As a bright-eyed new resident of South Austin, my search for all things local nostalgia is ongoing. My latest obsession? Imagine cruising through 1970s Austin in your Oldsmobile station wagon, windows down, hot roast beef sandwich in hand.
At 4411 South Lamar Boulevard, in the southeastern corner of the snarl where Highway 290 meets Highway 71, you’ll find the oldest of Austin’s three Arby’s franchises, as well as the city’s only remaining original neon 10-gallon hat sign — which used to grace every new location of the fast food roast beefery during the brand’s original heyday in the ’60s and ’70s.
July 23, 1964: The first Arby's Roast Beef Restaurant was opened in Boardman, Ohio by Leroy and Forrest Raffel. pic.twitter.com/RoV5MFCFSN
— GrubAmericana (@GrubAmericana) July 23, 2017
Channeling the buckaroo bravado of the “Old West” popularized in the ‘60s, Arby’s adopted the 10-gallon hat as its signature logo when the restaurant’s first location opened in Boardman, Ohio, in 1964. Its outposts were originally housed in curvilinear Conestoga wagon-style buildings with wood and stone decor. A fun fact: Arby’s founders Leroy and Forrest Raffel first wanted to name their concept “Big Tex,” but that was already taken by an Akron business. Still, the Texan roots implied by their original choice of name are not-so-subtly expressed by the giant hat, don’t you think?
Entering a market then saturated by hamburgers, the Raffel brothers aimed for an upscale departure from the McDonald’s model. (Also, let’s get this straight — contrary to what you may have heard, Arby’s is a play on the Raffel brothers’ initials, and not a phonetic abbreviation of “RB” for roast beef. It’s a pretty quaint urban legend, but a legend just the same.)
The pair wanted to deliver a niche dining experience, and decided on thinly-sliced, slow-roasted beef — considered a fairly luxurious dish by the standards of midcentury fast food diners — served up on a sesame seed bun. In its heyday, an Arby’s roast beef sandwich sold for 69 cents — almost five times the price tag of a competitor’s 15-cent burger. Arby’s “4 hour sandwich in 5 minutes” took America by storm, with more than 2,000 stores cropping up along highways across the country and in cities worldwide by 1988.
Since its humble beginnings and turbulent financial history, Arby’s has undergone three rebrands — though the famed cowboy hat of its logo has stuck around to lasso meat lovers for more than five decades. Arby’s current target market of multicultural millennials is affectionately dubbed the “10 Gallon Hearts” — an homage, it seems, to the hat:
But back to the South Lamar Boulevard Arby’s — I recently took a short pilgrimage there for the stuff of a hungry journalist: answers and curly fries. I bounced back and forth between calls from store and district managers until I got ahold of Jon Parnell, the restaurant’s original franchisee.
“Let me tell you a story,” Parnell said in the butteriest Louisiana accent I’ve ever heard. He went on to recount signing a franchise contract with the Raffel brothers themselves on Guadalupe Street back in 1969. Parnell operated the restaurant for nearly 30 years at 1715 Guadalupe Street near the University of Texas until he sold it in 1999, and the site is now home to student apartment community the G.
The South Lamar Boulevard restaurant and its legendary hat opened in 1972 in the parking lot of Westgate Mall, a shopping center developed by the H-E-B grocery corporation and converted to its current strip-mall design in 1997. The Cavender’s Boot City location directly next door to the Arby’s, with its own iconic sign, was previously home to an H-E-B store, as mentioned in this 1972 Arby’s ad:
Parnell told me that the original signs are a big expense for the company, and “rather cost prohibitive, if you know what I mean.” The towering hat racks up quite an electrical bill, and calls for a fresh coat of rusty red paint every 5-6 years to keep the color vibrant.
“It’s nothing like marble in your bathroom or anything like that.”
— Jon Parnell, Arby’s franchisee
This might explain why a recent midnight drive-by rendered a less glamorous sign than I anticipated — no twinkling letters to be found here!
Measuring roughly 30 to 35 feet in height, the sign’s unobstructed vantage point continues to promise delicious roast beef sandwiches to Austinities and roadtrippers alike. Parnell said the brand’s new signs are not “near as famous,” and it appears South Lamar’s original sign is here to stay — it is “grandfathered in,” according to Parnell. While the number of vintage Arby’s signs intact around the country remains a mystery, he guessed there’s only about 100 left out of the original 3,000+ franchises nationwide.
One original Arby’s sign in North Austin was repurposed in 2011, when the former franchise location became the first permanent home of now-statewide hamburger chain Hat Creek Burger Company at 5400 Burnet Road. The sign was later taken down after the restaurant was redesigned in 2014. Not unlike the many lives of former Pizza Hut locations, the old bones of abandoned ’60s and ’70s Arby’s “wagons” have undergone transformations into auto shops, Starbucks stores, and a collection of other small businesses around the country.
A snippet from Ashtabula, Ohio’s Star Beacon newspaper echoes Parnell’s sentiments. Richard Cook, a former employee of the original manufacturer of the Arby’s 10-gallon hat, Peskin Sign Co. — which was liquidated in 2016 after 100 years of business — said the chain is progressively replacing its old signs with lighter plastic and aluminum alternatives.
“The big old signs are costly to maintain,” Cook said. “They have all these light bulbs, all these old electrical connections… It hurts my heart a little to take these old signs down.”
“I hope there are people out there taking pictures or collecting because once they are gone, they are gone.”
— Richard Cook
Parnell, who managed Arby’s franchises across Texas after leaving Austin, said the old signs from other restaurants are probably somewhere in a junkyard. While I’ve scoured the web for more signage with no luck, you can snag this kitschy 1970s Arby’s matchbook or ashtray depicting the famous 10-gallon hat. (Ironically, Arby’s was the first fast food chain to ban smoking in all of its locations.)
I’m not the only one who loves these retro relics. In Uptown Minneapolis, a vigil was held earlier this year to bid farewell to a closed Arby’s restaurant and its classic sign, which had remained in Uptown for 47 years. Several hundred residents came to pay their respects and say “rest in beef”. The president of Arby’s reached out with gift cards and t-shirts for the crowd, as mourners sang a dirge they’d written for the restaurant to the tune of “Danny Boy”:
Oh Arby’s Sign, the meats, the meats are calling
With curly fries and all the tasty sides
The sign is gone and now I will be bawling
‘Tis you ‘tis you, must go and I must bide
But come the back when hunger’s in the belly
Or when the City’s Hushed and white with snow
‘Tis I’ll be here in sunshine or in shadow
Oh Arby’s Sign, oh Arby’s sign, I love you so
We can only hope such a fate won’t befall Austin’s final remaining original sign anytime soon. Now wipe your tears, grab a Beef ‘n Cheddar, and jam out to this 1970s Arby’s commercial jingle: