The Story of Hardee’s

  • By Jerry Bledsoe
  • Photography by The Daily Reflector Negative Collection (#741) East Carolina University

Burger chain founder Wilber Hardee abandoned his namesake brand soon after launching it, but he never ventured far from the burger business.


My first encounter with Hardee’s came in the summer of 1964. I was on my way home from a weekend beach trip, passing through Asheboro, when I came upon an unexpected sight — an out-of-place red-white-and-black pagoda with a spire in the center of its curved and multi-angled roof. It wasn’t a religious shrine but just another 15-cent burger joint, not yet open for business.

I stopped out of curiosity. I was in the 15-cent burger business myself at the time, manager of the Biff Burger in High Point, part of a Florida chain hoping to mimic the grand success of rapidly sprawling and unmatchable McDonald’s, originally out of California. Hardee’s was another of these chains, headquartered in Rocky Mount and just beginning to spread through towns in the Carolinas that so far McDonald’s had ignored.

As it happened, a representative of the franchise holder was there, primed with great expectations. Hardee’s growth was going to be phenomenal, he assured me, and the company was in need of good managers who could rise to even higher positions. He offered me a job application, and I took it. If I had returned it, my life might have been far different. But a month later, I happily landed a much lower-paying job as a reporter for The Daily Independent in Kannapolis and left cheap burgers behind forever, except for a lifelong addiction to devouring them.

Birth of a burger chain

It was this turn of events that 20 years later led me back to Hardee’s. I was a columnist for the News & Record in Greensboro in the summer of 1984, writing a lengthy series about the people and places along North Carolina’s longest highway, U.S. 64.

Hardee’s six-story headquarters dominated the landscape alongside the highway in Rocky Mount. With memories of my first encounter with Hardee’s in mind, I stopped. Hardee’s was then owned by a Canadian company, Imasco. I learned this from John Merritt, vice president of public and government relations, who had joined the company two years earlier. Soon after taking his job, Merritt said, he was surprised to find that no one had written a company history. So he prepared a chronology of significant events.

The first item was this: “Hardee’s began September 1960, with a restaurant opened by Wilbur Hardee in Greenville, North Carolina.”

But Merritt had never met or spoken with Hardee and didn’t know the story behind that restaurant. Neither did anybody else in the company at the time. I wanted to talk to Hardee, whose first name Merritt had misspelled and whom Merritt had never met.

Several days later, I tracked down Wilber Hardee. Not surprisingly, I found him at a restaurant he owned on Greene Street in Greenville. It was called Burger Castle. He was operating three Burger Castles at the time, two in Greenville, one in Kinston. Hardee seemed taken aback that somebody wanted to know about the beginning of the burger chain that bore his name. Nobody else had ever sought that information for public consumption. He was eager to tell his story.

Hardee was 42 in early 1960 and operating a successful restaurant called the Silo in Greenville, the fifth he had started. That was when he heard about a new restaurant that was attracting throngs. The first McDonald’s in North Carolina had opened on Summit Avenue in Greensboro the previous September. (It’s still in business.) One Sunday morning, Hardee went to check it out. He parked in a strategic position and watched the lunch crowd descend.

“What impressed me was, I set out in front there and saw they took in $168 in one hour,” Hardee told me. “That was big money then … on 15-cent hamburgers.”

Hardee took a photo of the restaurant and drove home filled with excitement that not only could he replicate the success he had just witnessed, but also could do it better than McDonald’s. He got a developer to construct a smaller version of the McDonald’s building on 14th Street near East Carolina University and rent it to him. It was cloaked in the red and white tiles that McDonald’s was using, and its canted flat roof had a large overhang at the front held up on each end by a big H. It had two service windows, one for ordering and the other for picking up food.

The menu was simple: hamburgers, cheeseburgers, French fries, fried apple pies, milkshakes, and soft drinks. Hamburgers were 15 cents, cheeseburgers 20.

“Best menu I ever had,” Hardee said.

