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Burger King Roast Beef Sandwich
The year was 1979 and the United States was awash in fast food. Three companies dominated the market, McDonald’s who has gross sales of $5.4 billion, followed by Kentucky Fried Chicken at $2 billion, and Burger King bringing up the rear at $1.5 billion. While Burger King was third place finisher, they had something to prove.
A few years early, President Donald N. Smith had left the company to head PepsiCo’s food service divisions. The leadership he left behind needed to show investors that they could continue to grow the company. They did this through a blend of promotion and product diversification.
What sort of promotion? Well who remembers this brilliant set of ads?
Every kid I knew wanted a set of the Empire Strikes glasses and Burger King was happy to oblige, having 12 million glassed manufactured. While Star Wars promos were shown to boost business, they were not a reliable boost, so Burger King also started offering “specialty sandwiches.” This included steak, fish, chicken and even a ham-and-cheese sandwich.
According to the companies COO at the time, Don Christopherson, these sandwiches were growing in popularity. By 1980, they accounted for one out of every three sandwich orders and made up 20 percent of sales at the company. These products were performing so well that McDonald’s was testing out chicken and steak sandwiches of their own.
What did the Burger King Roast Beef Taste Like?
From what I have read online and discussions with older members of my family, the Burger King Roast Beef Sandwich was tasty. It consisted of hot thinly-sliced roast beef, tomato, crispy lettuce, creamy real egg mayonnaise, and American cheese (upon request). All served on a long sesame seed bun.
It very much matched the template that other specialty sandwiches would follow at BK. Also, it was Burger King, so you could have special ordered it and “had it your way.” Personally, I am not a fan of lettuce and tomato on my roast beef, so those would have had to go.
Here is an ad that ran in newspapers at the time, they were giving away a free Frisbee with purchase. I have looked for Roast Beef themed Frisbees online and can only find Bun logo-themed and 3.75” mini discus with the King on them. So I think this might have just been a more generic giveaway.
Newspaper across the United States were flooded with coupons for this culinary delight. The most common were buy one, get one free offers. Those are pretty standard on fast food releases.
In theory they should let a person who already like the sandwich get what they want and then have second sandwich they can give to another person who will fall in love with the sandwich. What actually happens is I wind up eating all the sandwiches.
Coupons are great, but they are not the only way to bring in customers. For this sandwich, Burger King tried a loyalty program.
The Roast Beef Punch Card
In order to push this new culinary creation, Burger King fell back on the old buy ten get one free system. They gave out punch cards at participating restaurants and had signage and buttons for employees to wear. I have not found many of the punch cards online, but the buttons are almost always for sale on eBay.
How much did a Burger King Roast Beef Sandwich Cost?
I was able to find some information about pricing from a Madison, Wisconsin Burger King in 1981. They printed coupons in a local paper where if you bought a Specialty Sandwich, they would include a Whopper for free. A Roast Beef Sandwich was $1.79, which is also what you would pay for a chicken sandwich. The Ham and Cheese was a cheaper offering at $1.65.
In 1980, they ran commercials both regionally and nationally, a few of them have survived ad are available online. I would like to share two with you.
The first is a more generic, “real people” style commercial with people giving testimonials about their newfound love for the sandwich. Accompanied by light music, the ad cuts around a few times to different people, and is punctuated by their catchphrase, “You Just Can’t Beat It.”
It is the more generic of the commercials, but I believe it also used more widely than the next one. This one is more jingle based with a group of young people singing the praises of the new sandwich while driving their convertible Volkswagen Beetle on the beach.
If you look closely you will spot a familiar face in this ad. A pre-Police Academy shaggy-haired Steven Gutenberg is in the back seat of the car.
The Death of Burger King Roast Beef
So what happened to this delectable offering from the King? While it came out of the gate in a big way it couldn’t gather enough momentum to be hit. While the Roast Beef sandwich was decent, it was not unique to the restaurant, and they were going up against competitors.
Companies like Arby’s had been doing it for years as their primary focus. McDonald’s tried to beat them, so did Kentucky Fried Chicken, but both failed and they had deeper pockets and grander plans than Burger King. And so another sandwich unceremoniously dropped.
I can find evidence of it still being sold in 1981, but by 1982 I cannot find a single mention of the Burger King Roast Beef Sandwich in print or television.
Perhaps it lingered in some markets, nationally though, the King’s Roast Beef dreams were dead. Sadly that probably means a whole lot of Roast Beef Punch Cards never got redeemed.