Carl’s Jr. and Hardees are two of the top fast food chain restaurants in the US. They have a similar logo, menu and are owned by the same parent company. But it didn’t start out that way, and they are actually very different. Here are 10 differences between Carl’s Jr. and Hardees.
10. They were founded by different people
Carl’s Jr. got its start in 1941 as a hot dog food cart in Los Angeles. Founded by Carl Karcher and his wife Margaret, they purchased the hot dog cart for $326. Within a few years, Carl and Margaret operated four hot dog stands and then later, expanded to Anaheim, California to open their first full-service restaurant called Carl’s Drive-In Barbecue. They added burgers to their menu, and as the restaurant became successful, Carl expanded the business by opening two smaller versions of the restaurant named Carl’s Jr. and hence the name was born. Hardee’s was founded almost twenty years later in 1960 by Wilber Hardee in Greenville, North Carolina. He hooked up with James Gardner and Leonard Rawls as investors in his business and in 1961 another location opened in Rocky Mountain, NC. Rumor has it, Wilbur Hardee lost a poker game and Gardner and Rawls got a controlling share of the company. After realizing he had lost control over his namesake company, Hardee sold his remaining shares to them as well. It was only later in 1997 that Carl Karcher Enterprises -CKE- purchased Hardee’s Brand from a Canadian based company.
9. Menus are different
Hardee’s is more breakfast-oriented, with a few cross-over items that cater specifically to a Southern clientele. Patrons of Carl’s Jr. will tell you that there’s no comparison between the two, and vice versa. But it was Hardee’s who came up with the idea for the “Made from Scratch Biscuits”. It all started with two brothers, Mayo and Nick Boddie when they opened their Hardee’s franchise in 1962 in Fayetteville, NC. Eventually they expanded into Virginia, where they introduced the homemade biscuits. The idea stuck and became very popular, and now you can find the biscuits on both menus. But Hardee’s is the only one to serve a Southern favorite, the crispy buttermilk fried chicken biscuit, drizzled with real honey butter and the Fried Steak Biscuit. How Southern can you get! Carl’s Jr. has some of the Classic Southern favorites on their menu as well, including the biscuits and gravy. But their main focus for breakfast are the Breakfast Burritos and Grilled Cheese Sandwiches. They also serve hamburgers for breakfast due to popular demand.
8. The Canuck Curse
Hardee’s does not exist in Canada due to a trademark dispute and the similarity to the name of a popular Canadian burger chain called Harvey’s. The ironic thing is that Hardee’s was purchased by a Canadian company called Imasco in 1981. CKE bought back Hardee’s from Imasco for $327 million in 1997. As a result, CKE was prohibited from using the Hardee’s brand in Canada, but free to use the Carl’s Jr. name. Carl’s Jr. Canada is the Canadian expansion of the Carl’s Jr. brand. The first Carl’s Jr. in Canada opened in 2011, in Kelowna, B.C. but closed within 5 years. Further expansion in other areas of Canada also proved fruitless. East Coast locations in Ontario all closed within a year of opening in 2015. They had intended to open 30 locations within six years, but it never materialized. Needless to say, Carl Jr. struggles to survive in Canada.
7. The Burrito War
Both restaurants serve different types of burritos on their menu. Carl Jr’s serves a brand under the Green Burritos name, and Hardee’s serves Red burritos. It’s more of a Trademark thing rather than an actual burritos color thing. Did you know that “Green Burrito” is a US fast food Tex-Mex restaurant chain run by CKE? Originally, Green Burrito was an independent restaurant chain which was acquired by CKE in 2001. They decided to add the Green Burrito dual-branding to many of the Carl’s Jr. restaurants to create a more Mexican themed menu. CKE later introduced the identical Red Burrito for its Hardees’ chain to differentiate them, which primarily serves the red states in the Midwest and Southern, US. Hardee’s only sells three types of burritos, one being the Loaded Breakfast Burrito, three types of Tacos, Quesadillas and Nachos. The menu is limited in comparison to Carl’s Jr, where burritos, tacos, taquitos and quesadillas are a staple on the menu.
6. Carl’s Jr is the healthier choice
Carl’s Jr serves healthier food, especially when it comes to salad. The West Coast is known for its healthy local cuisine, with emphasis on fresh, light and healthy living. Many health food crazes and diet fads come out of California. Carl’s Jr. is no exception. They serve a healthy charbroiled chicken salad, or just a plain salad made with iceberg lettuce, red onion, four cheese blends, croutons and your choice of house, balsamic vinaigrette or low-fat dressing. They also go one step further and serve things like fried zucchini, and even lettuce wrapped Thickburgers, made with Angus Beef, topped with Guacamole. Hardee’s serves lots of comfort foods that are high in calories. It’s all about decadence: jumbo chili dogs, fried chicken and tenders, crispy curly fries, sweet tea, quesadillas and nachos and lots of cheese. The motto is the bigger, the better. Hardee’s only serves one type of salad, the taco salad, and caters mostly to the Southern palate of rich foods. It does have the “Better for You” options to customize, but the menu varies considerably. Though, Carl’s Jr. does take the cake when it comes to the dessert menu. Hardee’s dessert options are pretty low key, serving only apple turnovers and chocolate chip cookies. Whereas Carl’s Jr. also serves Cheesecake and Chocolate Cake. You’ve got to balance out that healthy salad with something, right?
