feature ‘burger inspired’ flavors, our television commercials clearly show roast beef sandwiches that offer an alternative to the boring, greasy standard hamburger.”

“Burger inspired?” How about a real hamburger?

Arby’s clearly needs to do something. Their fourth quarter revenues were down 8.5. percent, mainly due to competition from other fast food restaurants that offered deep discounts. “Arby’s is having problems attracting people with its current menu portfolio,” says “The value menu at Wendy’s, on the other hand, seems to be a strategy that is working. Customers are coming in, ready to get a deal on those delicious, although not-so-healthy, square-shaped burgers. So, if the company wants to improve its situation, it’s going to have to get serious about fixing Arby’s.”

The RoastBurger is not the solution. Musicians beware! — Bruce Klauber: March 4, 2009

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