The big difference he was counting on to attract customers and distinguish his burgers from McDonald’s was the Char-grills he installed to give the burgers better flavor.

Price of success

Hardee’s Hamburgers opened on September 3, 1960, only 11 months after McDonald’s had appeared in Greensboro. The response was immediate and overwhelming. People waited in long lines at the service windows, and it sometimes was impossible to find a parking place.

In the first four months, Hardee told me, he made an astounding gross profit of $9,500. From the beginning, Hardee later wrote, he planned to expand and wanted to start a second Hardee’s in Rocky Mount, a 30-minute drive away. He found a site and began talking with a builder who told him that his son, Leonard Rawls, an accountant in his late 20s, could help him. The son became an adviser.

Soon afterward, Hardee said, Rawls brought a friend to meet him. He was Jim Gardner, son of a prominent dairy owner in Rocky Mount. Rawls and Gardner thought that Hardee’s could be expanded into a huge chain by selling franchises and the three of them could get rich from it. Hardee was thrilled by the prospect, and without any money changing hands, he entered into an agreement to incorporate Hardee’s Drive-Ins with his two new partners.

In May 1961, the second Hardee’s, overseen by Rawls and Gardner, opened in Rocky Mount and was also an instant success. Soon after, however, things went sour between the three partners. Hardee realized that the deal he’d made left him with no say in the company. Later, he gave varying versions of how that happened.

One, which became widely reported and accepted as truth, was that he had lost controlling interest in a poker game with Rawls and Gardner. But in a short book he self-published in 2000, he told a different story: He’d been tricked and cheated. He wrote that Rawls invited him out for a steak dinner, plied him with liquor until he was drunk, then took him to a lawyer’s office late at night. Gardner was waiting there. Hardee said he was told they needed to deal with routine legal matters. He was handed a raft of documents that he signed without reading. He later learned that the documents gave Rawls and Gardner permission to begin selling franchises without his involvement.

Hardee didn’t mention these accounts to me when I spent most of a day with him in 1984, including a visit to the site of the original Hardee’s, which was being converted into a medical office. Instead, he told me that when Hardee’s was incorporated, each of the three men was listed as a member of the board with equal say. That allowed Hardee to be outvoted two-to-one on all decisions.

“If you want to know the truth,” Hardee told me, “I was stupid. That’s what I was. You know how it is — you make mistakes.”

Disgusted by the situation, and no longer trusting his partners, Hardee wanted out. “I got out because when I realized what the contract was, I saw I didn’t have anything. I sold out for $20,000. Sold my name.” Later, some claimed that he received $37,000.

Next venture

Rawls and Gardner sold their first franchises to a small group of longtime friends and acquaintances who formed their own companies and over time, bought hundreds more franchises creating the backbone of the company. Hardee’s Food Systems went public in 1963 with Rawls as president. Gardner, who was vice president, had political ambitions and left the company when he was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1966.

Hardee’s grew rapidly and greatly increased the number of outlets by buying two other chains, Sandy’s and Burger Chef. When I stopped at Hardee’s headquarters in 1984, it was the fourth-largest restaurant chain in America, behind McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s. Three years later, it would surpass Wendy’s for a period.

After selling his namesake, Wilber Hardee opened a new hamburger, hot dog, and fried chicken stand only a few blocks from the original Hardee’s. He planned to turn it into a chain of his own called Little Mint. He named it that because the restaurants were designed to be small and he believed they would make him a mint. Over the next seven years, 50 Little Mints appeared across the Carolinas. When the company went public, the stock opened at $3.29. Within a year, it was $15.50, and Hardee’s stock was worth nearly $2 million.

Flush with the success he thought he’d always deserved, Hardee lived flamboyantly. He bought a large country home that he described as palatial and put in a pool and a spacious recreation room with a big bar where he threw lavish parties. He traded for a new Lincoln Continental every year.

In 1971, competition and other factors cut deeply into Little Mint’s profits. The following year, the company lost money for the first time, and Hardee was squabbling with board members. The stock had fallen drastically, and when the board offered to buy out Hardee’s shares for $90,000, he accepted.

