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.
Davis 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 odd 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. Another possible explanation is that it was named after the New England Beef Association. “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.
Davis 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
55 responses to “Roast beef frenzy”
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I remember Mike’s Sub Neba Roast Beef on Market & Main sts Amsterdam,NY 1960’s & 70’s. Also State St where Gallo Florist is & on Washington Ave in Albany where I believe Chick N Galor was. They were in the mall in Amsterdam when it opened & was called Mr B’s .
As a teen I went to the Mike’s Subs in Pittsfield, MA (Allendale) in the early ’70’s. They did a good amount of business but had a lot of competition with mom-and-pop sub shops. It was said when they first started their capital was so low they would get paid for a sub then send someone across the street to Stop and Shop with the money to buy lettuce or tomato or whatever they needed.
Quick question – was that store where it is now, or elsewhere? If I’m thinking correctly, Allendale is the plaza on the corner of 8&9 (along 8 heading north towards the mall), and kitty corner that plaza was Kmart and Price Chopper (Central Market). The current store doesn’t look that old, but across the side street was Bradlees so it makes sense if it’s in that area…
They re-did the intersections. I believe where the building was is now part of the road not 100% sure.
My parents owned 4 Neba franchises in Miami Beach in the 1960’s. The store on Collins Ave was profitable. Hippies were everywhere, smoking weed and shooting up drugs. I was just a kid, but remember it was a crazy place. My 90 year old Mom is here with me remembering those good times!
My Dad was just about to sign on as a franchisee also in the 1960’s, when he decided not to. He decided to then sign on as a franchisee for Sizzler in 1967 instead. Had 3 locations until 1997. Always used to talk about NEBA.
Kameron, Jenny, friends: Please don’t be offended but do allow me to help you here regarding Arby’s and NEBA. Arby’s is actually R. B., which stand for Raffel Brothers, and Forrest Raffel and I both graduated Cornell School of Hotel Administration. After Forrest moved here we became very cordial and he told me the whole NEBA story: First, Arby’s was in business long before NEBA. Second, the man who started NEBA (“Never (not “Don’t) Eat Beef [at] Arby’s) was an Arby’s employee or franchisee who had a falling out with the brothers and opened his own chain. For whatever reason, it didn’t last and, yes, I remember the NEBA on Collins Avenue and 163rd Street in Sunny Isles very well. Hope that helps, and, folks, just rec’d the author’s copy of LOST RESTAURANTS of MIAMI which covers all of Dade County. I think you will enjoy it!
Mike Davis died in Winter Haven FLorida. I visited with him a few weeks before he died. I was the first Franchise of a Neba store in Fort Lauderdale in July of 1967. Neba was the name of Mike’s dog well before Arby’s was created.
Mike died of lung cancer being a long time smoker.
Mike Davis was my grandfather. Neba was named after his German shepherd, you got that right. After he sold Neba, he opened up Freshy’s, a chain of restaurants in the South. He also opened the Harbor House in Charleston, SC. He died 10 years ago, where he retired in Myrtle Beach, SC.
I worked with your grandfather when Michael was around 10 up in Massachusetts. I am seeing all wrong info here. Is he alive still?
Do you know where the Harbor House was located in Charleston?
When it closed in 1979 its address was 4 Vendue Range.
They re-did the intersections. I believe where the building was is now part of the road not 100% sure.
@Kameron – good call on Freshy’s. Not a lot of people know about that! One correction, though…those were in Albany, not the south. My dad was a partner and I remember helping open the store on Pearl street when I was a kid. We even went around to the local buildings passing our 2-for-1 flyers. Another store was in Latham and I forget where the third one was. Unfortunately they only lasted a year or so.
