'I'll tell you my secret," said Frank Ottomanelli, 71, holding up a freshly cut veal shank behind the counter of his family's storied New York deli. "Red meat and wine."
Then, after imparting this wisdom for a long and productive life, he brandished his father's old carving knife and talked about the famous lamb sausage recipe his ancestors brought over from Italy. Moments ago, a dozen people had descended a double-decker "meat bus" wearing 10-gallon hats, and piled into his pungent Ottomanelli & Sons Meat Market for a sample of roast beef.
Welcome to Arby's Meats of New York tour, a sightseeing jaunt through the city's beefiest destinations.
The experience begins in the Meatpacking District, famous for having 250 slaughterhouses and packing plants in 1900, and ends in an Arby's store set to open near Times Square this month. The brand is running three tours today only—one for VIPs and two for the public—with beef tastings at Ottomanelli's, Katz's Delicatessen and Arby's, plus a dose of the city's history as an outpost for world-class chefs and butchers.
"It's really about paying homage to all the places that inspired us as a brand," said Christopher Fuller, vp of brand and corporate communications for the Atlanta chain.
It might seem incongruous for a fast-food chain to place itself on a tour of mom-and-pops with a century of sweat equity in Manhattan. And it's risky to feed participants Katz's corned beef and pastrami, which is cured for a month so it melts in your mouth, before an array of Arby's sandwiches.
But Fuller said Arby's means to draw inspiration, not comparison. "Those guys are up there. We worship those guys," he said, raising his hand above his head. "We're not trying to be them or replace them. We're inspired by them."
Executives worked with a local chef and food-tour operator to create (and lead) the tour. And they met with owners at each stop beforehand to gauge their interest. "We talked to Katz's, we talked to Ottomanelli. They said, 'You guys are doing it the right way,'" said Luke DeRouen, director of brand communications and content. "We wanted them to speak on behalf of the New York food community, not on behalf of Arby's."
Today's marketing move reflects a turning point for Arby's, which lost its luster and rebranded around meat in 2013. "Our customers were not loving Arby's for a very long time," CMO Robert Lynch said at the ANA Masters of Marketing Conference in Orlando last month, as Adweek reported. "We had lost about $150,000 per restaurant in sales over a four-year period, which for a brand of our size is essentially catastrophic."
The chain drew food and design inspiration from artisanal meat shops. It added beef brisket to the permanent menu this year, and it smokes the meat for 13 hours at Sadler's Smokehouse east of Austin, Texas. Its new midtown Manhattan restaurant is decorated with warm woods, Edison bulbs and a large carnival-style "A."
Back at Ottomanelli, tour goers see something a little less polished. The "Happy Holidays" sign above the counter is missing lightbulbs in the "H," "Y" and "A." Artwork, like a photo of the Pope wearing a New York Giants foam finger, is paper-clipped to some twine strung above the counter. And when customers say they're hungry, Frank said, "I've got some roast beef in the back, and I'm gonna bring it out. The only problem is Arby's didn't cook it."