While you may have never eaten at a Carls Jr. it’s safe to say you’re most likely familiar with the burger fast-food chain that is known for it’s commercials that feature scantily clad women (famous or otherwise) eating their delicious, sexy burgers. Believe it or not, those ads (which haven’t aged well in the #MeToo era) represent a chain that was founded by a family back during World War II, by Margaret Karcher and her husband, whose name escapes me at the moment. Oh yeah, his name was Carl (whether or not he’s a junior is still a closely guarded industry secret). So, as part of our ongoing deep dives into all things fast-food, let’s take a glimpse at the top ten things you might not know about Carls Jr., the restaurant that Paris Hilton endorsed at the height of her… Fame? Infamy? Famfamy? Either way, if you’ve never had the luxury of eating at a Carls Jr. you’ll at least get a general idea on what you’re missing by the end of this article!
10. It Started Out as a Hot Dog Stand
If you’ve learned anything from our fast-food series it’s that a lot of the chains that exist today were much different when they originally started. Because fast food restaurants (or hamburgers, really) didn’t exist until 1916-ish, there weren’t really any places for people to sit down with their family to eat processed meat at discounted prices. Because of that most hamburger restaurants we know and love today like White Castle actually started out as hamburger stands, a place where you could order burgers by the sack full but that didn’t have anywhere for you to sit and enjoy that 5-cent burger. Carl’s Jr. is no different in that regard except for the fact that the company that would eventually become Carls Jr. actually got it’s start as a hot-dog stand in Los Angeles. As the intro implied the company began when a truck driver named Carl Karcher and his wife, Margaret, realized that his neighborhood had a ton of really successful hot dog stands and so he left the road behind for what we’re pretty sure is and was 90% road-kill back in the 1940’s, hot dogs. The couple used all of their savings (a whopping $15) and took a loan out against their car to fund their stand and it turned out to (obviously) be the best idea of their lives as their stand was a hit and they were on their way to creating Carls. Jr (after opening three more hot dog stands in-and-around Southern California).
9. Where’d that “Junior” Come From?
As you also may have noticed, one of the owners in Carl Karcher did have the name, Carl, that would end up being the namesake for thousands of fast food restaurants. But where did the “Junior” come from? It turns out that it was a marketing gimmick, shocking, we know. After the Karchers found a lot of success with their four hot dog stands they decided to move into the actual sit-down restaurant business by opening a full-service retaurant in Anaheim, California a mere four years after they began their foray into foodservice. That restaurant was named ‘Carl’s Drive-In Barbeque’ and while it did also sell hot dogs it also expanded upon that by selling hamburgers, something that had only been introduced to the world about thirty-years prior. Nearly a decade later, in 1956, the Karcher’s decided to open two new restaurants that were basically smaller versions of the Drive-In Barbeque and because of that Carl added the “Jr.” to the name to let people know that they should expect a smaller version of what they had grown to love at the Drive-in. Ironically, the Karcher’s did have a son and did name him Carl but because he didn’t share the same middle name as his father he wasn’t technically a “junior”, because that’d just be too confusing for everyone although I doubt the younger Carl wouldn’t mind telling his buddies he’s the guy responsible for all those commercials.
8. It Wasn’t All Success, Though
It’s safe to say that the restaurant business is the absolute hardest industry to get into whether you’re a world-class chef or former truck driver like Carl Karcher was. So, while they clearly were lucky and also able to beat the statistics (that show that the majority of new restaurants close within five years of opening) that doesn’t mean that it was all roses and hundred dollar bills for Karcher and family. Perhaps finally outdone by his ambition, the elder Carl wanted to expand on his fast-food empire after the success of the first couple Carl’s Jrs and who could blame him, that strategy worked with his hot-dog stands and clearly people have responded well to Carl’s Jr. all across the United States and Canada to this day. The problem with this expansion perhaps was that Karcher strayed from what he was good and and what his customer knew him for, case in point being a Mexican fast-food chain called ‘Taco de Carlos’ in an attempt to take on places like Taco Bell by offering hamburgers and things like their “California Burrito”. Carl created a new corporation to handle this expansion which was, unsurprisingly named Carl Karcher Enterprises (CKE, remember that, it’ll come up later!). But he wasn’t done as after selling the 17 Taco de Carlos locations in the early-80’s CKE tried to get into the coffee business by opening a Scottish Themed chain called ‘Scot’s Coffee Shops’, because everyone knows that Scotland is known for its… Coffee? That failed as well, probably because he didn’t name it after himself.
