The History of Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s


Carl’s Jr. is a fast food chain that operates under CKE Restaurant Holdings, Inc. Hardee’s, on the other hand, is an American-based fast-food chain which also operates under CKE. Both of these fast food restaurants are successful and they have a lot of branches in many places in the present time.

Many people have noticed that Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s signs, as well as their menus look exactly alike. Some are wondering if it is owned by one person who couldn’t decide on a name, or are they rival restaurants? Well, the two restaurants are under the same company, but they have different histories. One of them started in the West and the other one in the East.

History of Carl’s Jr.

History of Carls Jr

Carl’s Jr. started from a hot dog cart on the corner of Florence and Central in Los Angeles. It was in 1941 when Carl Karcher and his wife, Margaret, borrowed $311 on their Plymouth automobile. They also added their savings of $15 to it to be able to purchase the hot dog cart.

From that cart, they sold chili dogs, hot dogs, and tamales for a dime, while a soda cost a nickel. After a few years, Carl and Margaret owned and ran four hot dog stands in Los Angeles. They moved to Anaheim, California in 1945 where they opened their first full-service restaurant which is the Carl’s Drive-In Barbecue. It was located at 1108 N. Palm St. which is now Harbor. After a year, they added hamburgers to their menu.

Karcher opened two smaller versions of Carl’s Drive-In Barbecue in 1956 and he called them Carl’s Jr. The first Carl’s Jr. was built on the former Janns Street next to St. Bonafice Catholic Church which is about a half block away from Anaheim High School in 1956. It is now the church’s Bethany Hall.  There were four Carl’s Jr. restaurants by the end of the 1950’s in Orange County, California. Carl’s younger brother named Donald F. Karcher became the new supervisor of these restaurants and he later on became the company’s president.

When the 1960’s came, Carl was operating 24 restaurants in Southern California. In 1996, the company was incorporated as Car Karcher Enterprises. And in 1968, a major expansion of the chain was launched. The menu during these times were limited for faster service such as charbroiled hamburgers, hot dogs, malts, and fries.

There were more than 100 Carl’s Jr. locations in Southern California by 1975. The company had also expanded into the northern part of the state and with this success, Carl’s Jr. built its Anaheim corporate headquarters in 1976. And in 1978, it became the first QSR chain to offer salad bars in all of its 200 locations. In 1979, their first out-of-state restaurant opened in Las Vegas. And by the end of the decade, their sales were able to exceed the $100 million mark.

From the 1980’s, Carl’s Jr. continued to expand and it had doubled its employee count in just three years, and by the end of the decade, there were 534 restaurants. However, Karcher and his family were accused of insider trading by the Securities and Exchange Commission in 1988. They agreed to a settlement with the SEC which cost them more than half a million dollars.

During the 1990’s, Carl’s Jr. chains had struggled to gain success in Arizona and Texas. This had quite diminished their hopes of expanding to other states. But later on, states such as Nevada, Oregon, and Washington proved their success. 

On October 1, 1993, Karcher was removed as chairman of the company because there was an often clash between him and the board of directors over marketing and business practices. This includes the chain’s attempt at dual branding with The Green Burrito and its new advertising campaigns. After that, the board of directors have taken a new approach in running the business. They’ve cut the menu, lowered the prices, and introduced new marketing campaigns which targeted younger urban and suburban males.

There was a new management installed in 1994, following Don Karcher’s death in 1992. The new management was headed by CEO William P. Folley II and Tom Thompson who is the President and Chief Operating Officer. It was when Carl Karcher Enterprises became a subsidiary of CKE Restaurants Holdings, Inc. In 1997, Hardees, which is a restaurant chain with 2,500 locations in the Midwest, South, and East Coast Regions, was acquired by the CKE Restaurants.

Carl’s Jr. introduced the Thickburger line with the ½ pound six-dollar burger in 2001 followed by its sister chain Hardee’s in 2003. Carl Karcher, the founder of Carl’s Jr., died on January 11, 2008 at the age of 90. He suffered from Parkinson’s disease and was being treated for pneumonia when he died in California.

From 2010, Carl’s Jr., as well as Hardee’s, introduced other different burgers including the Charbroiled Turkey Burgers. In September 2017, Poughkeepsie, New York, and Middletown Hardee’s locations were rebranded by CKE into Carl’s Jr., to focus on lunch and dinner options for a New England consumer base.

History of Hardee’s

Hardee’s was founded by Wilber Hardee on September 3, 1960. The first Hardee’s restaurant was opened in Greenville, North Carolina. When it became successful, Wilber decided to look into expanding his restaurant and opening another location. With this plan, he met with James Gardner and Leonard Rawls to discuss what he wanted to happen.

In May 1961, the first company store was opened by James Carson Gardner and Leonard Rawls in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. It was located on McDonald Street in North Church Street, which is known within the chain as building number 1. However, that location no longer exists in the present time because it was demolished in 2007 and replaced with a veteran’s park named for Jack Laughery, who is Hardee’s former chairman and military veteran.

