Why sportsmen say Arby's venison sandwich is good for America

The fast food chain says that it is trying to live up to its 'We have the meat' slogan by offering a specialty sandwich to commemorate hunting season. 

Jon Morgan/AP
Country music superstar and 'Seein' Red' singer Dustin Lynch approves of the new Venison Sandwich at Arby's on Tuesday in Nashville, Tenn.

If you live in a handful of cities around the country, one fast food company might be offering you a unique opportunity to taste a rare – yet quintessentially American – meat.

Nashville residents who dropped by their local Arby’s beginning this week could try the restaurant’s limited-time-only venison, or deer meat, sandwich, which the fast-food chain debuted in commemoration of the beginning of deer hunting season.

Venison may seem like exotic cuisine to many city dwellers, but to millions of hunters in the United States, it's as American as apple pie. And those hunters' ranks have been growing, in part due to the locavore and sustainably sourced food movements, Thomas Heberlein, University of Wisconsin hunting and sociology expert tells the Monitor by phone.

"I’m amazed that Arby’s is trying to do this," said Dr. Heberlein, "because it really is the leading edge."

According to a 2012 report by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, hunting participation rose approximately nine percent from 2006 to 2011, while hunting expenditures rose 30 percent over that same period.

In total, about 13.7 million Americans went hunting between 2006 and 2011, a number that includes those who hunted both large and small game, from deer and elk to pheasants and rabbits.

Arby's is billing the limited-run sandwich as a way to connect with hunters and their families.

"Hunters hunt the meats, and we have the meats, so it makes sense for us to connect with them and offer a sandwich that they can’t get at any other restaurant chain," Rob Lynch, Arby’s chief marketing officer and brand president, said in a press release announcing the sandwich.

Many of the Arby’s locations that are selling the sandwich are located in more populous or urban areas rather than rural areas where one might expect people to hunt. But Evan Heusinkveld, the president and CEO of the Sportsmen’s Alliance, tells The Christian Science Monitor that the urban population is exactly the group that should have the opportunity to try venison.

“Many people who live in the country either have their own freezer of venison or know somebody who hunts,” he says, “Selling to city dwellers is exactly what the hunting community would love to see.”

While Arby's venison is sourced from farm-raised deer in New Zealand due to USDA rules against serving wild-harvested meat, it will still give customers a taste of what they're missing. The sandwich features a juicy venison steak, crispy onions, and juniper berry sauce. 

Arby’s venison sandwiches will be offered in just 17 locations in six states (Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Georgia) during deer season, with the promotion ending the Monday after Thanksgiving.

So far, the company says the sandwich has been a big hit.

Interested Nashville residents came from miles around to taste the sandwich when it debuted on Monday, shocking even the sandwiches’ most enthusiastic promoters, Arby’s officials.

"We stuck a nerve, in a good way, with hunters," said Arby’s senior director of brand communications, Luke DeRouen, according to USA Today. "Some people drove from an hour away to try it."

The Nashville location went through more than 250 sandwiches in five hours, according to Mr. DeRouen.

Mr. Heusinkveld of the Sportsman’s Alliance says he is not particularly shocked by the sandwich’s popularity.

"Hunters have long known the quality and nutritional value of venison," Heusinkveld says. "This could hopefully result in more people understanding the benefits and joys of hunting and the outdoors."

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