7. There’s a Reason it Reminds You of Hardees (or Vice Versa)
Depending on where you live in the United States you may have a bunch of Carl’s Jr.’s in your state, a bunch of Hardees, some of both or neither. The rule of thumb is that the West Coast and Idaho down through Texas are Carl’s Jr. territory. The Midwest and part of the East Coast up to Pennsylvania have Hardees, Colorado and Oklahoma have both Hardees and Carl’s Jr. (lucky, lucky bastards) and the upper-Northeast of the country starting at New York state have neither. So, if you’ve seen ads for Carl’s Jr. or Hardees and wonder why they have such similar branding, it’s not a mistake and no you’re not crazy, it’s because Carl’s Jr.’s parent company, the aforemention CKE Restaurants (We told you it’d be back!) purchased Hardees in 1997. CKE is still located in California and is the parent company for Hardees and a few other places like Green Burrito and Red Burrito, which shows that Carl never got over the failure that was Tacos De Carlos. CKE purchased Hardees for $327 Million dollars and to save money across the board basically rolled out a lot of the same branding for each restaurant, which makes sense as there is little overlap and thus customers aren’t confused. However, unlike a lot of other fast-food places Carl’s Jr does attempt to reflect the location that they’re in with their menu, with things like Southern style biscuits for breakfast or typical western and southwestern lunch or dinner in Texas.
6. Texas was a Hard Get
There are a lot of sayings about Texas like Everythings Bigger in Texas, Don’t Mess with Texas and Remember the Alamo, none of those have much to do with this next topic but we’re pretty sure it’s a federal law that you have to mention at least two of those everytime you mention Texas otherwise you’ll end up with a rattlesnake in your boots. If our foray into everything fast food has taught us anything else it’s that Texas loves it some fast-food and seems to have every single kind of fast-food known to man. So, it may come as a surprise that a place like Carl’s Jr. which is known for it’s large and unhealthy burgers as well as the ability to add regionally specific fare to their menu (something that most fast-food places don’t do, at least on a state-by-state level like Carl’s Jr. does by adding Southern Style biscuits and the like to it’s restaurants in the South), resisted really buying into Carl’s Jr. on a few different occasions over the course of a couple decades. It turns out that CKE Restaurants attempted to move into Texas in the 1980’s for the first time, but they couldn’t crack the market and had to regroup and try again in the 1990’s, which didn’t work either. Not until recently did they figure out what works in Texas and that’s mostly money and also changing things up on their menu to add that flexibility. In facts, the Dallas/Fort Worth area as well as Houston are actually the top growth markets for CKE Restaurants since 2009, which makes sense as they had no presence previously and are now part of the fourth largest metro-area in the country in Houston. Time will tell whether or not they’ll also include Hardees in their Texas growth plan but you’d have to think that that option is on the table as Texans love their fast-food options. Don’t Mess with Texas, indeed.
5. The Real Carl Got Busted for Insider Trading
If there’s anything that this list has taught you thus far it’s that one of the founders of Carl’s Jr., Carl Karcher, was either really bad at naming things or was something of a narcissist. While like with most things the answer is probably somewhere in-between, it’s safe to say that Karcher wasn’t the world’s best business man (as he seemed to just copy what was working for other places every time he opened a business from his original hot dog stand(s), to his move into the Mexican arena in the 1970’s and chain coffee business in the 1980’s). That lack of business know how or narcissism ended up getting Karcher in some trouble after he took CKE public in 1981. The thing about taking a company public is that it can bring in a lot more money but once that happens you’re not only beholden to yourself or your family but to your shareholders as well, which can be a hard transition for a lot of people to make. It seemed to be working for Karcher though, that is until 1988 when the CKE stock plummeted. While that may have gotten him in trouble with his shareholders or the board, it was way worse than that for Karcher as he caught the eye of the Securities and Exchange Commission who noticed that six members of Karcher’s family all sold their stock before the stock imploded. That’s called sharing insider information and is a huge no-no (it’s what sent Martha Stewart to prison) and while Karcher avoided jail-time he was forced to pay $664,000 plus other fines to the SEC as part of his settlement. After that it was only a matter of time before he was ousted from his role as CEO by his board, which happened in 1993.
4. Karcher was a Family Man
If you were to say one thing about Carl Karcher from what you’ve learned thus far it’s that he didn’t really half-ass anything in his life, from jumping from truck driving into hot dog stand ownership to rapidly expanding pretty quickly once his first stand took off, nothing ever seemed to be enough for Karcher. That apparently extended to his family as well as he and his wife Margaret had 12 children together and by the time that he passed away from Parkinson’s Disease in 2008 those 12 children had produced 51 grandchildren and 45 great-grandchildren. While it may be a stereotype it is worth noting that Karcher was a devout Catholic which has historically frowned upon birth control methods even for married couples. Karcher attended mass every morning at the same church where he married his wife Margaret in 1939, a church named St. Boniface Catholic Church in California. Beyond that, the headquarters for CKE Restaurants had a full-statue of St. Franicis of Assisi and he was also known to recite a prayed before most company meetings. While that may sound in bad taste to those who value religious freedom especially when it comes to work, it seems sweet that a man who seemed so cut-throat in terms of his business could have such a sweet spot for religion. Beyond that, with 12 kids and only one named Carl, you have to wonder how he managed to come up with 11 other non-Carl names.
