Until recently, Arby’s might reasonably have brought to mind rest stops on childhood road trips, or maybe curly fries. But the only time I ever think about Arby’s nowadays is in relation to a ubiquitous internet joke: “Sir, this is an Arby’s.” It’s a kind of stock response to any outré statement or rant, often deployed on Twitter, where outré statements and rants abound, to take them out of context and dunk on their perceived absurdity. Sometimes, the particulars change but the meaning stays the same: “Ma’am, this is a Wendy’s” is also a common refrain.
This punchline has existed since at least 2013, according to the meme historians at Know Your Meme, but it’s found particular purchase in the Trump era, a time in which reasonable people frequently find themselves asking, “What is that person even talking about?” Which is basically what this phrase amounts to. Many—nay, most—tweets and statements from President Donald Trump lend themselves to an Arby’s response. “Incredible number just out, 7,036,000 job openings. Astonishing—it’s all working!”? Sir, this is a Wendy’s. “I have people jumping out of their seats screaming questions at me”? Sir, this is an Arby’s. It’s a useful way to point out just how surreal these times we find ourselves in really are.
As the meme has grown more pervasive, I’ve wondered if anyone who works at Arby’s or Wendy’s has feelings about their workplaces being collateral in a long-running gag. I reached out to both brands via email. Arby’s was a good sport and sent along the following boilerplate: “Clearly, ‘Sir, this is an Arby’s’ has taken on a life of its own since debuting on Twitter in 2013. It was started by fans and grew organically. We have been laughing along ever since, and can’t wait to see what happens with it in the future.” Wendy’s didn’t answer me, but it’s aware of the joke, or at least its famously screwy Twitter account is.
I decided to seek some sources on the front lines. There are only two Arby’s locations on the island of Manhattan, and until recently, I had never had occasion to visit either one. On a recent weekday afternoon, I set out for Arby’s on 23rd Street with a plan to hit a nearby Wendy’s afterward, determined to get some answers and willing, because I mean I was there anyway, to eat some fried food.
There was no line at Arby’s, so after I ordered some Oreo bites, I asked the woman at the counter, who looked to be in her late teens or early 20s, if she knew about “Sir, this is an Arby’s.” She emphatically did not, but she seemed amused enough at the idea to entertain my questions. This is when I realized how difficult—and embarrassing—it is to explain a meme out loud. I showed her my phone, where I’d left Twitter open to a bunch of “Sir, this is an Arby’s” tweets. She didn’t seem to get it, but she offered generously, “It may be funny if you understand it?” I scurried off to wait for my Oreo bites.
I decided to pivot to asking Arby’s customers about the meme. For the most part, this went about as well as my first conversation did. I talked to half a dozen people, aiming for anyone who looked under 40—sorry, Gen X internet scholars—and none had heard of “Sir, this is an Arby’s.” At an Arby’s! I decided to lead by asking people if they were on Twitter. This didn’t go much better: I had known that pretty much no one uses Twitter, but damn, no one uses Twitter.
Finally, I found three guys, sitting together at the front of the restaurant, who put me out of my misery. No, they didn’t use Twitter, but one of them had heard of “Sir, this is an Arby’s” elsewhere on the internet. Edward, a 19-year-old student at Baruch College, attempted to explain the joke to his friends. It’s for “when someone is saying something wild,” he said, confirming my theory that kids say wild instead of crazy now: “ ‘What you’re doing here is ridiculous. We’re all calm here.’ ” The other two seemed to get it. I asked why he thought Arby’s in particular was part of the joke. “Arby’s is in this middle ground between McDonald’s and Shake Shack,” Edward mused: not as upscale as the latter, but not as basic as the former. I told the group that some versions of the joke use Wendy’s instead, but they thought Arby’s worked better because it’s more niche. This reminded Edward that he knew Wendy’s had an “aggressive” social media presence, something he’d heard about “literally on the news.” He wondered out loud if the memes could be branding ruses.
The whole time I was in the restaurant, I didn’t encounter anyone ranting or anyone who needed to be told they were in an Arby’s. They all seemed pretty well aware. I finished my Oreo bites and headed toward the Wendy’s on 14th Street.
At Wendy’s, I got in line to order chicken nuggets, but a rush had set in, and the employees hustling around behind the counter seemed to be in no position to answer my questions about an internet joke. The customers were not much better. It took talking to about 10 people at Wendy’s before I found one who had any idea what I was talking about—but he, a 22-year-old student named James, had actually seen the joke on Twitter. Score! So there we were, talking about “Ma’am, this is a Wendy’s” at an actual Wendy’s, and for a split second, I could appreciate the weird beauty of that, despite being annoyed at the thought that this scenario could somehow lead to some hypothetical person calling me “ma’am,” which I would not appreciate.
James successfully explained the joke back to me but said he himself had never used it on Twitter. “I usually just reply with GIFs,” he said. Sensible. For his part, he thought the joke worked much better with Wendy’s than it did with Arby’s, “because it’s more well-known,” and he was also aware of antics from Wendy’s on Twitter. Granted, it’s a small sample size, but he was the second young man who preferred a version of a joke that made fun of an eating establishment that he then chose to patronize—maybe it’s true that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, or bad memes?
Once again, no one seemed like they were on a crazy rant or needed to be made aware of their location. Could it be the idea of the ranting fast-food crank is something that mostly exists for joke purposes? Hmm. I could only conclude that if anyone was a ranting fast-food crank in this situation, it was me.