Carl's Jr. has been serving up charbroiled hamburgers across the west and southwest for 60 some years, and what started as a small-time hot dog stand has now expanded across the country.
1. IT GOT ITS START AS A HOT DOG STAND IN LOS ANGELES.
In 1941, Carl Karcher was a truck driver who lived in Los Angeles with his wife, Margaret. Because his neighborhood had a bunch of successful hot dog stands, he wanted to get in on the action. He and Margaret used all their savings—$15—and took a loan out against their car to buy a pushcart hot dog stand. Their stand was a hit, so the Karchers soon opened three more hot dog stands in southern California.
2. THE "JUNIOR" IN CARL'S JR. DOESN'T MEAN WHAT YOU MIGHT THINK IT MEANS.
With four successful hot dog stands under his belt, Karcher opened a sit-down, full-service restaurant in Anaheim in 1945. Named Carl’s Drive-In Barbecue, the restaurant expanded upon their usual hot dogs by also selling hamburgers. In 1956, Karcher opened the first two "mini" Carl’s restaurants, and used the "Jr." designation to indicate they were smaller, express versions of his larger namesake location, which would offer hamburgers and quick service. (Fun fact: There is no Carl Karcher Jr., though Carl and Margaret did have a son named Carl.)
3. ATTEMPTED CARL'S JR. MEXICAN FOOD AND COFFEE SPIN-OFFS ENDED IN FAILURE.
Karcher wasn’t content with just Carl’s Jr.—he wanted to expand his fast-food empire. He created his own corporation in 1964, which he called Carl Karcher Enterprises, Inc. (CKE). In 1972, CKE opened a Mexican fast-food chain spin-off, amusingly called Taco de Carlos. To differentiate itself from Taco Bell, Taco de Carlos served place-specific food like a California Burrito, as well as Carl’s Jr. hamburgers. Unfortunately, Taco de Carlos was not a success, and CKE sold the 17 locations in the early 1980s. Karcher also tried and failed in the coffee business with a Scottish-themed chain called Scot’s Coffee Shops, where waitresses wore plaid skirts as they served coffee and food [PDF].
4. CARL'S JR. BOUGHT HARDEE'S IN 1997, WHICH IS WHY THE CHAINS HAVE SIMILAR LOOKS.
CKE Restaurants, which is still based in California, is the parent company of restaurant chains Carl’s Jr., Hardee’s, Green Burrito, and Red Burrito. In 1997, CKE Restaurants acquired Hardee’s, the fast-food chain predominantly in the Midwest, Mid-Atlantic, and Southeast, for $327 million. Hardee’s has kept its name and some of its menu items, but it now has the same branding, logo, advertising, and design as Carl’s Jr.
Carl’s Jr. has locations in the West and Southwest, and its menu reflects its geography. Although Carl’s Jr. does sell Hardee's Southern style biscuits for breakfast, typical western and southwestern lunch and dinner items include the Double Western Bacon Cheeseburger, Tex Mex Thickburger, and burritos. After trying and failing to establish Carl’s Jr. in Texas in the 1980s and 1990s, CKE Restaurants has been focusing on Texas, specifically Dallas/Fort Worth and Houston, as its top growth market since 2009.
5. AFTER TAKING CARL'S JR. PUBLIC, KARCHER GOT IN TROUBLE FOR INSIDER TRADING.
In 1981, Karcher took CKE public, and by the end of the decade, the Securities and Exchange Commission was accusing him of insider trading. The SEC charged Karcher in 1988 with telling six members of his family to sell their CKE shares right before the stock took a nosedive. The next year, Carl and the Karcher family paid $664,000 plus additional fines to the SEC as part of a settlement. In 1993, Karcher was ousted as CEO after he disagreed with the CKE Board of Directors about marketing and strategy.
6. KARCHER HAD AN ENORMOUS FAMILY.
When he died from Parkinson's disease in 2008, Carl was almost 91 years old and left behind a huge family. He and Margaret had 12 children, 51 grandchildren, and 45 great-grandchildren! His large family was a byproduct of his strong Catholic faith—he was known to attend mass every morning at St. Boniface Catholic Church, the same church where he and Margaret married in 1939. At CKE headquarters, he displayed a statue of St. Francis of Assisi, and he recited a prayer before company meetings.
7. THOSE FAMOUS CARL'S JR. ADS ARE HEAVILY CRITICIZED FOR BEING MISOGYNISTIC.
In 2005, Carl’s Jr. featured Paris Hilton in a commercial for the Spicy BBQ Burger, in which she seductively washed an expensive sports car, wore a revealing swimsuit, and provocatively ate a hamburger. Parent advocacy groups accused the ad of being soft-core porn, but Carl’s Jr.’s specially created website for the ad got so many hits that the site crashed. Since then, Carl’s Jr. has paid other female models and celebrities to appear in ads, such as Padma Lakshmi, Heidi Klum, Kim Kardashian, and Sports Illustrated models Kate Upton and Hannah Ferguson. Critics continue to condemn Carl’s Jr. for using sex and exploiting women to sell hamburgers, but it doesn't seem like they're going to change their strategy anytime soon.
8. CARL'S JR. HAMBURGERS PAIR SURPRISINGLY WELL WITH EXPENSIVE WINES.
In 2006, Carl's Jr. partnered with the Palms Casino in Las Vegas to show that Carl’s Jr. hamburgers were more high-end and lavish than typical fast food. The partnership resulted in a Combo Meal, available only at the Palms hotel, consisting of a Carl’s Jr. Six Dollar Burger, fries, and a $6000 bottle of French Bordeaux. Carl’s Jr. also partnered with Wally’s Wine & Spirits to curate a list of recommended wine pairings: For example, the Jalapeño Six Dollar Burger goes well with Champagne, the Bacon Swiss Crispy Chicken Sandwich with Pinot Noir, and the Charbroiled Chicken Club Sandwich with Chardonnay.
9. CARL'S JR. HAD A FOOD TRUCK BEFORE FOOD TRUCKS WERE SUPER TRENDY.
Before food trucks became as popular as they are today, Carl’s Jr. had its own restaurant on wheels called Star Diner. In 2004, Star Diner went on a trip from California to Utah to serve hamburgers, fries, and drinks at the University of Utah vs. Texas football tailgate party. Today, the mobile Carl’s Jr. serves food at large events, fundraisers, street fairs, and sports events.