5. Advertising Makes all the difference
Carl’s Jr. is a gutsier and more in your face type of brand. They aim their advertising towards younger people who may visit Carl’s Jr. for late night munchies or early morning breakfast after a night of partying. The ads are risqué, pairing their food with scantily clad models and celebrity endorsements from the likes of Paris Hilton. A recent, supposedly toned-down commercial, has sexy undertones with Matthew McConaughey’s Southern Texan drawl providing the voiceover promoting Carl’s Jr.’s new Western Bacon Cheeseburger. Carl’s Jr. is not afraid of getting weird and likes getting lots of backlash – like a rebellious teenager. Their menu also reflects that with items like jalapeno poppers and the super spicy, fiery “El Diablo” burger meant to entice with devilish innuendos. Hardee’s has always been the more traditional, wholesome, and low key of the two restaurants. They have kept southern accents throughout their advertising for years now. Their advertising tends to be softer, cleaner, and aimed at embracing Americana. Hardee’s clientele are usually college kids obsessed with sports and country music and it is reflected in their ads. Celebrity endorsements are with the likes of Charles Esten, star of Nashville. He is barely recognizable dressed as Carl Hardee Sr. in a beard, sitting at a barbeque restaurant. When the cook in the kitchen gets turned down by the owner for his idea of taking the bone out of the ribs and putting the meat into a sandwich, Esten and his companion decide to take the million-dollar idea for themselves. It’s a very different brand of advertisement.
4. Sibling Rivalry, Separation and Divorce
Everyone is used to family squabbles and these two are no different. Like Yin and Yang, they look the same, because they are from the same family, but they need to have different identities in order to survive. It makes sense, in an era of merger and acquisitions, differentiation is a survival tactic. CKE wants to appeal to a wider audience. Hardee’s knows that you can’t please all the people all the time, but can please some of them most of the time. Both Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s appeal to different demographics and clientele. They understand the regional divide between the two brands. In the 90s, in an effort to grow and have a bigger presence in the fast food industry, they joined forces. Today they are now deliberately drifting apart, in an effort to continue growing separately and to make each brand stronger. Survival of the fittest seems to be the motto here. Not sure who will win.
3. Innovation vs. Appeal
Carl’s Jr’s is older and more financially successful than Hardee’s. By the mid 70’s, there were more than 200 Carl’s Jr. locations in California, and the company expanded north. It became the first fast food restaurant chain to offer salad bars in all locations. By the end of the 80’s, sales exceeded $480 million dollars with 534 locations. The company became publicly held under the banner of CKE. The menu expanded and they introduced automation and innovation with self-service soda fountains and they were one of the first chains to introduce a debit card payment system. They were accused of insider trading and had to pay hefty fines. Scandal after scandal followed them, but they kept buying out other franchises and continued growing. Hardee’s went public in 1963. At the time, Rawls and Gardner mostly sold their first franchises to friends and acquaintances. Their growth was slower and steadier. Rawls remained as president but Gardner left the company to pursue political ambitions three years later. They expanded a little here and there and had some growth in the 70’s with some popular menu items, and some other fast food acquisitions, but were eventually gobbled up by Imasco in 1981. Then in 1997, they were taken over by CKE, but according to industry reports Hardee’s is ranked the 34th largest national chain ahead of Carl Jr’s who is 40th in ranking. Slow and steady wins the race.
2. West Coast vs. South East
It remains true that there seems to always be a battle between East and West Coast or the North and the South. In this case, it’s more of a silent war between patrons of these two franchises who seem to battle it out. The battle is real and has been in effect for decades. One thing is for sure, both are distinct and successful in their own right. Because no matter where you go across the USA, you can find both of these restaurant chains. So, stop the fussing and fighting my friends, the food may not be exactly the same, but you can find those delicious Made from Scratch biscuits no matter where you travel. Hardee’s even started the Tastes Like America campaign with music by Big Wet last year. They have even restored and brought back the 1976 logo, with the Happy Star. Hardee’s also has many International franchises located in the Middle East and Asia. In the Middle East, the Hardee’s menu does not include pork and beef is certified Halal due to religious and cultural norms.
CKE is the parent company and as such is the decision maker when it comes to how each restaurant is represented. They are always looking for new products to sell at Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s franchises. In 2018 they introduced the Western Bacon Cheeseburger and this year Carl’s Jr.’s latest venture is a vegan burger called “The Beyond Famous Burger”. They have partnered with California-based Beyond Meat to create a meatless burger being offered in over 1,000 Carl’s Jr. restaurants. This is one of the biggest restaurant deals for Beyond Meat so far, even though they are really popular on their own. Will the “Beyond Famous Burger” become the answer to eating out without feeling guilty? In a culture where so many of us are turning towards better food sources with vegan diets, wholesome food, and sustainable products, this is another big plus. This burger will be a true industry game changer, free of GMO’s, gluten and soy, with lower saturated fats than regular beef – it’s a perfect way to offer healthier meals. No mention if Hardee’s will follow suit. They seem to like their artery clogging Southern meal options, and who could blame them. We all need comfort food too.