Kameron, I met your grandfather in 1961 in Troy, NY. He was preparing to open his 2nd Mike’s Submarine sandwich shop on Congress St I had just gotten married and lived around the corner. I didn’t have a full time job so I would stop by from time to time while the store was being built out. I became a regular customer and a few months after he opened he offered me a job to run the store so he could go on to the next store. My ego got in the way of accepting, I would have been embarrassed standing in a storefront window slicing lettuce, tomatoes and onions. Huge mistake on my part, all of his early employees were treated great and became very successful. I remember he celebrated his success by buying an $11,000,000.00 life insurance policy with Bankers Life. It was a long time ago but I remember him well. He worked hard and was driven to succeed.
I worked for Mr Davis (as we called him in the office) in Albany NY in Westgate shopping area. I left Channel 10 to work for Mr Davis as Ledger keeper for Mikes Sub shops. My job was great there and I especially liked Ginny Romano his secretary. He was an inspiration to my new husband and myself that working hard we could live a nice life. My husband was promoted to San Francisco and we always wondered how Mr Davis and his lovely children were doing. I felt very special to work for a kind man whose childhood was similar to our families.
Funny, but that is not and never was the story I ever heard about the NEBA name. In fact, my friend, Forrest Raffel (Raffel Brothers–R. B.–Arby’s, get it?) told me several times that the fellow who opened the NEBA restaurants was a former Arby’s employee who had some kind of a beef with the brothers, and in leaving them opened NEBA, which, I was told no few times, stood for Never Eat Beef (at) Arby’s. No angry or hostile responses, please. I am simply passing on what I was told by the founder of Arby’s no few times.
Thanks for your note Seth. I have no doubt that Forrest Raffel told you that story. It’s actually a much more dynamic version than it being named for Mike’s dog’s. But it’s simply 100% untrue for all of the reasons already outlined in this thread by those of us who actually knew Mike Davis. Especially the fact that NEBA predated Arby’s.
Yes, as far as I’ve determined from my research, Davis’s NEBA was in business in Troy NY by at least Sept 1964, whereas the advertisements for Arby’s International franchises began in 1965 in Ohio. Davis had begun his sub shops (Mike’s Submarines) about 1957 in Massachusetts, so I don’t see how he could have been working for Arby’s then or later.
MANY thanks, Jan, and, indeed, UNLIKE Miami’s walking fountain of MISifnformation, I am always open to new information every day, and my mantra is, even as Florida’s senior collector (last month started my 66th year of collecting all this junque@) I find something new and I learn something new every day. Interesting, though, the vary thoughts, dates and comments on this thread. Again, thank you all. Be well, stay safe, and as we say in South Florida, “thank you for not shooting and have a MIAMI NICE day!” ( : > ))
We’re always learning something new and revising what we know, don’t you think? I certainly am.
Incidentally, all, and maybe another thread. I have been collecting all U. S. railroad/trolley/steamship/airline/bus and boat memorabilia for as long as I have been collecting all Miami memorabilia and Floridiana (66 years) but am wondering if any of you are into U. S. railroad and electric railway dining car menus as well as menus from railroad or electric railway owned hotels and/or dining rooms. As with hotel and restaurant menus rail and traction (electric railway) dining car material is also great and, today, mostly rare “stuff.”
http://blog.timesunion.com/tablehopping/56284/mikes-neba-opens-in-schenectady – A new, old, for those who may be interested!
NEBA- NEVER EAT BEEF AT ARBYS
Does anyone here know any of Mike Davis’ children and where they might be now. I have recently learned after 58 years that I am related to them and would love to get in touch somehow be it e-mail, Facebook whatever.
Hi Dawn, let me know if you see this message. JD
Hi JD, Yes i’m seeing this message.
If you’re comfortable, can you ppst your email/fb link?
Please let me know if you were able to see my email and/or FB link.
I’m 68 yrs young, and I remember the Neba Roast Beef store in Lake George N.Y.
Neba and Mike’s Subs were the preferred comforts for late nights at RPI. The beef was sliced and stacked on demand and was quite wonderful, especially with the seasoned salt. One day they introduced an new innovation: the microwave oven. Simply warm and serve. One try was enough. That was the end of Neba.
