NEW YORK (AP) — Arby's is returning to Manhattan this month after a seven-year hiatus, as growing sales make the sky-high rents easier to swallow.
The Atlanta chain known for its roast beef sandwiches is enjoying a bit of a revival thanks in part to some pop culture moments. When Pharrell Williams appeared at the Grammys last year sporting what looked like its cowboy hat logo, Arby's scored thousands of retweets when it asked for its hat back.
Arby's also became a running joke on Comedy Central's Daily Show, and the chain thinks host Jon Stewart's insults about its food helped remind people of its existence. Today, Arby's says its customers skew younger than just three years ago.
Menu variety is also attracting a broader customer base, as Chief Marketing Officer Rob Lynch concedes roast beef isn't "the hippest, coolest thing."
"We've completely changed the face of our customer," he said.
The privately-held chain, which has about 3,300 U.S. locations, said in October it achieved its 20th straight quarter of comparable store sales growth.
Here's what Lynch said in an interview at the soon-to-open store near Times Square in New York City.
Q: Many New Yorkers only know about Arby's as the chain Jon Stewart mocked on The Daily Show. What was your reaction when you first saw it?
A: As the guy who's supposed to protect and grow the brand, I was like (makes shocked face), what happened? Did he have a bad experience?
Q: How did you decide to react?
A: We had to make a tough decision. Do we send him a letter saying, "We can't believe you're doing this — we use the highest quality ingredients." Or do we play along?
So we sent him and his crew lunch, and they sent us back a letter saying, "Usually when we make fun of people, they send us nasty letters. You sent us lunch. That's awesome."
We were like, "Yes! They loved the food, they like us. That was the perfect decision."
And then it happened again. And it happened again. And again.
Every time, we sent them lunch. Sometimes it was easier, and sometimes it was harder.
Q: When was it harder?
A: When he said, "Arby's, it's like your stomach got kicked in the balls." I mean, that was kind of hard.
Q: The marketing for your Manhattan store plays up the idea that this town loves quality meat. Does that help or hurt Arby's?
A: I think it helps. We obviously have a different model than a Katz's Deli or an original steakhouse. But we feel like we have the same passion for food, the same passion for protein and meat. There are a lot of folks in New York who say, "I wish Arby's was in New York."
We feel like we could live here with all of our meat brethren.
Q: Who will be your customers in Manhattan?
A: Everybody. We feel like we appeal to the construction workers and police officers the same as the people in the New York Times building across the street.
Q: Why open in Manhattan now?
A: The challenge with Arby's was it was just roast beef sandwiches, and now we've got food and a brand that I think is more broadly appealing. Our restaurants are doing enough sales to warrant a spot here.
Follow Candice Choi at www.twitter.com/candicechoi