Wilber Hardee realized that he had lost control over his namesake company when Gardner and Rawls won a controlling share of it from him in a game of poker. Because of this, Hardee sold his remaining shares to them as well. Gardner and Rawls then sold their first franchises to a small group of friends who eventually made their own companies and built a lot more franchise locations.

In 1963, Hardee’s Food Systems went public and Rawls stood as its president and Gardner as the vice president. However, Gardner had political ambitions and left the company in 1966 when he was elected to the United States House of Representatives.

In 1964, Hardee’s menu included hamburger for 15 cents, cheeseburger for 20 cents, fries for 10 cents, apple turnovers for 15 cents, milk for 12 cents, coffee for 10 cents, sodas for 15 cents each, and milkshakes for 20 cents.

By the end of the 1960’s, Hardee’s nearly had 200 restaurants that were operating in the Midwest and Southwestern U.S. It also has its first international locations in Germany. Around the same time, Hardee’s began expanding in the mid-Atlantic states such as in Southeastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey, and Delaware.

In 1972, Hardee’s purchased Sandy’s with the last of the restaurants and converted it to Hardee’s by 1979. In the mid-and-late 1970’s, Hardee’s profits grew because of its two key sandwiches which are the Big Twin and the Big Deluxe. It also purchased the Utah-based burger chain, Dee’s Drive-In in the late 1970’s.

In 1981, Hardee’s was bought by Imasco Limited which is a Canadian company. Imasco converted a lot of locations into Hardee’s restaurants. Then, a new management ran Hardee’s which cut its costs and changed the signature burger recipe. They also eliminated Hardee’s flagship menu item which is the Big Twin. The Big Deluxe on the other hand, continued to be served throughout the 1990’s.

In April 1997, the parent company of Carl’s Jr., CKE Restaurant Holdings, purchased Hardee’s from Imasco for $327 million. After this, there were more than three thousand Hardee’s outlets that were opened in 40 states and 10 foreign countries. Hardee’s headquarters was moved to St. Louis, Missouri in 2001. And in 2005, Hand-Scooped Ice Cream Shakes and Malts were introduced.

In September 2013, Hardee’s expanded to the Northeastern United States. And in April 2015, Hardee’s 300th restaurant in the Middle East was opened. Hardee’s ranked as the number 28 foodservice chain by sales in the United States through 2011, based on the Nation’s Restaurant News. Carl’s Jr. on the other hand, ranked number 37. Their combined sales ranked number 15 in 2013. In July 2015, Hardee’s announced that they would be serving The All-Natural Burger which was launched in Carl’s Jr. restaurants in December 2014.

Challenges and Adaptations

Economic challenges and industry shifts

Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s both faced financial challenges that impacted the fast-food industry. Economic downturns, commodity price fluctuations, and changes in consumer spending habits all had an impact on their operations. Furthermore, changes in the industry, such as increased competition from newer fast-casual concepts and changing consumer expectations, posed significant challenges.

Changing consumer preferences and health trends

Both brands, known for their indulgent and classic fast-food menus, faced a challenge as consumer preferences switched to healthier eating and more transparent food sourcing. As people became more concerned about their health, there was a greater demand for healthier foods, organic ingredients, and fewer artificial additives. Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s were forced to rethink their menus and adapt to changing dietary preferences as a result of this shift.

Response through menu diversification and marketing strategies

Menu Expansion: Both brands responded by expanding their menus. To appeal to health-conscious customers, they introduced healthier options such as salads, grilled chicken sandwiches, and low-calorie meals. They also changed the ingredients, focusing on quality and freshness to keep up with changing tastes.

Marketing Techniques:

Carl’s Jr.: Known for its provocative and edgy marketing campaigns, which frequently featured celebrities and memorable commercials. To entice customers, they highlighted premium ingredients and bold flavors.

Hardee’s: Marketed to regional tastes while emphasizing its Southern heritage. They promoted menu items that appealed to local tastes while gradually introducing healthier options.

Current market presence and status:

Carl’s Jr.: According to recent reports, Carl’s Jr. has a strong presence throughout the United States, particularly in the Western states. It has a strong market presence, with numerous franchises and a well-known brand image. Efforts to enter new markets and stay relevant among younger demographics are continuing.

Hardee’s: Hardee’s maintains its dominance in the Southeastern United States. Its market presence remains strong, though more regionally concentrated than national competitors. The brand has been developing strategies to expand its appeal beyond its core markets.

Both brands have been looking for ways to expand, whether through international expansion, increased digital presence, or menu innovations to adapt to changing consumer tastes.


Economic shifts, changing consumer preferences, and industry dynamics all presented challenges that Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s successfully navigated through adaptation and innovation. They expanded their menu offerings, embraced technology, and committed to sustainability while remaining true to their core offerings.

Today, these chains continue to cater to a wide range of tastes and preferences, evolving menus to include healthier options alongside their traditional indulgent fare. Their success is based on their ability to blend tradition and innovation, leaving a lasting legacy in the fast-food landscape while remaining responsive to their customers’ ever-changing needs.

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