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Arby’s Leads the Way for Game Meats to Go Mainstream

Consumers are thinking beyond beef, chicken, and pork

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For years, the McRib dominated as one of the most hubbub-raising, limited-time only fast-food menu options. But over the past year, Arby’s has received similar attention for getting into the game.

Last November, Arby’s introduced a venison sandwich, a limited-time offer that was available at only a handful of locations. Last week, Arby’s brought it back, rolling out nationwide for a single day — and people lined up early to get their hands on one. “I was the first in line @930 this morning,” one customer tweeted. Another noted that their local Arby’s was out of sandwiches by 2:15 p.m. Not only were sales expected to skyrocket, but media coverage about Arby’s unexpected meat option kept the chain’s name in the news for days.

When Arby’s first decided to bring a venison sandwich to the masses in 2016, the Atlanta-based chain realized venison on a fast-food menu might not have seemed like a natural fit. In a 2016 statement, Arby’s then-chief marketing officer Rob Lynch said that “the venison sandwich is probably the biggest stretch for us yet.” Still, both this year and last, based on growing consumer interest, restaurants in the fast-food and fast-casual arenas may start to see game and untraditional animal meats as viable menu options. And the company is far from the first casual dining space to put game meat — much less exotic meat — on its menus.

Queens, New York-based chain Bareburger, founded in 2009 by Euripides Pelekanos, was an early standout not only for featuring a menu of organic burgers, but also because it has always offered duck, elk, and even boar. Other burger and carnivorous-friendly spots like Fuddruckers have offered “Exotic Burger” options at select locations, which include Kobe beef, bison, and elk. In Berlin and Japan, a number of fast-casual and mid-tier restaurants have made headlines for putting venison and boar on their menus in the form of hamburgers and hot dogs.

Though game meat has been popular in chef-driven restaurants around the world, and particular in hunting country, game meat has almost never been found on chain restaurant menus. This is likely because restaurateurs now realize consumer demand exists for proteins other than the trinity of poultry, pork, and beef.

“In general, I’ve noticed men and younger consumers, so those between ages 18 and 34, are just interested in trying new and unique flavors,” says Lizzy Freier, a managing editor at Technomic, a research and consulting firm. “That goes with just a sauce, different proteins, or a different build all together. I think people are interested in trying these things.”

According to the 2017 Technomic Burger Consumer Trend Report, researchers found 30 percent of consumers are interested in eating or trying exotic burgers. In an email, a spokesperson for Caviar, Square’s food delivery app that services consumers in cities like New York, San Francisco’s Bay Area, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., reported that “growth in orders of game meat (elk, boar, bison, and venison) is up 80 percent over the last two years,” with boar and bison being the most popular.

In its initial release, Arby’s stacked the decks in its favor: the atypical sandwich was made available at select locations in states populated by hunting-friendly diners. Furthermore, news outlets reported that some locations, despite having a total of only 70 sandwiches in stock, had people lining out the door to try the sandwich, making it easy for a handful of locations to sell out in mere hours. Still, Jim Taylor, the current chief marketing officer of Arby’s, says in a recent news release that success of the initial venison sandwich’s release has justified a nationwide rollout in Arby’s eyes, including in metropolitan areas whose residents may have never eaten venison.

While PETA disapproves of everything that involves carnivory, there are upsides to wolfing down a sandwich composed of game meat instead of the usual cow or chicken patties. Even if restaurants aren’t sourcing wild game meat, few have figured out how to cram a ton of deer and elk into inhospitable living conditions, so supply often comes from free-range farms. Despite having that pure, meaty taste, game is often lean due to the animals’ active lifestyle and diet. (This last part, unfortunately, makes it really easy to overcook venison or elk patties, leaving Bambi tasting more like a hockey puck and less like a rich, buttery meat bomb.)

Admittedly, the hype surrounding the second coming of Arby’s sandwiches probably doesn’t mean a future full of venison burritos at Chipotle. One reason, of course, is supply: USA Today reported earlier this month that it took Arby’s a whole year to source enough deer meat from a supplier New Zealand for all of its 3,300 branches for this limited-time event. Furthermore, well connected to the low domestic supply are the disadvantageous regulations surrounding elk and deer farming in terms of bringing the stock to market, which increase the cost of game meat. This, in turn, raises the price on the consumers’ end, and of course people are wont to complain about that.

Freier of Technomic says that due to low supply and higher menu prices for game meat sandwiches, as well as novelty-seeking habits of select demographics, we’re more likely to see “pockets of interest” in game meat. Arby’s also rolled out a bonus elk sandwich special at three Arby’s locations in the states of Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana. So while the venison and elk sandwich were available only for a limited time this year, expect them to be back for the next hunting season, with other companies following suit.

Anthony Castanza, an Arby’s fan, tweeted his enthusiasm over the weekend: “This was DELICIOUS! Decent portion, medium not overcooked, not too tough. Bring it back ASAP! Would eat again & again. You DO have the meats.”

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