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

29 Comments

Filed under chain restaurants, food, proprietors & careers

29 responses to “Roast beef frenzy

  1. Anonymous

    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.

  2. Kameron

    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.

  3. Alan Michael

    NEBA- NEVER EAT BEEF AT ARBYS

  4. Dawn

    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.

  5. Jerry Pace

    I’m 68 yrs young, and I remember the Neba Roast Beef store in Lake George N.Y.

  6. Sanford

    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.

  7. Jimmie Francis

    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.

  8. Anonymous

    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!!!

  9. Michael M

    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…

  10. Jay Weinberg

    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.

  11. William

    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.

  12. JoAnn Taylor

    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.

  13. Rachel Warfield

    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.

  14. LB

    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.

    • 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.

  15. 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

  16. 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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