The One Time Burger King Had Roast Beef

From Taco Bell's ambitious attempt at a seafood salad to McDonald's unsuccessful addition of pizza to their menus, fast food failures are far from uncommon. Not every idea is a winner and no chain is safe with the fierce competition of the fast food industry. Even Burger King — one of the highest-grossing burger brands of all time, according to Restaurant Business Online — has faced its fair share of challenges and some major flops. For one example, look no further than one of its long-forgotten menu items: the roast beef sandwich.

Most people might find the idea of roast beef at Burger King surprising due to its rather established current menu — one sans roast beef. From its signature specialty burgers like the Whopper and those uniquely-shaped and controversial Ch'King sandwiches, it's difficult to imagine a time when roast beef was pushed just as hard. Well, looking back on some of the chain's advertisements, Burger King tried to dip their hand into the roast beef market in 1980. But less than a year after its debut, it was already dead.

What happened with Burger King's failed roast beef sandwich?

The answer to the story of Burger King's failed roast beef sandwich lies in an innocent motive: The newly appointed leadership at the time wanted a chance to prove themselves. According to The New York Times, a few years before the introduction of the roast beef sandwich in the 1980s, former company president Donald N. Smith had left Burger King to work for Pepsi. This left new leaders with big shoes to fill, so they devised a plan to attempt to rival the success of competitor chains like McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken.

The plan started with a brand-new line of promotional products like the sought-after Star Wars glasses pushed in some of Burger King's ads. That angle worked for a time, but in the end, it was only a temporary success. They needed something that would stick, so in came new menu additions. Starting with the introduction of new specialty sandwiches like chicken, steak, and even ham and cheese, the initial ideas did relatively well for business (via the Encyclopedia). Still, they wanted to take it even further. It was time to take a swing at their competitors. 

At that point, McDonald's and KFC had already had roast beef on its menus for years at the time. Now it was Burger King's turn. The chain's version of the sandwich consisted of thin slices of roast beef, tomato, lettuce, mayonnaise, and a slice of American cheese upon request (via Retroist). The year of roast beef had begun.

The competition from rival chains was the BK roast beef sandwich's downfall

To garner interest in its newly introduced roast beef sandwich, Burger King put out coupons in the paper, and they even introduced a buy ten get one free punch card at their locations, as one retro ad posted to Reddit illustrates. So, with all that promotion, why did it fail? The simple answer is that there was just too much competition. Arby's had been marketing the roast beef sandwich as its primary focus for years, so competitors like Burger King didn't stand a chance when they attempted to rival it. McDonald's and KFC's roast beef sandwiches eventually all suffered the same fate as Burger King's, each shutting down their operations quicker than they sprung up. 

So next time you're at Burger King and someone asks "where's the (roast) beef?" you'll be able to fill them in. And who knows, maybe we'll even get to see the roast beef sandwich again in the future. After all, it's not the first time Burger King has experimented with new menu items — and judging by its recent decision to add five new burgers to its menu in 2022, it certainly won't be the last.