CHAMPION TOWNSHIP, Ohio -- Working at an Arby’s restaurant was among Susanne Dutton’s first jobs following high school. A friend’s sister was a “higher-up” at the company at the time, she recalls.
“Because the offices were right down the street, I started at the Belmont store,” she said. “I was one of the first girls that worked there, too. It was mostly guys that worked at Arby’s when I started.”
That was 42 years ago. Today Dutton, a shift manager at the Mahoning Avenue Arby’s in Austintown, was among a handful of the chain’s employees recognized for their tenure at an event marking Arby’s 50th anniversary.
On July 23, 1964, brothers LeRoy and Forrest Raffel opened their first roast beef sandwich restaurant on Route 224 in Boardman. Wednesday’s celebration of the company’s anniversary took place at its restaurant on Mahoning Avenue Northwest here, “just down the road,” as Arby’s CEO Paul Brown put it -- actually a county north – from where the first Arby’s opened but among the first showcasing the national chain’s new store concept.
“This building would be a good representation of what we’re doing, taking some of the original restaurants in the Arby’s brand and remodeling them for the next half-century of growth,” Brown said.
Today the chain’s 3,400 outlets around the world employ a combined 71,000, who served more than 600 million guests last year, Brown told the audience at yesterday’s ceremony, emceed by WYTV’s Len Rome and Jim Loboy.
The event began with Brown thanking the people who “brought this iconic brand” to the world and helped it thrive over the years. He lauded the Raffel brothers, for “their vision of an innovative premium product, appreciation for the theater of food and warm, friendly customer service;” employees; the 400-plus franchisees, including six operating locally; and the people of the Mahoning Valley, who were the brand’s first guests.
“To put it bluntly, if you had not been such overwhelming fans of the Raffel brothers’ 69-cent roast beef sandwich at a time when you could get a McDonald’s hamburger for 15 cents, we all wouldn’t be standing here today celebrating the 50 years of the brand,” the CEO remarked.
Although the menu has diversified over the years, roast beef products, which include the French Dip and King’s Hawaiian BLT sandwiches in addition to the classic roast beef, still represent about “40-some percent” of sales, he said.
Next week a new advertising campaign begins that will focus on the variety of products the chain offers.
“The whole premise of the marketing campaign is to let customers know that we have extremely high-quality meats,” Brown said. “We’re known for our roast beef, which is a great product and we’re very proud of it, but we serve a lot of other products other than roast beef.”
Through the years, he said, Arby's has been good at finding variations on a familiar theme, such as taking the traditional French fry and coming up with curly fries, creating roast beef sandwiches at a time when fast-food fare was almost exclusively hamburgers and innovating the Jamocha shake, a chocolate and coffee shake “well before Starbucks or any of the other frozen coffee beverages were out,” Brown said.
The Mahoning Valley, Huntsville, Ala., and Salt Lake City are the three markets where the restaurant remodel program is being tested, reported George Condos, Arby’s Restaurant Group president and chief operating officer. The remodel design features new wood finishes, subway tiles, chalkboard wallpapering and new booths, along with a “complete new exterior” and new signage featuring the revised logo, one that retains the iconic 10-gallon hat.
“We’ve been working for the last two years on developing a new revitalization plan for our restaurants and it goes beyond just the facility here,” Condos said. “We’ve introduced new training programs for our employees as well as a new marketing initiative for reaching out to the community.”
This year, Arby’s plans to remodel about 35 U.S. restaurants in the first wave of the program, with the Valley one of the first markets in that initiative, Brown said.
“We’re going to do a majority of the restaurants in those markets over the next several months,” he continued. “Our intent then is to really amp up that program next year across the country,” doing 100 company-owned stores and expecting franchisees to undertake another 100 or more, he added.
The renovated building is “a good representation of what Americans are look for in an eating environment today,” with a warm atmosphere, free wireless internet and the ability “to come in enjoy their food in a very comfortable environment.”
Arby’s origins also will pay a role in charting the path for the next 50 years, Brown said. “Most brands start on one coast or the other and work their way into the middle of America. Arby’s is one of the few that really started in the heartland of America and has worked its way out. So we are going to focus on continuing to stay true to the core values of the brand, and the core values of the heartland of America as we continue to expand,” he said.
Jim Pipino, president of Niles Restaurant Business Inc., a franchisee since 1978, attributes the chain’s success to its people. “Any successful organization really comes back to the people and Arby’s has always done a great job empowering people and listening to their people to try to get better,” he said.
During the event, the Arby’s Foundation presented a $15,000 check to the Second Harvest Food Bank. In addition, 10% of Wednesday’s sales at area restaurants were to be donated to the food bank, and through July 25 for each meal purchased at a local Arby’s a meal was to be donated to the nonprofit.
Since 2011, Arby’s has donated more than $11 million to Share Our Strength’s No Hungry Kid campaign, which is dedicated to ending childhood hunger, said Rob Lynch, ARG’s brand president and chief marketing officer and chairman of the Arby’s Foundation.
“For every dollar given, the food bank provides six meals,” meaning Arby’s donation Wednesday will allow it to provide 90,000 meals, said Steve Horger, chairman of Second Harvests’ board.
Pictured: Paul Brown, CEO of Arby's Restaurant Group.
Copyright 2014 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.
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