Hardee’s Restaurants

Written By Jonathan Martin

Hardee’s Restaurant was the result of competition and Wilbur Hardee’s ingenuity. After visiting the first McDonald’s fast-food restaurant in North Carolina, Hardee realized that a business centered on modestly priced hamburgers and french fries could generate substantial income. In 1960, Wilbur opened the first Hardee’s restaurant in Greenville that offered “charco-broiled” hamburgers, a drive-through window, and quick service. Two entrepreneurs, Leonard Rawls and Jim Gardner, soon heard the news about the successful restaurant and they solicited Wilbur Hardee to form a partnership. The trio entered quick negotiations and soon the corporation, Hardee’s Drive-Ins, Inc., was established.

By the end of the 1960s, ownership of the corporation had changed, the company started to franchise, and 200 Hardee’s Restaurants opened across the country. At the outset of the company’s growth, Wilbur Hardee owned half of the business while Rawls and Gardner split the ownership of the other half. Rawls and Gardner decided to open the next Hardee’s in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, and it soon proved to be as fruitful as the Greenville restaurant. Realizing the potential of the Hardee’s Restaurant chain, Rawls and Gardner drew up plans to expand across the state and elsewhere. However, Hardee decided to leave the partnership before expansion, and he sold his half of the company to Rawls and Gardner for $20,000 in June 1961. A few months later, the two entrepreneurs predicted that franchising their company would be the quickness and safest way to expand, and they sold their first franchise to Charles Bradshaw and Jerry Richardson. The franchise efforts proved successful because Bradshaw and Richardson would ultimately direct 500 Hardee’s restaurants in ten different states. Also, by 1963 Hardee’s had started offering company stocks to the public, and in 1965 the first international Hardee’s Restaurant would open its doors in Heidelberg, Germany.

During the 1970s the Hardee’s Drive-Ins, Inc., changed its name to Hardee’s Food Systems, and the business continued its substantial growth; its 1,000th restaurant opened after only fifteen years of business. In 1972, Rawls purchased 200 Sandy’s hamburger restaurants to stifle the surrounding competition; in 1966, Gardner had left the company to start a political career. Soon after the corporation had acquired the Sandy’s chain, the New York Stock Exchange listed Hardee’s stock on Wall Street. Thereafter Rawls, now acting chief executive officer, moved the company headquarters to Rocky Mount, and the company became known as Hardee’s Food Systems. Rawls served as Hardee’s CEO until 1975. Also, Hardee’s introduced its breakfast trademark “made from scratch” biscuits in the 1970s, and it remains a popular product line of the company to this day.

Hardee’s continued its expansion throughout the remaining century, and by the early 1990s it had become the third largest fast-food restaurant company in the world. During the 80s, Hardee’s developed its advertising and began using the singing California Raisins to promote its new Cinnamon ‘N’ Raisin biscuit line. Also, it was during this decade that Hardee’s opened its 2,000th restaurant and acquired the 650-outlet Burger Chef business. Following its purchase of the Sandy’s and Burger Chef chains, Hardee’s continued to eliminate surrounding competitors, and in 1990 the company acquired 648-units of the Roy Rodgers restaurants. With yearly sales surpassing $4 billion, Hardee’s grew throughout the Southeast and Midwest United States. However, by the start of the 2000s Hardee’s began to fall behind other fast-food competitors. In 1997, CKE Restaurants, Inc., a fast-food conglomerate known for its nearly 4,000 Carl’s Jr. fast-food chain, acquired Hardee’s from Imasco. Hardee’s had suffered years of falling sales and significant losses, and soon after CKE corporation purchased the chain, it sought to reestablish the franchise.

After Hardee’s was purchased by CKE, numerous changes were put into place. In 2003, Hardee’s menu changed and the new Monster Thickburgers product line was introduced. Later on, CKE transformed Hardee’s image into the “Star Hardee’s” to increase competition with other fast-food logos and trademarks. In 2006 Hardee’s had 3,500 restaurants throughout 31 states and in 11 different countries. However, by the end of the first fiscal quarter of 2012, CKE reported that it operates nearly 3,200 restaurants—1,200 Carl’s Jr. locations and nearly 2,000 Hardee’s restaurants.