Arby’s Venison Taste Test: The Real Thing is Better

National restaurant chain Arby’s served venison sandwiches Oct. 21 throughout the country, sparking mixed reactions from hunters and others about the taste and sourcing, among other things.

Arby’s served the venison sandwiches in five states in 2016 for a limited three-day run. This year they were offered nationwide for one day, Oct. 21, and elk meat also was offered in Colorado, Montana and Wyoming. The venison reportedly is sourced from a game farm in New Zealand that sells free-range, grass-fed meat. 

Arby’s describes its sandwich as “a thick-cut venison steak marinated in garlic, salt, and pepper and is cooked for three hours to juicy perfection. It’s topped with crispy onions and a cabernet steak sauce infused with juniper berries. Served on a toasted star top bun.​​” 

The elk sandwiches drew the ire of the Montana Wildlife Federation, which decried the use of farm-raised meat. It also reinforced its support for hunting of wild game, according to the report in The Missoulian.

Arby’s venison sandwiches served Oct. 21, 2017, were sourced from a New Zealand game farm and included breaded onion rings and a sauce created in the company’s kitchen testing facility to add flavor. (Photo: Arby’s)

“Farm-raised game meat sandwiches run counter to core Montana values of public wildlife and consumption of healthy protein through ethically killed game,” said the letter to the Arby’s CEO by the Montana Wildlife Federation. “Elk and deer are best left as wild, free-ranging animals that are part of the public trust, managed by the state for the benefit of all Montanans.”

At least one tabloid in New York labeled them “Bambi burgers” and the author deemed the sandwiches disgusting. This magazine said, earlier in 2017, there is “something strange” about the meat, and also said the company wanted something “hunters would be proud to get.”

That’s the fallacy of this deal, though. Hunters are not and never will be proud of buying farm-raised venison, waterfowl, rabbit or other animals they hunt. Hunters probably aren’t and won’t be proud that a massive corporation is piggybacking on what has been man’s basis for living for eons — hunting and gathering, be it meat or plants or both.

I doubt if many true, longtime, legitimate hunters were proud of or giddy at the prospect of going to a chain restaurant to buy and try farm-raised meat shipped from overseas, doused in some test-kitchen sauce and served in a box.

Our DDH Taste-Tester

DDH Video Producer Abigail Hehner, who lives in Minnesota, gave the venison sandwich a try this year. Here is her review:

On Saturday Oct. 21, Arby’s launched its venison sandwich for the second year in a row. My first thought was to go and try it and see how it compares to free range, wild whitetail venison. Being from Minnesota, and an avid whitetail hunter since the age of 12, I had to see what all the fuss was about.

Honestly, it wasn’t bad. It wasn’t the best thing I’ve tasted. It’s NOT the whitetail venison you have at home. It doesn’t have the fresh taste a whitetail has. It was gamey, and had a gamey texture but it was also chewy. The sauce, a Juniper Berry steak sauce, and breading around the onion … well, the sandwich could have done without. The sauce and onion overpowered the venison. Plus the price, with tax it was almost $10 — not something I would normally pay for.

When I walked into Arby’s I was overly excited to try this sandwich. In my mind I was comparing it to the only ways I’ve ever consumed venison. Overall, I wasn’t disappointed but I wasn’t overly impressed. Just walking into a fast-food restaurant and ordering something I spend hours in the woods trying to put in my freezer for the year, didn’t seem rewarding.

When I go out in the woods, day after day for hours on end in the fall, enjoying the outdoors, I wait for that whitetail to walk out. When it does, with my heart racing a million miles a minute and blood flowing, feeling hot, it’s a feeling I never feel until I’m deer hunting. When you put your hands on your deer after it’s been harvested is one of the best feelings in the world. Knowing you have food in your freezer and fresh, free range deer for the rest of the year, and you did it all on your own, is so rewarding. Walking into a restaurant and ordering what you work so hard for every fall, is not.

