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McDonald’s Served Roast Beef Sandwiches
After a years-long slow rollout, McDonald’s had finally released its Filet-O-Fish sandwich nationwide in 1965. It was a big hit and proved McDonald’s could start offering foods besides burgers and fries. They realized that burgers had an image problem as too casual or too kid-friendly. The Filet-O-Fish demonstrated that they could cater to more adult tastes. An adult-leaning sandwich that McDonald would almost successfully bring to market in the late Sixties as a follow-up, was the Roast Beef Sandwich.
Roast Beef in the Fifties?
This was not the first time that McDonald’s had dealt with Roast Beef, but the first time was a lot more contentious. According to the book McDonald’s: Behind the Arches, early franchise maverick and friend of McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc, Bob Dodanville, liked to push the boundaries of what was allowed as a franchisee.
One of the things that Dodanville tried at his Reseda, California location was Roast Beef. Not only did he just try it, but he was going to put the Roast Beef right in the front window as an enticement to customers. The idea of a bearded Dodanville, Kroc was militant about grooming, cutting Roast Beef in a McDonald’s store window was too much for Kroc to handle.
He attempted to use a carrot to steer his friend down the course he wanted, but Dodanville would not be swayed. Ultimately this prevented the two of them from engaging in a larger business relationship beyond Donanville’s single location.
It seems that Dodanville did not have any hard feelings about the incident, he was quoted as saying, “…Ray couldn’t have recalcitrants like me giving him a hard time when he was trying to build a national image. McDonald’s can thank God that I was such a scalawag because it made them more careful in selecting franchisees.”
The Rise of the Big Mac
While the Filet-O-Fish opened doors for new food options at McDonald’s, it was was the Big Mac that made the company open up more widely to new menu ideas. Much like all new offerings started under the Golden Arches in this era, it was an uphill battle.
The Big Mac was the brainchild of Pittsburgh franchisee, Jim Delligatti. Like most franchisees, Delligatti was looking for a way to make more money by appealing to an adult audience. He had come up in California and had seen firsthand the success of the double-decker burger, the Big Boy at the Big Boy Drive-In chain. In 1967, he asked Mcdonald’s President and future CEO, Fred Turner, if he could add a similar item to his restaurants’ menu.
Turner was not opposed to new foods, but was much more interested in preserving the McDonald’s food preperation system. Since any new foods compromised this, he said no. Delligatti persisted and Turner finally agreed, as long as he kept it in one location and used ingredients already available at that restaurant.
Delligatti attempted this, but the new burgers, which he had dubbed, “Big Macs” were messy and difficult to eat and construct. So he took a chance and ordered his own supplies, including a 3 layer sesame seed bun. The results were impressive. In just a few months, the Big Mac was increasing the test store’s sales by 12 percent.
They quickly pushed the Big Mac to other test markets and revenue surged. By 1968, Sales of the Big Mac accounted for 19 pecent of all McDonald’s sales. An unqualified success.
Meanwhile in Cleveland…
The Return of Roast Beef
The road to Roast Beef’s return was bumpy. The idea was raised by Cleveland franchisee Nick Karos in 1967. He had been watching rival fast-food chain Arby’s and saw what they were doing with roast beef as a threat to McDonald’s. He brought the idea to Fred Turner. Turner refused.
This did not deter Karos, who went around Turner and talked to Ray Kroc. Kroc was known now for his willingness to experiment with new products and the sandwich was approved. So in a Suburban Northfield suburb, the first official McDonald’s Roast Beef sandwiches began to be sold. They were an unqualified hit.
Sales at that store grew 33 percent that year and Roast Beef accounted for 15 percent of total sales. Turner was suddenly convinced. Could they have another Big Mac on their hands?
This being McDonald’s they just couldn’t serve a baked roast as Karos has done. Instead, they need to “McDonaldize” the cooking process. So that year the company developed an automated roast beef fryer which was christened a “Tepidarium” by Director of Product Development, Dick Walther. The Tepidarium worked like an oil fryer and was developed by Prince Castle. This meant that McDonald’s was selling the first and only deep-fried roast beef sandwich in the country.
While this process sounds novel and delicious. The cooking method didn’t make for a moist or deeply flavorful roast beef sandwich. Despite negative feedback around the tastes, the sandwich was given the green light.
Roast Beef Preparation and The Tepidarium
The Roast Beef preparation process has not been heavily documented online. Luckily Holly Moore, who worked at McDonald’s in New Products during this era had some things to say about the process. He mentioned the 4 ways that they attempted to prepare the sandwiches.
