How Carl’s Jr. & Hardee’s Became One Giant Burger Chain With Two Names

Image courtesy of company websites

Does a fast food chain by any other name smell as… burger-like? Even though Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s now share (almost) the same menu, the same graphic design elements in their branding, and the same parent company, they still retain their original names and there is virtually no geographic overlap of the two brands. While the only significant difference between Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s might be their names, for more than 30 years the two companies were worlds apart.

Before CKE Restaurants Inc. brought the companies together in the late ’90s, Carl Karcher and Wilber Hardee dreamed and cultivated their respective fast food dynasties in different eras for varying reasons and on separate coasts.

Carl’s Jr.: From A Hot Dog Cart To Dotting The West Coast

Starting on the Pacific coast in 1941 – nearly 20 years before future brother-company Hardee’s – Carl and Margaret Karcher borrowed $311 against their car. Together with the $15 they had in savings, the couple spent $325 to enter the fast food business with the purchase of a hot dog cart.

The first day of business, the couple’s sales totaled $14.75, CKE reports in its company history.

Soon after, business began to outpace the capacity of the single cart operating in Anaheim, CA, and the Karcher’s opened three additional carts.

Not quite five years after the cart first opened for business, in 1945, the first stand-alone restaurant – called Carl’s Drive-In Barbeque – opened in Anaheim.

According to the book Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, the Karcher’s split the work at the new restaurant, with Carl cooking, Margaret managing the cash register and carhops serving the meals.

Business soared at Carl’s Drive-In Barbeque following World War II, but a new hamburger joint was booming not far away. With the rise of McDonald’s, Karcher knew he needed to revamp his business plans to keep up with the competition.

By 1956, Karcher had opened the first two Carl’s Jr. restaurants, a smaller version of the company’s original drive-in. Starting in the 1960s, the new restaurants featured quick serve hamburgers, table service, music and the now iconic bright yellow five-pointed Happy Star.

The new Carl’s Jr. also featured a first, according to CKE: a drive-thru window.

In 1964, Carl incorporated into Carl Karcher Enterprises (CKE Restaurants) and continued to build his brand. But with other fast food brands in Southern California, like McDonald’s and Taco Bell, gaining popularity, Karcher began looking to new ventures.

According to Fast Food Nation, Karcher opened several Carl’s Whistle Stops, a railway-themed restaurant, featuring employees dressed as railroad workers, and electric trains shuttling orders to the kitchen. By 1966, the three restaurants were converted to Carl’s Jr. locations.

Another brand from Karcher failed to catch on, the Scot’s coffee shops, where servers wore plaid skirts.

While those ventures couldn’t find an audience, Carl’s Jr. restaurants continued popping up along the coast of California, and by 1976 Karcher Enterprises owned one of the largest fast food chains in the U.S., employing more than 5,000 employees.

The 1980s brought much change to the chain, with higher priced meals and expansions into new states, a move made possible by the company’s first franchisees.

Not long after, Carl’s Jr. began dual-branding restaurants with quick-service Mexican food company Green Burrito. But the company’s biggest expansion wouldn’t come until the late ’90s.

Hardee’s: Charring The Competition On The East Coast

While Carl Karcher was in the midst of building his empire in California, Wilber Hardee’s dream of a fast food empire was just beginning in Greenville, NC, in 1960.

Hardee had already opened and operated a series of restaurants and inns, including the Do Drop Inn and Silo Restaurant, in the Greenville area, when he got the idea for a quick-serve burger joint after visiting the state’s first McDonald’s.

“What impressed me was, I set out in front there and saw they took in $168 in one hour,” Hardee told author Jerry Bledsoe. “That was big money then… on 15-cent hamburgers.”

Soon he was able to construct a smaller version of the McDonald’s restaurant that he called Hardee’s Drive-In. The new stores were identifiable by their hexagonal designs.

