Kelly's and Arby's roast beef sandwiches

The Inspiration Behind Arby’s Explained by Kelly’s Roast Beef

In a bit of a twist on the old chicken and egg conundrum, we’re pondering a similar question. Which came first? Kelly’s or Arby’s? Of the two roast beef giants, Arby’s has broader name recognition. As of 2024, the iconic chain operates more than 3,400 locations in 48 U.S. states and territories. Kelly’s Roast Beef, on the other hand, boasts a roster of 12 current locations. In any other realm, Arby’s and Kelly’s wouldn’t even be mentioned in the same sentence. Except for one rather significant detail. The Raffel brothers — the RB in Arby’s — openly acknowledged that the idea to open their own roast beef fast food restaurant came to them on a dark and stormy 1960’s night while they were standing in line at the original Kelly’s Roast Beef in Revere, Massachusetts. 

We’re not entirely sure what New Castle, Pennsylvania natives, Forrest and Leroy Raffel, were doing in Revere on that long ago summer night. Back then the beachfront city just north of Boston — home to the oldest public beach in the U.S.— was a hotbed of seaside hospitality. Whatever their thought process, the brothers came away from their sojourn with a plan to start a new life. Forrest, a graduate of Cornell University’s hotel restaurant management program, and LeRoy, a Wharton School alum, decided to shutter their Ohio-based restaurant supply business and open a roast beef-centric restaurant. Their first location debuted in Boardman, Ohio on July 23, 1964 — 13 years after Kelly’s Roast Beef opened on Revere Beach.

Back to the future?

Kelly's Roast Beef sandwich

Rich Kaszeta/Flickr

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Considering the mid-20th-century explosion of fast-food restaurants like McDonald’s and KFC, the Raffel brothers were in the right place at the right time to cash in on a trend. Their success, though, wasn’t without a few bumps in the road. To set themselves apart from the competition, the brothers decided to position Arby’s as a slightly up-market alternative to burgers (or chicken) and fries, and menu prices reflected that strategy. At a time when McDonald’s was selling burgers for 15 cents (about $1.50 in 2024 dollars), Arby’s entered the market offering a roast beef sandwich for 69 cents (about $6.90 today). It was a good plan on paper. The first decade brought rapid growth — and a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing — but the company rebounded to become the powerhouse it is today.

At the same time, family-owned Kelly’s Roast Beef kept plugging along, maintaining its status as a New England icon for almost seven decades — and expanding to multiple locations in Massachusetts and New Hampshire — before taking the plunge into the world of franchising in 2020. Entering its eighth decade of business in 2024, the Massachusetts-based mainstay plans to open seven new outlets, including additional locations in Florida and California. However, Kelly’s does seems to be a core inspiration for not just Arby’s but the whole roast beef sandwich scene. Which brings us to another philosophical quandary, the story of the tortoise and the hare. Does slow and steady always win the race? Only time will tell.

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