What’s the Difference Between Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr.?
Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s signs and menus look exactly alike—down to that cheery little star—but are they the same restaurant owned by someone who couldn’t decide on a name, or is the discrepancy the result of a turf war (à la the borders dividing Hellmann’s/Best Foods mayonnaise territory)?
The two burger chains started out as totally separate entities, one in the West and one in the East. Carl’s Jr. is the elder statesman of the two, founded as a Los Angeles hot dog stand in 1941 by Carl Karcher. Business thrived, and five years later there were five full-sized Carl’s Drive-In Barbecue restaurants, which by then had begun serving hamburgers. Before long, burgers were the chain’s bestselling menu item, so Karcher decided to open a separate group of small, quick-service burger joints (similar to today’s McDonald’s Express), dubbing them Carl’s Jr.
In the ‘90s, Karcher’s partnership, CKE Restaurants, set its sights on another hamburger chain. Wilbur Hardee had opened his first restaurant in North Carolina in 1961; soon Hardee’s became a familiar fast food sight in the Midwest and South. Hardee’s corporate strategy was to open restaurants in smaller towns that were not served by McDonald’s or Burger King, and by all accounts, it paid off: by the early '90s, there were over 2,500 Hardee's locations, making it the country's fourth-largest fast food chain.
Acquiring Hardee’s (for $327 million!) in 1997 was an opportunity for Carl’s Jr. to quietly expand into the East without agitating Hardee’s existing customers. They kept the name and, at first, the menu that folks were familiar with (it wasn't until the early aughts that they started to introduce Carl’s menu items to Hardee’s locations), and refurbished the existing buildings and signage.
The map above was designed by Chloe Effron and is based on this map by Gage Skidmore. Update (2016): Hardee's now has stores in New Jersey and New York.