Arby's introduced a Loaded Italian sandwich as a
limited-time offer last summer. The ham, salami and pepperoni
sandwich was a hit. By August 2015, Arby's began thinking about
adding a meatball sandwich to the menu, according to Jim Taylor,
senior VP-product development and innovation. It is just now making
"That's an example of probably a faster project.
Anywhere from a year to 18 months is a lot of times how long it
takes to get something to market," Mr. Taylor said, adding that
items can take a lot longer if they require any capital spending or
if it is being tested as a permanent item on the menu.
The meatball sandwich will be featured until the end of August.
Then, Arby's will look at sales and customer feedback to determine
whether it will return.
"It has to show us evidence that there would be demand on an
everyday basis that would be incremental to the things we have on
our menu in order for it to be considered and tested as something
that we might add," Mr. Taylor said.
In June, the company also began testing a trio of
city-themed sandwiches -- a New York pastrami, Philly cheesesteak
and Chicago Italian beef -- in a couple of different
In all, Arby's said it tests more than 1,000 ideas every
year, and has customers try about 100 of those before making its
decisions on which to add in restaurants. The effort is paying off.
Arby's U.S. same-store sales have risen for 22 consecutive
quarters. In 2015, Arby's was the 20th largest restaurant chain in
the country, with U.S. systemwide sales up 8.6% to $3.45 billion,
according to Technomic. Its growth rate outpaced that of larger
chains including McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's and Sonic,
according to Technomic data.
Under Mr. Taylor, who honed his brand skills at Procter & Gamble and Darden before
joining Arby's in 2014, and Mr. Craw, who celebrates his 12th
anniversary with Arby's in August, the chain spends months
researching, testing and tweaking those items before they get a
Taylor said a lot of what the team does is "try to find what's the
most memorable, craveable, best experience you had with a food
item, and then how can we get as close as possible to
It took a while to get the newest sandwich, which
features meatballs, marinara sauce and smoked provolone cheese,
just the way the company wanted it. Meatball supplier Fontanini
Italian Meats worked on hitting Arby's specifications on the
meatballs themselves. Ingredients include a blend of mostly beef
and some pork, along with Parmesan cheese and herbs, but no soy.
After hitting the right taste notes, even the sizing of the
meatballs had to be just right.
Then, Arby's tried various ways to layer the
meatballs, sauce and cheese on the bread. Mr. Craw said his team
spent weeks in a couple of restaurants working out operational
kinks to ensure the sandwich would have enough sauce yet not get
too soggy, for example.
Most new sandwiches require some kind of training for
restaurant staff, such as knowing the thickness of slices of meat
or the order in which toppings should be arranged. The Italian
meatball brings other challenges, such as finding the right angle
at which to place the sandwich in the box so the four meatballs
remain nestled inside the bread.
"This one was categorically different in every step of
the way," said Mr. Craw. "Usually we'll build a sandwich and then
cut it in half. This one, we cut the bread in half before putting
on the meatballs so that the ingredients stay together and that
when you cut it, it doesn't send sauce, cheese and meatball flying
over the cutting board. It definitely was a different animal."
The chef also decided the meatballs should be heated
out of the sauce rather than in it. "If you hold it in the hot
sauce long enough, counterintuitively, it will actually make the
meatball drier," Mr. Craw said, noting that hot sauce draws the
moisture from the inside out.
As the meatball project was proceeding, Arby's decided
the Loaded Italian's initial run was successful enough that it
became part of the permanent menu earlier this year. Now, Arby's
will feature both sandwiches in its latest marketing from
Arby's plans to sell the $4.99 meatball sandwich for a limited time
starting July 25, with advertising set to begin on Aug. 1. If the
sandwich sells well, there is a chance it also could become part of
the core menu.
items get to bypass the limited-time process. After testing more
than 100 different ideas for cookies, a salted caramel and
Ghirardelli chocolate version and a triple chocolate version made
the cut for test markets. Within months, Arby's dessert sales
doubled, Mr. Taylor said.
The cookies went straight to the permanent menu in