3. Those Seductive Ads Brought the Wrong Kind of Attention
While it was mentioned above that the sultry ads of scantily clad women of varying levels of fame but a pretty consistent level of objective attractiveness that Carl’s Jr. was known for in the early-to-mid 2000’s haven’t aged too well in the day and age of the #MeToo movement, that was meant sort of tongue-in-cheek as there’s a lot of worse things in the world to complain about than ads with consenting adult women that are getting paid a lot of money to eat a hamburger in their under-garments. It shouldn’t surprise you, though, that even back in 2005 before social-media gave a megaphone to the outrage police, people weren’t too happy with the ads that Carl’s Jr. was running. 2005 was the year that their Paris Hilton commercial went live, in which she washed a sports car in a revealing swimsuit and ate a Carl’s Jr. hamburger (for the definite first and last time in her life). The ad was labelled “Soft-core Porn” by multiple Parental Advocacy groups, but despite the backlash it was an overwhelming success for Carl’s Jr. as the website they created specifically for the ad crashed due to the amount of people visiting it on a daily basis. The ad was the first of it’s kind for Carl’s Jr. and was the beginning of a series of commercials starring all sorts of famous women from Padma Lakshmi, ironically of the pinnacle of television cooking shows in ‘Top Chef’ to Kate Upton, Kim Kardashian and Heidi Klum. Those commercials were also met with a ton of “outrage” and free press for Carl’s Jr. So, clearly it’s working for them.
2. Their Burgers Pair Surprisingly Well with Fancy Booze
File this under the WUT? category as in 2006 Carl’s Jr. decided to partner with the Palms Casino in Las Vegas to sell a “combo meal” that was only available at the Palms. That combo meal starts out as you’d expect, with a Carl’s Jr. Six Dollar Burger and french fries but where it goes a little crazy is the drink that comes with the combo, and no it’s not RC Cola or Tab, but rather a $6,000 dollar bottle of French Bordeaux. That’s right, you’re not only getting a really fancy French wine/champagne but also an entire bottle, which is nice since they’re charging you an arm and a leg for it. The goal of the campaign was to show that Carl’s Jr’s food actually was more high-end and delicious, at least in terms of taste, than other fast-food joints and it must’ve worked for them (at least in terms of press as we can’t imagine someone actually buying one of these meals, at least someone who wasn’t completely insane) as they continued and expanded the idea by partnering with Wally’s Wine and Spirits to put together a list of a range of different wine pairings for their entire menu. A great example is their Jalapeno Six-Dollar Burger (We weren’t kidding when we said Carl was bad at naming things) apparently goes really well with champagne or that their Bacon Swiss Crispy Chicken Sandwich pairs great with Pinot Noir, or the Charbroiled Chicken Club Sandwich pairs well with bottles of wine you can only find strewn across the bottom of the North Atlantic from after the Titanic collided with that iceburg. Okay, that last one was made up but you have to admit that considering how crazy this list is getting that you actually thought it was real.
1. They had a Food Truck before They Were All the Rage
The companies/his inability to come up with names that didn’t have “CARL” in them (or to name burgers by anything other than their price and “BURGER”) notwithstanding, it is safe to say that both Carl’s Jr. restaurants as well as it’s parent company CKE Restaurants have been ahead of the curve on a few things like expanding into fast-food in the 50’s, attempting to get into the coffee chain thing before Starbuck’s was Starbuck’s and also being only the second most embarrassing piece of tape that Paris Hilton has recorded. The best example of this, perhaps, is the fact that they had a food truck back before food trucks became the hipster hot spot that they are today. In fact, you could go as far as to thank Carl’s Jr. for this phenomenon and while that’s probably not entirely accurate, we’re dealing with a company that has sold a combo-meal that included a $6,000 bottle of French Bordeaux, so it’s hard to tell what is real anymore. You see, Carl’s Jr. opened a food truck named Star Diner in 2004 and decided to take that truck all-around Carl’s Jr’s stomping grounds from California all the way to Utah to serve hamburgers, fries and drinks at events like the University of Utah vs. Texas tailgate party. The Star Diner was named after the mascot of Carl’s Jr, that star that used to be voiced by Norm MacDonald before he jumped ship to fill-in as the Colonel from KFC. The Star Diner may be getting up there in years but it’s still in service, bringing Carl’s Jr. to all sorts of events from fundraisers to street fairs and/or sporting events, something that keeps that brand out in front of it’s target audiences and that also shows that this is a company that clearly likes to think outside of the box and has since it’s inception in the early 40’s. So, there’s really nothing else to say outside of well done, Carl. Well done.