$311 and a Hot Dog Cart- The Founding of $928 Million Company

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In 1941, Carl N. Karcher, a 24 year old man who had dropped out of school in the 8th grade to work on a farm, and his wife had $15 in cash (about $241 today). They took out an additional $311 loan against their car, and used the money to purchase a hot dog cart.

It must not have seemed like much at the time, and certainly the hot dog cart business might have failed, leaving them in debt. Fortunately for them, it didn’t take long for their hot dog cart to do well enough that they were able to buy another one. A couple years after starting their little business, the Kerchers were operating four hot dog carts.

Business just kept booming, and before long the Karchers were able to buy a restaurant, which they called Carl’s Drive-In Barbecue. In addition to the usual hot dogs, hamburgers were added to the menu, which turned out to be a good business decision on their part.

By the 1950s, the couple was able to purchase another, smaller restaurant; this one focused on quick service. This was the first “fast food” venture on the Karcher’s part. On opening day, Carl’s Jr. only made $14.75 (about $140.87 today).  Needless to say, it got better from there.

Fast-forward to 1981, and Carl Karcher established Carl Karcher Enterprises with some 300 restaurants under his belt at this point.  The restaurant chain continued to expand and today there are over 1000 Carl’s Jr. locations.

Carl Karcher died in 2008 at the age of 90, two years after his wife of 67 years, with the company they started with $311 and some elbow grease expanding to over 3000 restaurants (including Hardee’s, which they purchased in 1997) spanning 40 states and 13 countries. Fast-forward five years later in December of 2013, just 72 years after that first hot dog stand, and Carl Karcher Enterprises was purchased in a deal valued at $928 million by Thomas H. Lee Partners.

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Bonus Facts:

  • Carl Karcher was no stranger to hard work. He was born in Ohio but only attended school through the eighth grade, after which point he quit to help his parents on their farm. After that, he moved to California where he worked 12-hour days at his uncle’s “seed and feed” store. He went on to work as a bread wrapper before buying the hot dog cart.
  • Many people wonder why Carl’s Jr. has the apostrophe placed where it is. The founder, Carl Karcher, is not actually a “junior” himself, so it isn’t “Carl Jr.’s restaurant.” Rather, it’s the smaller, or “junior” version of “Carl’s Drive-in.” That makes it Carl’s Jr. instead of Carl Jr.’s.
  • Several years after the establishment of CKE, there was some disagreement over attempts to co-brand the restaurant, bringing in chains like the Green Burrito in order to offer customers more options. Carl Karcher was booted as the company’s CEO over this issue, as his Board of Directors thought that lowering prices and having a new marketing strategy that targeted young males was a better solution to finding new customers. Funnily enough, despite this, the company ended up buying the parent company of the Green Burrito in 2002, and some Carl’s Jr. restaurants are now co-branded with the Green Burrito just as Karcher had been lobbying for in the first place.
  • As mentioned, in 1997, CKE foods acquired Hardee’s, a restaurant popular in the Midwest, south, and eastern regions of the United States. This was a huge purchase—Hardee’s now has some 2500 locations in the United States. While many stores still have different menus, Hardee’s restaurants are slowly being converted to become more like Carl’s Jr. The same star logo is used in many Hardee’s restaurants, and in some cases the menu has been switched to match Carl’s Jr. On the flipside, Carl’s Jr. started offering some of Hardee’s breakfast items.
  • Karcher had a very happy marriage with his wife, Margaret. They had 12 children, 51 grandchildren, and 43 great-grandchildren (to date on the latter), staying married for 67 years until Margaret’s death in 2006.
  • Hardee’s was founded by Wilber Hardee in the 1960s. The first restaurant was opened in Greenville, North Carolina. Like Carl’s Jr, the fast-food restaurant was a hit and just a few months after opening their first location, another Hardee’s franchise opened. By the end of the 1960s, nearly 200 Hardee’s restaurants were in operation, with one even opening up in Germany. Within fifteen years, Hardee’s boasted 1000 restaurants nationwide. By the 1980s, the number jumped to over 2000 with the acquisition of Burger Chef.
  • Hardee’s is best known for its biscuits. The first Hardee’s biscuits appeared in the 1970s and quickly became an icon of the brand. In addition to the plain biscuit, the cinnamon raisin biscuit is also popular.
  • One of the big draws to Carl’s Jr. is the “Six Dollar Burger.” This burger is included in a $6000 combo meal at The Palms Casino Hotel in Las Vegas. The extravagant meal also includes fries and a $6000 bottle of French Bordeaux.
  • The only states that have neither a Hardee’s or Carl’s Jr. are Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. Washington, D.C. also lacks both restaurant chains. However, in Oklahoma and Wyoming, you might stumble across both Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. The rest of the states feature only one or the other.
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  • Constance

    As far as July 4th being selected as our nations’ commemorate date of our nations’ birth, consider the truth. It is no secret that Betsy Ross finished out first flag for our United States. There were thirteen stripes and thirteen stars on our nations first flag, The number thirteen was because their were thirteen states in the United States, when it did indeed become the United States of America. What is your take on this information?