Roast beef frenzy

neba

According to Mike Davis, creator of the Neba chain, the arrival of fast-food roast beef sandwiches in the early 1960s was a sign of an upward-bound middle class able to afford its beef sliced rather than ground to bits. His sandwiches cost 69 cents as against the 15 or 20 cents for a chain burger.

Indeed, sliced beef was big. Despite being first into the beef sandwich market, by 1967 Neba faced competition from Arby’s, Beef Corral, RoBee’s (soon to become Roy Rogers), Heap Big Beef (with its odd Indian theme), and others. Burger King and McDonald’s were testing roast beef in some of their units and Minnie Pearl’s was poised to add roast beef to its chicken menu.

NEBAADVDavis began his fast food career with submarine sandwiches, branching into roast beef in 1960 because it was easier to produce in quantity and not commonly found in chain restaurants. There are various ideas about where the name Neba came from. Almost certainly it was not an abbreviation for “Never eat burgers again.” As strange as it sounds, it’s likely that Neba was chosen because it was the name of a dog once owned by Davis, as he said in a 1969 interview. “Nicest eating beef around,” sometimes used as an advertising slogan, may have been a back formation.

The first sandwich shops in the Neba chain were in the Albany NY area, the company’s headquarters before moving to Hollywood FL. In 1965 a Mike’s Submarine and Neba Roast Beef unit opened in Pittsfield, the first in Davis’s home state of Massachusetts. Franchised units eventually opened in Florida and southern states but the chain never made it to the West.

NebadavisphotoDavis described himself as driven to make money ever since his miserable childhood in which he earned up to $100 a week by organizing a crew of boys to deliver newspapers. Reportedly he used the money to pay rent and buy food for his brothers and sisters in an attempt to make up for parental neglect. Dropping out of school after 8th grade, he was apprehended for breaking into houses and stealing money in his teens and spent time in a reformatory. Described as “tight-lipped” and “compulsive,” he confessed he felt inhuman and never laughed.

The Neba chain reached its peak in 1969 when there were 70 units in the U.S. Having sold the Canadian branch, Davis, 35, was said to be worth $15 or 20 million at that time. In 1970 he resigned as chairman a month before the corporation declared bankruptcy. With 400 units by then, Arby’s had become the competition-busting roast beef leader.

As late as the mid-1980s a few of the original Neba sandwich shops, in upstate New York and Miami FL, remained in business under new owners.

I don’t know what happened to Davis after he left the company. I’d like to think he found some degree of happiness.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

3 Comments

Filed under food, history, restaurants

3 responses to “Roast beef frenzy

  1. Gary Gillman

    Interesting and excellent social history. I never tried Neba’s but have eaten at Arby’s numerous times and some of the other places you mentioned. My issue: too salty and this was years before health concerns ever occurred to me – the salt seems to shadow everything. I do like White Castle though (burgers not roast beef, true), it is the only one I find good eating for what it is. If you don’t load the cheese, bacon and mayo it is a good standby of occasion, IMO. I like its history and imagery, too.

    Gary

  2. One of the Neba’s was at the corner of 163rd Street and Collins Avenue and there were a couple of others in Miami. For those who may not be aware, the name NEBA stood for–seriously–”Never Eat Beef at Arby’s” while Arby’s, actually was the shortening of the founders of the chain, the Raffel Brothers. I was fortunate enough to know Forrest Raffel during the years before his passing when he lived in Miami; he was a fellow Cornell graduate and a real gentleman. I don’t remember meeting his brother.

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