Arby’s new sandwich goes toe-to-toe with a cult basic: McDonald’s McRib

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Arby’s wants to cut a good figure at McDonald’s MCD, + 0.02% – in the truest sense of the word.

The privately owned chain, best known for menu items like roast beef sandwiches, curly fries, and the jamocha shake, recently launched a country-style pork rib sandwich as a limited-time fall offer. It’s unmistakable what it’s about: a direct challenge to McDonald’s McRib – the ultimate example of a popular menu item that returns with sudden fanfare, only to suddenly disappear.

In fact, the McRib, which is returning this fall, is more than a menu item. It’s a cultural icon – an elongated sandwich with a boneless pork patty that looks like a series of ribs as the star. Homer Simpson sang his praises (well, it was referred to as Ribwich in the episode “The Simpsons”, but you get the point). Marketers have wondered how it got so popular (“the first viral fast food phenomenon,” as it was once called). And ultimately, people just keep devouring it: A Wall Street Journal story once stated that McDonald’s sold more than 60 million of the sandwiches over a three-year period – despite the limited availability of them.

Arby’s seems to be doing two things with its sandwich challenger. First, it claims that it can have fun with the competition: just check out this commercial that mocks the McRib every step of the way, calling it a “hilarious” bite. Arby’s plays the carefree approach, which is illustrated by the branding “We have the Meat”.

But the chain is also trying to make it clear that it wants to spice up what we call fast food – its followers sometimes refer to it as America’s most underrated fast food chain – and it can do that with a real barbecue pork sandwich, like in real pieces of smoked meat. Or as Arby’s Head of Marketing Patrick Schwing told me: “We want someone to drive through the drive through and say: ‘I can’t believe I got this from a drive.'”

There is only one problem from my food criticism perspective: as much as I hate to admit it, I also like the McRib (more on that later).

There is something unholy about pork that has been ground and shaped to resemble a piece of pork.

Mind you, I like Arby’s new sandwich in some ways. It has the meat – decent slices of pork shoulder (not quite “ribs”, but close enough). And the meat tells us it was smoked: even before I knew the exact details behind the sandwich – I learned that the pork comes from Sadler’s, a smokehouse in East Texas – I could only think of its deep, from- Firewood flavor. If anything, the sandwich suffers from being too smoky in taste.

The real problem, however, is that Arby’s doesn’t properly balance this smokiness. The sandwich is a tough affair with its toppings of smoked Gouda cheese, fried onion strings, mayo, and barbecue sauce. (It’s also a bit heavy in the nutrition department, with 500 calories, 23 grams of fat, and 1,450 milligrams of sodium.) What it takes is something vinegar or crispy to balance things out – for example, pickles or raw onions (or maybe pickles Onions).

There’s now the McRib, now in its 40th year, it appears occasionally on the Golden Arches menu. Let’s be honest: this is more Franconian food than real food. There is something unholy about pork that has been ground and shaped to resemble a piece of pork. But McDonald’s didn’t get where it was without making things delicious (and yes, without a smart marketing strategy – would the McRib be just as important to us if it were available all the time?). For its part, McDonald’s did not respond to a request for comment on its position on Arby’s offer of a competing sandwich, but referred to a press release promoting the McRib as “tangy and tempting.”

Regardless of the company exaggeration, the description is not too far off. What the McDonald’s sandwich does is trick your taste buds in beguiling ways. The patty is like a beef hamburger, but it’s not – the taste is a bit like that of a delicious breakfast sausage made from pork. And there is the barbecue sauce – way too sweet (and way too generously coated), but it kind of adds to the desirable factor (we’re a nation that loves sugar, after all). And oh yeah, McDonald’s put pickles and onions on their rib sandwich – a smart move.

Ironically, Arby’s can help McDonald’s with its own game, says veteran fast food analyst Mark Kalinowski. That said, they have McDonald’s “a little bit of free advertising,” he says, even though it makes fun of McRib.

Ultimately, I am saying that there may be room for more than one rib sandwich in the fast food market – after all, there is room for tons of burgers. And that can mean different headlines for different people: If you want real smoked meat, Arby’s is definitely the place to go. If you want a meaty, sweet sensation, make it to McDonald’s – while the McRib is still available, of course.

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