Remember these roast beef restaurants that were big back in the day?
When people think "roast beef" and "fast food," Arby's is the first name that comes to mind. Well, some folks in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Jersey might think Roy Rogers.
But back in the 1960s and 1970s, there was more competition in the market. That era truly was the heyday of the roast beef sandwich. Even the big boys (and some Big Boys) served up roast beef. We'll get to that at the bottom.
But first, let's focus on the restaurant chains that specialized in sliced beef. Which ones did you remember — or eat at?
The Beef Corral
We'll start with perhaps the most obscure — unless you grew up in the Great Lakes region. The Beef Corral, despite its mod, trapezoid-shaped buildings, went deep into the cowboy theme, down to the "Giant Buckaroo Cheeseburger." Cleveland Browns fans take note — the regional chain was started by former players and brothers Ed and Dick Modzelewski. The Beef Corral got hog-tied by the competition in the early 1980s.
Heap Big Beef
The Beef Corral, Heap Big Beef carried a Western theme, albeit with a Native American motif rather than a rancher vibe. (That carried over into the menu with "Warrior Ham" sandwiched and "Shawnee Shakes.") There was a geometric difference, as well. Heap sat inside triangular structures, not trapezoids. But both joints featured a horned bull in their logo. Heap did have bragging rights — when the chain rapidly expanded in 1967, advertisements in Chicago, New York and Atlanta papers boasted that Heap was the "fastest-growing" roast beef chain.
Colonel Sanders tried to branch out. He had a "secret recipe" for roast beef, too. Rather than just introducing roast beef sandwiches at Kentucky Fried Chicken locations, the company launched an entire spin-off franchise based around roast beef. "Kentucky Beef" did not appeal to American's as much as the buckets of fried chicken and hardly lasted, just in those roast beef glory years of the late-'60s and early-'70s.
We know what you folks in Southern Ohio are saying at this very moment — "Hey, Rax is still around!" Indeed, eight locations remain of this once widespread chain. At one point, Rax was the only true rival to Arby's. More than 500 locations could be found across 38 states. So what happened? It came down to two things — over-diversification and over-sophistication. Rax rightly boasted in its ads that it introduced salad bars and baked potatoes to fast food. Brilliant ideas. But as the 1980s dawns, Rax rolled out menu items like the "Taco Pocket" and "Meatball Pocket" — in commercials declaring, "Pocket to me!" — as well as "Chinese-style food," while trying to "class up" the restaurant interiors with "carpeted floors," "attractive wallpaper," and polished wood. Oh, and Rax even bragged about how it played "popular music" not "elevator music." Really, all people wanted was an affordable roast beef sando.
RoBee's House of Beef
Pity the poor RoBee's lawyers in 1968. For starters, the Arby's people sued the Indiana-based chain over its name, claiming it was too similar with its "R. B." moniker. Worse yet, a food poisoning outbreak was traced back to RoBee's restaurants in the Charlotte, North Carolina area. RoBee's House of Beef was on the ropes — until a celebrity saved the day. Roy Rogers licensed his name and RoBee's morphed into Roy Rogers Restaurants.
Sam's Roast Beef
Sam's was once under the corporate umbrella of Denny's, primarily serving folks in California. It pulled the opposite move of Colonel Sanders — Sam's decided to get into the fried chicken game circa 1971–72, using the questionable slogan "Bite it, you'll like it!" in its ads. Sam Gordon, the businessman behind the chain Sam's Hof Brau, saw his Sam's Roast Beef Sandwich Parlours fall off in popularity not long after.
Bonus: Burger King's Roast Beef Sandwich
BK got creative with its "Specialty Sandwich" line in the late Seventies. The two-handed sandwich included the Long Fish Sandwich, the Sirloin Steak Sandwich (essentially just a long burger), ham and cheese, veal parm… and roast beef. The Chicken Sandwich was the only one in that shape that really stuck.
Bonus: McDonald's Roast Beef
At some point in its history, McD's has fiddled with just about every possible fast food product. The Roast Beef sandwich was born in the brain of a franchisee in Cleveland during the late-'60s, who wanted to compete with Arby's. Like we said, this was the fast-food boom of the era. It sold well at his store… but the recipe was a little too complicated to take nationwide. When McDonald's standardized an easy-to-cook version for all its locations in 1968, the results just were not that yummy. So it didn't last.