In the 1970’s we had a Neba roast beef store in Rutland Vermont … I am curious if anyone here would know the year it closed.
I worked at Neba’s Roast Beef in Lake George while in High School! Let me tell you, there will never be a roast beef sandwich made to beat the taste of this great sandwich! AND with a quart of their great rootbeer! You were in heaven!!!
Mr. B’s Best in Queensbury is just like going back in time to my childhood in the 70’s and getting a NEBA sandwich and a Mike’s Sub. The black and white photo in the article looks just like Mr. B’s, which I assume used to be a Mike’s NEBA decades ago. I grew up going to the Mike’s NEBA on Rt. 9 in Latham where Bella Napoli stands now. Bella Napoli makes a roast beef sandwich that is very similar to a NEBA, and their subs are not dissimilar to Mike’s. But what I wouldn’t give to return to the 70’s and go to Mike’s NEBA with my father…
Great article. I can shed a little light on what happened to Mike Davis. This is from my dad, who owned 8 Mikes/Nebas in the Albany area and kept in touch with Mike throughout the years.
Mike owned a restaurant in Charleston, SC in the 70’s. In later years he tried to start a concept called “Dimes”, which was a convenient-type store where you could pay for your goods with bottle returns. Not sure if that ever got off the ground.
I heard a few years ago that Mike’s son had gotten in touch with my dad to research a biography he was writing about his father. I believe Mike had passed away by then.
Sorry, I know this is somewhat vague, but it’s all the pieces I have. Hope it helps.
For those not in the Albany area, the Mr. Subb chain offers the NEBA Roast beef sandwich. The owner of that chain was involved in the original NEBA/Mike’s company.
http://blog.timesunion.com/business/welcome-back-neba/6955/ – Has more info and lots of comments from people who remember the originals.
My Mother and I were talking about my dad who was in the Air Force along with Mike Davis, his dear friend! We talked about many memories they shared with Mike. My Mom Joyce Veet would love to talk to Mike again.
I have an original outdoor table from Neba I’m selling if anyone is interested. I’m not sure how the table made its way to Athens Ga. but it is a neat piece — we’ve had it for as long as I can remember. I’m moving and it’s just too big to take with me.
Got any photos of the table?
My dad moved from Albany to South Florida when Mike Davis owned the company. He worked with him for many years. My dad eventually took over the Young Circle store in Hollywood when the company folded. He ran it for many years under the Neba name but he eventually took on a partner and opened up a few new places called the Roast Beefery. One was across from the Hollywood Fashion Center and another in Palm Beach. He never let the store in downtown go until he sold out and it became a Papa Johns. That entire area has recently been torn down. Good memories.
Thanks for sharing that!
LB, My dad (Edward Simons) worked for your dad for decades. He managed the store (on the N/E corner of Young Circle) nights and some weekends. I worked there in the summer of 1974 (or) 75 for the day man (Joe). I remember your dad, he was a nice man. I spent a good part of my life in that store. A LOT OF GOOD MEMORIES. I also remember the store across from the Fashion Center and was there not one down by the old Playboy Club in North Miami? I remember having to drive a hunk of roast down there when they ran short one weekend.
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.
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.
Yes, Arby’s represents the pronunciation of RBs, abbreviation of Raffel Brothers.
Actually, Neba was the name of Mike’s dog. Neba predated Arby’s, certainly in the Albany area, so the acronym would not make sense.
No it did not stand for dont eat beef at arbys. Arbys wasn’t even open when he opened Neba. It was the fault German shepherd, he was my grandfather, and my mom still had pictures of Neba, the dog!
My parents owned that franchise and 3 others on Miami Beach. Mike said the name came from his dog though.
You are correct Jennie. My dad was an original franchisee in Albany (8 stores). It was Mike’s dog’s name.