To further set himself apart from the competition, Hardee used char-grills to give his burgers more flavor, and soon the “charco-broiled” burgers became the hottest item was the restaurant’s quick service menu.

Months after the first location opened, two entrepreneurs, Leonard Rawls and Jim Gardner, approached Hardee about a partnership to create Hardee’s Drive-Ins, Inc., according to the North Carolina History Project.

While the new concept quickly caught on and the partners looked to expand from their first location, Wilber Hardee made the decision to leave the partnership, and sold his half of the company to Rawls and Gardner.

While there are varying stories about why Hardee stepped away from his growing fast food empire, he told Our State magazine that ““I was stupid. That’s what I was. You know how it is — you make mistakes.”

Hardee went on to try his hand at a few other food industry ventures, while the company that bore his name continued to gain popularity.

At the end of the ’60s, the company incorporated into Hardee’s Food Systems and successfully began franchising the restaurant. In all, the corporation operated nearly 200 restaurants in the Midwest and Southwestern U.S., as well as its first international locations in Germany.

The ’70s brought more change for the chain, with the introduction of “made from scratch” biscuits and the opening of the 1,000th restaurant.

According to a 1979 article from The Associated Press, Hardee’s parent company Spartan Food Systems merged with Kansas-basedTrans World Corp. – the company behind TWA. The deal made Spartan, which at the time operated restaurants under the Hardee’s and Quincy’s brand, a subsidiary of TWA.

In 1981, Imasco — a Canadian company that also owned tobacco brands, and drug stores — acquired Hardee’s. The next year — as we recently told you in our rundown of real-life brands featured on Mad Men — Imasco purchased the Burger Chef chain and converted many of them into Hardee’s locations.

But by the late ’90s the company was struggling to keep pace with competitors, setting itself up for its biggest change to date.

Similar But Not Quite The Same

Image courtesy of Morton Fox

With more than 2,500 locations in the Midwest, South and East Coast regions, Hardee’s was a prime target for purchase, and that’s what happened in 1997 when CKE Restaurants came knocking.

According to a WRLA-TV report from 1997, CKE Restaurants paid $327 million for Hardee’s — by then the fourth-largest fast food chain in the nation.

The combination, which made Hardee’s a subsidiary of CKE, was a mutually beneficial deal, giving Carl’s Jr. a better breakfast menu, while strengthening Hardee’s lunch and dinner fare.

In all, the merger crated a chain with 3,828 restaurants, of which 3,152 were Hardee’s and 676 were Carl’s Jr locations, mostly located in California.

Over the next several years, many Hardee’s restaurants were converted to Carl’s Jr., while some other locations were closed for an array of reasons including dwindling sales.

The evolution of the chains continued into the 2000s. Hardee’s added Thickburgers and all the stores adopted what is now known as Star Hardee’s, a take on Happy Star.

A map shows the locations of Hardee's (red) and Carl's Jr. (yellow) locations around the country.   wikipedia user Gage

A map shows the locations of Hardee’s (red) and Carl’s Jr. (yellow) locations around the country.
wikipedia user Gage

While the two fast food joints are clearly related in their branding, their menus continue to showcase their differences. For example, Hardee’s doesn’t serve salads, while Carl’s Jr. has the leafy greens on its menu.

But maybe the biggest difference between the chains is their location.

Carl’s Jr. continues to be located on the West Coast and Southwest states, serving more urban areas, while Hardee’s maintains residency in the Midwest, Southeast and now the Mid-Atlantic, focused on serving less densely populated areas in those regions.

According to the Tumblr maysbynik, the two brands generally keep a fair amount of distance between their locations. The closest they come is about 30 miles apart in the area around Oklahoma and Arkansas.

Today, CKE reports that the Carls Jr./Hardee’s brands employ more than 30,000 workers at 3,036 locations in 43 states an in 13 countries. Of those locations Hardee’s continues to have the upper hand with nearly 1,915 locations, while Carl’s Jr. operates 1,121 stores.