Carl Karcher borrowed $311 against his car and used up his entire savings of $15 to open a hot dog stand in 1941. All these years later that hot dog cart is now a multi-million dollar enterprise consisting of over 3,000 stores. Carl’s Jr. set a lot of trends out there in fast food land, including the first place where you paid for your food and then got it, which is the industry standard today.
Carl’s Jr. is pretty open and honest, but there are still some things they’d rather keep under their giant gold star for safekeeping.
It’s not the same has Hardee’s, but it is
Ask anyone on the West Coast the difference between Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s, and they’ll give you an earful. You’ll hear “they’re nothing alike,” despite sharing advertising nationally and the same website menu. So is this a branding thing, or is there a difference?
Carl’s Jr. acquired Hardee’s in 1997 for $327 million, and slowly introduced Carl’s Jr. food into Hardee’s. It was an effort to expand but at the same time keep the store name the same, as to not run off loyal Hardee’s customers. There are some differences — most notably the fact that Carl’s Jr. has salads, and Hardee’s, not so much. Carl’s Jr. slowly eradicated some Hardee’s items, like the roast beef sandwich (which was actually pretty good!), making them even more similar. The two restaurants with one owner (CKE is the parent group) do not compete with each other; they split the nation in two with those poor slobs on the Upper East Coast getting neither brand.
If you really want to do your own taste test, the closest a Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. are to each other is about 30 miles as the crow flies. It will take about an hour to drive between the two locations; from just inside the line in Arkansas (Hardee’s) to Tahlequah, Oklahoma
Hardee’s founder busted out early
Both Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s began as family businesses. Wilbur Hardee opened Hardee’s in 1960 after seeing McDonald’s brisk business in North Carolina and thinking he could do the same. The original Hardee’s did very well and Wilbur saw a Golden Arches-like expansion in his future. He took on partner Leonard Rawls to help expand, and that led to his friend Jim Gardner joining the team. The original deal said each man had equal say on the board in the direction of Hardee’s — despite being named for Wilbur. That led to Gardner and Rawls out-voting Hardee two-to-one on everything, so he sold out early in the 1960s.
That was the story — Wilbur just sold out because the other guys didn’t like his ideas — until Hardee self-published a book in 2000.