You are not eating whitetail meat, you are eating farm-raised red deer meat. They are two different breeds. So if you go into your local Arby’s and expect the whitetail venison you eat in the fall, you’re going to be sadly mistaken.

Would I eat it again? Sure.

Would I rather eat my harvested, fresh whitetail venison instead? Absolutely.

Nothing compares to the hard work, blood, sweat, tears, and anger you put into deer hunting, but at the end of the day when you sit down for dinner and have a nice fresh venison steak, nothing in the world compares.

A Few Things to Remember

— Too many people are asking “How can they sell venison?” or “Why can they sell venison but the public can’t?”

This is meat from farm-raised animals, not wild animals. The sale of wild venison is prohibited pretty much throughout the U.S. with only a few exceptions. A processor, for example, in some states may be able to sell packages of meat not picked up by a customer but for only the price of his processing fee. But in a broader commercial setting? No, other than with farm-raised meat like Arby’s is doing, or like in restaurants where you might see duck, venison, rabbit or other game.

— This is nothing more than capitalism and marketing, which is fine. Lots of businesses do that. But the skeptic in me wonders if there’s also some part of a plan involving an anti-hunting agenda and promoting farm-raised meat instead of hunting. The company also is doing this promotion during autumn when hunting seasons are open and real hunters are out, y’know, actually hunting and killing deer or elk or pronghorn and bringing home real, organic, nutritious wild game. But other companies do similar promotions; beer companies have blaze orange boxes and U.S. Tobacco has blaze orange on some of its tins of snuff. Nothing new. They’re all just striking while the iron is hot, which is smart marketing.14101_728

Here’s a sampling of comments on DDH’s Facebook page following Hehner’s FB Live video:

Dan J. Shepler  Kudos to Arby’s for promoting it as a hunting season item. Even if it is farm raised. Most companies now a days would be afraid of triggering the treehuggers too much.

Scott Lewis  Hello from Pittsburgh, PA. I had one this morning not too bad, not home made of course the way we all like it but it will do. The sauce is juniper sauce.

Alan Price  If I go to Arby’s I’m getting the Rueben sandwich. I’ll make my own venison sandwiches here at the house.

Michael Calkins  Tried it too. For fast food, Its not bad. I wouldnt say its great, but not bad. Wasn’t big on the sauce and could use more seasoning.

Josh Morse  They r delicious and the sauce is some sort of berry wine sauce. I think Arby’s should definitely sell these everyday.

Stan Patiro  Reporting from New Jersey. I bought the very first 2 burgers this morning. It was great. Very good quality.

JJ Jackson  I got the first 2 sold here in Enid, Oklahoma. They were good. Just need to do without the onion rings. I ate my second one without the bread or onion rings. Like a steak.

Brad Herman  I like that they embrace hunting but farm raised deer is a joke!! I think about all the CWD cases that come out of high fenced deer.

Dusty DuVall  I tried it in Ms. It was surprisingly tender and cooked just right (medium) but had a strong peppercorn flavor that I’m not crazy about but over not bad at all.

Austin McDonald  I got one in Va. and it was dry and tough as leather was a complete waste of money was so pumped to try it and it let me down.

James Beach  I had one today and found it to be decent. It does not beat fresh wild venison but I would at recommend to anyone to try it for the experience.

Keith Phillips  Had this last night didn’t care for the sauce venison was not very tender and was cold give me a option of different sauces and warm meat and it would be good, also 8 bucks for just the sandwich is a bit overboard.

John Johnloz  I tried it did not like the sauce no seasoning on the venison over cooked really rubbery.

Bobbi Castaneda  Threw half of mine in trash!

Watch the Review

OK, it's not wild venison, but we couldn't help but see what all the buzz was about with these limited-time venison sandwiches from Arby's. What's the verdict, D&DH staffer Abbi Hehner?

Posted by Deer & Deer Hunting on Saturday, October 21, 2017