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Bernie Streeter, who was once to local sports talk what Macy’s is to the Thanksgiving Parade, died of cancer Jan. 26. He was 77 years old.
Streeter, an Indiana native and decorated World War II veteran, moved to the D.C. area in 1968 to become a franchiser for the Arby’s restaurant chain. He had previously been with McDonald’sin 1960, Streeter opened the Golden Arches’ first Cleveland outlet, which he sold before coming here. After signing on with Arby’s, he found competing against his old chain to be rough in the early going. Businesswise, the low point came in 1981, when Streeter filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on behalf of his Arby’s holdings.
But the upturn for D.C.-area Arby’s outlets, and for Streeter’s local notoriety, came in 1985, when he began sponsoring SportsCall, Ken Beatrice’s nightly call-in show on WMAL-AM. At that time, Beatrice was really the only sports-talk host who mattered around these parts. And through the years, wherever the legendary Beatrice and his callers wentfrom WMAL to WTEM-AM in 1995, and then to WBIG-FM for a post-retirement, part-time stint the past two football seasonsStreeter and his patronage followed.
“I was young and eager, and had gone to Bernie with all these graphs and charts about marketing,” recalls George Longwell, a former WMAL ad salesman who first paired Streeter and Beatrice. “But Bernie said, ‘Those are all great suggestions, but I can’t compete with McDonald’s with an ad. I need to do something different.’ We decided he’d avoid drive-time radio, which was more expensive, and find a niche, just get somebody who is going to communicate the message, stick with him, and see how things work out. Bernie’s
wife listened to Ken Beatrice’s show and was a fan, so that’s
where we went.”
From the beginning, Beatrice took to Streeter and his restaurants to a degree that listeners found charming and/or ludicrous. Longwell had given the host some instructions on what to say about Arby’s. But other than ending the spots with a prescribed tag line”The proof is always in the taste at Arby’s!”the host, originally to the salesman’s chagrin, tossed Longwell’s script.
In its place, Beatrice, who had been an Arby’s aficionado before he started taking Streeter’s checks, delivered personal monologues. Long, impassioned monologues. About the decor, the menu, andalways, always, alwaysthe owner. Day after day after day. Until death did they part.
“People would mention the Arby’s commercials as much as anything else I ever did on the show,” says Beatrice from his Annapolis home.
On the air, Beatrice spoke of all things Arby with as much fervor and detail as he would when breaking down the defensive scheme of Richie Petitbon or the middle relievers in the O’s bullpen. Don’t call Arby’s a fast-food joint, Beatrice would warn his audience, in a Boston accent as thick as the best chowder: “It’s not fast food! It’s fresh food, served fast!”
SportsCall’s loyal listeners knew that his favorite entree was Arby’s roast-beef-and-cheddar sandwich. And how much he coveted its milkshakes, both the monthly special (peach always seemed to be in heavy rotation) and a coffee and chocolate affair known as the Jamocha shake. “Try the Jaaaaamocha!!!!!” the host would salivate each broadcast. Streeter was hailed by name as the most conscientious boss on the planet: “And that respect he shows each and every one of his employees is passed on to you, the customer!” Beatrice would tell SportsCall listeners. He’d also ask them each night to say hello to Bernie for him when they stopped by Arby’s.
But the grease de resistance of the monologues came when Beatrice started talking about Arby’s curly fries. “I don’t eat the curly fries!” Beatrice, who has a personal history of heart trouble, would always say. “I don’t eat fried foods. I just don’t. I don’t like them but…I’m told they’re quite good!”
The off-speed pitches for the fries made Beatrice’s other hardball offerings all the more effective.
“Bernie told me that people in Arby’s corporate offices had a problem saying I don’t eat the curly fries, and asked him to get me to change that,” Beatrice says. “But Bernie always defended me and told them, ‘That’s how he feels! So let him say it!’”
Longwell, who lives in McLean, says Streeter had good reason to have confidence in Beatrice’s methods, mad as they sometimes seemed.
“Sales at Arby’s restaurants had double-digit growth after 18 months [with SportsCall], and that same growth rate continued for the next nine or 10 years,” says Longwell. “Bernie always attributed it to the radio advertising, and to Ken.”
The growth in Streeter’s name recognition following Beatrice’s pitches was equally profound.
“Years ago, my husband needed an eye operation,” recalls Pat Streeter, Bernie’s wife of 51 years. “The first question from the doctor who operated on him was if he was that Bernie Streeter.”
Winston Streeter, Bernie and Pat’s eldest son, has a similar tale. “My little girl is now 15 years old,” says Winston, who oversees the family’s fleet of 29 Arby’s stores. “When she met her boyfriend’s parents for the first time, the boy’s father’s first question was, ‘Do you know Bernie Streeter?’ We got that sort of thing all the time in the restaurants. Whether people loved the commercials or just laughed at them, they got people talking, all because of Ken.”
For what would turn out to be Streeter’s last birthday, Beatrice and Longwell put together a special radio pitch that ran on WMAL. It began with Beatrice mentioning Arby’s, then turned into a promotion for Streeter the man.
Beatrice shrugs off the praise for his own contributions to Arby’s.
“I meant everything I said, about the food and about Bernie Streeter,” says Beatrice, who spoke at Streeter’s memorial service along with Longwell. “He was a very special man. Let me tell you a story: He fought his illness for a long time, but for the last several months he knew he was dying. The last time I talked to him was a week before he passed. When I was leaving, he asked me, ‘Ken, is there anything I can do for you?’ He always ended his discussions that way, all the way to the end. And he meant it. I wish I was more like him.”
Longwell left WMAL in 1990 and now works in national sales for ESPN Sports Marketing. Longwell says in his current job he often talks to potential clients about the Beatrice/Arby’s pairing to illustrate a “textbook case” of a good advertising partnership.
“I don’t know if Ken would be the guy to pitch Intel processors,” he says, “but I know he was the right guy for Arby’s.”
Beatrice still gets hints about the success of his pairing with Streeter. “The guy who does my lawn showed up at my door one day last year and yells, ‘Hey, Ken! I just got a supersize of curly fries from Arby’s! Do you want one?’” Beatrice says. “He thought that was the funniest thing ever. He knew I didn’t want one.”Dave McKenna