They tried a traditional method. This was an attempt to copy what they were doing at Arby’s. It involved roasting the meat. Trying to time that out to match the lunch rush was a logistical nightmare.
They had a pre-cooked roast that they would reheat in a warm oil bath. This oil bath, the Tepidarium, also had a probe thermometer. As the roast reached the correct temperature, it would automatically rise from the oil. This was also hard to time out.
This method was simple, but the results were not good. They would cook, slice, and flash freeze the proper portions of Roast Beef. This would be shipped to restaurants and then heated up with steam. The end result was not a tasty sandwich.
The final method combined elements from numbers 2 and 3. Roasts were bagged and cooked in a water bath to the proper temperature. They were then sliced and flash-frozen in bags along with gravy. These single-serving bags could then be heated up in a warm water bath, the Tepidarium 2.
Method 4 would be the solution that worked best. When a customer ordered a sandwich, they would hear up the meat and sauce in the Tepidarium 2. At the same time, they would open up a small square Italian roll and using a special toaster, they would toast the inside creating a pocket for the meat to sit, and they would then using tongues to place the meat in the roll.
This sandwich was an acquired taste – not as good as the first two versions, but the gravy masked the flavor of the beef, so it was ok. Unfortunately, the good sandwich, the first one, achieved great sales but was too complicated to fit into the McDonald’s operational system. The last two were simple to prepare but did not sell well for obvious reasons.
The Roast Beef Rollout
In 1968, they started airing television commercials. The message in these ads is not subtle. McDonald’s Roast Beef sandwich is for adults.
As you well know, we English are recognized Roast Beef gourmets. And we find that…no one makes a more ‘jolly good’ Roast Beef Sandwich than McDonald’s. Sample this thin-sliced, tender roast beef served piping hot, on a freshly toasted sesame seed bun! Which, may I add, has been glorified with a tasty butter spread. McDonald’s offers you a packet of their own special sauce, also. But, best of all, this marvelous sandwich is conservatively produced at only 59¢.
McDonald’s Roast Beef Sandwich Advertising
The rollout of the product was gradual. Select locations received the sandwich to test and as they got the kinks out of the system and were able to hire and train people to cut roast beef, its availability expanded.
The training was a bit more involved than traditional McDonald’s fast food. Not only did you need to deep fry the roast, but the meat was actually sliced off and weighed for each sandwich. The process was involved enough that special ads were run in papers recruiting people to the Roast Beef Team. Here is an ad from 1968 looking for men who are 16 to 69 years young to join the team.
Served with a packet of BBQ sauce on a buttered sesame seed bun, the sandwich was an immediate success. Sales at locations that started selling it saw a jump of 7 to 9 percent. The future was looking bright for this new sandwich, but right before it was about to get a nationwide release, an accountant named Gerry Newman noticed something was wrong.
McDonald’s has not accounted for the shrinking that would happen to roast beef as it cooked and the inevitable accompanying profit shrinkage from the product. They had done all of their calculations for profits based on flawed data and a 59 cent price. Having already sunk a lot of money into this product, they tried to crunch the numbers. Stuck to that price point though, they just couldn’t make it work. Seeing no alternative, Turner killed off the Roast Beef Sandwich.
It was a costly decision. The company had already ordered a thousand meat slicers to be delivered to all locations. These were sold off in a warehouse sale and McDonald’s took a $300,000 write-off. That is the equivalent of $2.1 million dollars today.
A Roast Beef Mascot?
While the Roast Beef sandwich didn’t last long enough to become a menu item. In their coupons, they did include a monocled English character who was absolutely gaga about these sandwiches.
It’s a shame that this didn’t go on longer. “Sir Roast Beefington” would have been an excellent addition to McDonaldland.
Comparing the Prices on the McDonald’s Menu of 1968
The Big Mac had not yet made it nationally, so the menu in test markets that sold Roast Beef didn’t include it. This means that the Roast Beef at 59 cents was by far the most expensive item on most McDonald’s menus at the time. How did pricing stack up? Well here is a breakdown of the pricing on hot food there.
Hamburger (18 cents)
Double Hamburger (35 cents)
Cheeseburger (25 cents)
Double Cheeseburger (45 cents)
Fish Sandwich (30 cents)
French Fries (15 cents)
Roast Beef (59 cents)
The Legacy of the McDonald’s Roast Beef Sandwich
The McDonald’s Roast Beef Sandwich might have been a commercial and logistical failure, but it also taught the company an important lesson. They were getting too big to take chances on products that were not fully vetted. It kicked off a system of deep and careful analysis, that not only researches the financial viability of any new food but also pays close attention to the logistics involved in delivering that food to restaurants.