If you’re in the South, Southeast, or Midwest, you’ve probably heard of Hardee's. The fast-food chain is famous for its biscuits, thickburgers, and association with Carl’s Jr. (they’ve been owned by the same parent company since 1997).
1. WILBER HARDEE WORKED A LOT OF ODD JOBS BEFORE STARTING HARDEE'S.
Wilber Hardee, the founder of Hardee’s, was born in rural North Carolina in 1918. After growing up on his family’s corn and tobacco farm, he yearned to travel and explore the world. During the Great Depression, he worked as a dishwasher and soda fountain clerk in Miami, earning $4.50 per week. He then rode freight trains around the country, playing his guitar and sleeping with hobos near the train tracks. After visiting New Orleans and Washington, D.C., he worked in North Carolina and Virginia in bowling alleys and a pool hall.
2. HE ACHIEVED LOCAL SUCCESS AS A MUSICIAN BEFORE FIGHTING IN WWII.
In 1937, Hardee was making money as a working musician, playing his guitar at square dances. His band, The Tobacco Ramblers, was popular locally and appeared on WEED, the major radio station in Rocky Mount, N.C. Hardee admitted in his autobiography that he drank a lot of alcohol and became "something of a ladies’ man, going out with different girls frequently" during his time as a musician. To supplement his income, he collected and sold scrap metal. After Japan’s attack at Pearl Harbor, Hardee joined the U.S. Navy to fight in World War II.
3. HARDEE CONSCIOUSLY EMULATED MCDONALD'S…
After WWII, Hardee opened and ran restaurants and inns in North Carolina, with names like the Do Drop Inn, Port Terminal Inn, and the Silo Restaurant. Inspired by how much money the McDonald’s in North Carolina made just by selling 15-cent hamburgers, Wilber opened Hardee’s Drive-In in Greenville, N.C. in September of 1960. He admitted that Hardee’s, a quick-service restaurant that also sold 15-cent hamburgers, was largely a copy of McDonald’s.
4. …BUT HIS HEXAGONAL CHARCOAL-BROILED HAMBURGERS SET HARDEE'S APART FROM THE COMPETITION.
Wilber distinguished Hardee’s from McDonald’s (and other fast-food hamburger restaurants) by designing the Hardee’s buildings in a hexagonal shape with a pointed roof. Some Hardee’s burger patties were also hexagonal rather than round. Food-wise, he introduced “charco-broiled” burgers, which were cooked on charcoal broilers. These burgers reportedly tasted juicier and smokier than other burgers due to the cooking process.
5. AN UNLUCKY POKER GAME ENDED WILBER'S BUSINESS OWNERSHIP.
In 1961, Hardee joined forces with a businessman, J. Leonard Rawls, and a salesman, Jim Gardner. The three men became partners, planning to open Hardee’s locations across the south, but in his autobiography, Hardee calls himself a fool for believing that they were honorable businessmen. In 1963, Wilber was drinking and playing poker with his partners. He lost the card game—and lost his controlling stake in his company. After he realized that Rawls and Gardner now owned 51% of Hardee’s, Wilber sold his remaining 49% to them for $37,000, a decision he later called a stupid mistake.
6. MAMA CASS ELLIOT SANG A POPULAR HARDEE'S JINGLE.
In 1973, the singer Cass Elliot of The Mamas & The Papas recorded a popular jingle for Hardee’s to advertise the chain’s "charco-broiled" burgers. In the jingle, Mama Cass sings that she was eating lobster tails and caviar at a fancy party, but she had Hardee’s on her mind. The catchy slogan at the end of the song urged everyone to “Hurry on down to Hardee’s.” And that wasn't the chain's only musical commercial. In 1970, they rewrote the words to "Hello, Dolly!" and staged their own high-energy ode to the charbroiled favorites.
7. THE CALIFORNIA RAISINS HELPED ADVERTISE HARDEE'S CINNAMON RAISIN BISCUITS.
In 1978, Hardee’s began offering biscuits on their breakfast menu. Diners could order their biscuits with sausage, ham, bacon, eggs, or cheese. The fictional band the California Raisins partnered with Hardee’s for commercials in the 1980s, with Hardee’s also running a promotion giving California Raisins figurines to diners. Biscuits became a mainstay of Hardee’s menu, but when the cinnamon raisin biscuit was discontinued in 2002, customers were not happy. Hardee’s brought back the biscuit the next year.
8. HARDEE'S COMPETED WITH KFC OVER FRIED CHICKEN AND ARBY'S OVER ROAST BEEF.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Hardee’s locations proliferated as more and more franchise stores opened. In the early 1990s, some Hardee’s locations experimented with their food offerings in order to stay competitive. To compete with Kentucky Fried Chicken and Arby’s, Hardee’s sold fried chicken and roast beef sandwiches, respectively. And though some Hardee’s locations in the south still sell these items, most have abandoned them.
9. CARL'S JR. BOUGHT HARDEE'S IN 1997…
In 1997, CKE Restaurants, the parent company of the California-based Carl's Jr. burger chain, bought Hardee’s for $327 million. With over 2500 locations, Hardee’s was the fourth biggest fast food chain in America. After the acquisition, CKE gradually merged aspects of Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr., combining their branding and parts of their menus. For the most part, though, Carl’s Jr. kept its West Coast and Southwest presence, and Hardee’s maintained its locations in the Midwest and Southeast.
10. …BUT DEBATE CONTINUES ABOUT HARDEE'S DISTINCT IDENTITY SINCE THE ACQUISITION.
Today, Hardee’s has the same branding (logo, website design, and marketing campaigns) as Carl’s Jr. Despite these similarities, customers argue that the two chains are hardly interchangeable: the Hardee’s menu is still more inspired by its southern food roots while Carl's Jr. has southwestern offerings like an El Diablo burger. Both chains sell Thickburgers and biscuits, but Hardee’s is more focused on breakfast than on lunch and dinner. Either way, odds of having a choice between which burger joint you'll hit are low: Oklahoma and Wyoming are the only two states which have both Hardee's and Carl's Jr. locations.