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Tasting Arby’s duck sandwich Bret Thorn

Tasting Arby’s duck sandwich

Between bites, we had a mini-ideation session

As I reported earlier this week, Arby’s is selling duck sandwiches this Saturday, but only in limited quantities and only at 16 of its 3,400 restaurants.

Since all of those restaurants are near duck-hunting venues and thus nowhere near New York City, and since the attention-hogging nature of this promotion will likely draw large crowds of people standing in long lines to fork over $6.99 to buy the sandwich, and since I’m only slightly more likely to stand in a long line for a sandwich than I am to flap my arms and fly to the moon, I had accepted the idea that I was never going to eat this extremely limited-time offer.

That’s fine. I’ve never had a Cronut, either.

But Arby’s executive chef Neville Craw was good enough to fly up to New York from Inspire Brands’ Atlanta headquarters, and make one for me.

I’m sure there were other reasons for his trip, and I understand he caught a meal at Blue Ribbon while he was in town, but I appreciated the gesture.

I also appreciated the sandwich, made from an 8-ounce duck breast that’s slowly seared to render out a lot of the fat, then cooked in sous-vide for seven hours, and then finished in the fryer. It’s served on a bun with onion rings and a tangy smoked-cherry sauce with black pepper and a hint of barbecue.

The sandwich was a long time coming. Craw said he started working on it after the very limited systemwide rollout of Arby’s venison sandwich, which was available for just one day last year, on Oct. 21, at most locations.

Craw said it took four or five months to get the size and cooking technique right.

“We toyed around with getting it scored, but to do it nationally next year would be very limiting from a supply standpoint to do that,” he said.

Yes, like the venison sandwich, which was first launched at 17 restaurants near deer-hunting spots, this launch is, in fact, a test for a brief systemwide launch next year, Craw said.

“These are truly tests in a non-traditional way,” he said.

Of course it’s a publicity stunt, but Craw said they’re also monitoring customers’ response to it — i.e. whether or not they like it — and how it performs operationally.

“We have the best ops partners in the business, because a one-day test or this kind of thing is the same amount of work as a 30-day LTO [in terms of] training and communication,” he said.

Craw was good enough to cook another half-dozen duck sandwiches which I brought back to NRN headquarters, and everyone who tried it was, frankly, shocked at how good it was.

At $6.99, “it’s all food cost,” Craw said, and a long-term rollout of duck at Arby’s doesn’t appear to be on the table since the chain’s customers probably aren’t interested in a $25 sandwich, but the chef said supply was more of an issue than food cost.

“We’d figure out how to price it accordingly,” he said.

Arby’s is the first major quick-service chain to have lamb on the menu, in its Traditional Greek Gyro, so who knows what they may come up with down the road.

I did have some suggestions of my own for Craw, including a dipping sauce of some sort for the chain’s signature potato cakes. I thought of maybe a Peruvian Huancaina sauce — a spicy cheese sauce that’s a popular potato accompaniment in Miami as well as in Peru, and Craw countered with a garlicky Spanish aïoli with paprika.

I also broached the topic of shake shooters, something I’ve been advocating for years — a miniature milkshake of 2 ounces or 3 ounces that would be a great afternoon pick-me-up.

Apparently, I’d mentioned it to Craw before.

“That one we have played around with, and there’s legs there,” he said. But it remains an operational challenge as milkshake machines aren’t designed for tiny beverages. “Once that augur gets going, when you shut it off it’s still going,” he said. The resulting splatter is a problem. 

Maybe that’s something the team at Sonic Drive-In can help to figure out. Arby’s parent company, Inspire Brands, has announced plans to buy Sonic and although the burger chain will continue to be based in Oklahoma City, Craw is working on designs for the test kitchen in the new Atlanta headquarters where Inspire is moving.

“We’ll get to hang out and break bread and share ideas,” Craw said. “I’m so happy to talk to [Sonic] about beverage. They’re so good at that.”

Inspire Brands was created earlier this year, when Arby’s bought Buffalo Wild Wings and its 30-unit fast-casual chain Rusty Taco.

“It’s like waking up one morning and finding out you have brothers and sisters when you were an only child for years, so that for me is super-exciting,” Craw said.

As for that potato cakes dipping sauce. He said customers can already order a side of Arby’s cheddar sauce.

So that’s good to know.

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected] 

Follow him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiary

TAGS: Menu Marketing
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