He used that money to start more restaurants. In the next two years, he opened three called Hot Dog City, as well as a seafood restaurant, the Pilot House. After Hardee’s abandoned his original site because of a fire, he gleefully went back into the building and reopened it as Wilber’s Family Restaurant.

None of these enterprises lasted more than two years. Far more money was going out than coming in. Hoping to cover the losses, Hardee sold his house but filed for bankruptcy in 1975. Despondent and drinking heavily, he decided to kill himself by crashing his Lincoln at high speed into a big tree he’d picked out. He claimed he made two attempts but lost his nerve at the last second each time.

Final foray

By 1978, Hardee had managed to raise enough money to start yet another restaurant in Greenville. He called it Beef & Shakes, and it quickly became profitable, allowing him to open two more. After two years, he sold two of the restaurants and turned the third, which was in the nearby town of Washington, into a new and more profitable concept. He called it Biscuit & Chicken but later changed the name to Biscuit Town. This would be his last success. He opened a Biscuit Town in Greenville and sold franchises for stores in Raleigh and Chapel Hill.

The flow of income allowed him to buy a new home for his wife of 35 years, Kathryn, but only a few months after moving in, Kathryn died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage. Despondent again, Hardee sold his Biscuit Towns to Little Mint and the franchise holders. The money from those sales and his wife’s life insurance would have provided him a comfortable retirement. Instead, he used it to open the three Burger Castles he was running when I met him.

Hardee’s life, however, was about to change radically. On Christmas Eve, he met Helen Galloway, a deeply religious woman. Within a month, he quit drinking and began reading the Bible and attending church with her. In May 1985, he gave his life to Jesus and was later baptized. He and Helen married in August. The Burger Castles failed during this period, but Hardee doggedly continued in the restaurant business, opening and closing five over the next seven years. He opened the last, American Barbecue, in 1993 when he was 75. It lasted only a few months. After it failed, he and his wife started a tract ministry.

Tales to tell

The following year, Hardee suffered a stroke, which prompted him to write the story of his life and religious conversion. The loss of Hardee’s had caused him deep and lasting bitterness. He resented that his role never had been acknowledged, that he never profited from the chain’s great success, that the company recognized Leonard Rawls as its founder and kept the second Hardee’s in Rocky Mount as a showpiece, maintaining that it was the original.

In October 1994, Hardee wrote to Hardee’s seeking assistance in selling and promoting his book. The company politely declined but offered to record his recollections for a video of the company’s history and pay him a talent fee. Hardee wanted $50,000 but eventually settled for $10,000. That video was shown at a convention in Orlando, Florida, in April 1996, where Hardee, Jim Gardner, and early major franchise holders were presented Legend Awards. Hardee and Gardner embraced, and Hardee later wrote that despite what had happened between them, his religion required forgiveness.

Hardee’s was faltering at this time due to problems with service, menu, and quality control. In July 1997, CKE Restaurants, Inc., in California, which operated a chain of fast-food restaurants under the name Carl Jr., bought the company. CKE’s plan was to keep the brands of the two chains but merge their operations and menus.

When Hardee’s 40th anniversary was approaching, the company decided to celebrate the date that the first Hardee’s opened. Hardee and his wife were flown to Anaheim, California, where they met Carl Karcher, founder of Carl’s Jr. and with whom Hardee had much in common. Hardee was honored as founder of the chain and the company’s most prestigious franchise award was named for him.

CKE’s problems continued after the acquisition of Hardee’s, and in 2001 Hardee’s headquarters were moved to St. Louis, Missouri. At the same time, new managers at CKE were planning a major turnaround. It came in 2003 with a massive advertising campaign. The company introduced thick Black Angus burgers and reinstated charbroiling, Wilber Hardee’s secret to better burgers, which had been abandoned years earlier. By Hardee’s 50th anniversary in 2010, the plan was a continuing success. The CKE chain had grown to 3,134 restaurants — 1,901 Hardee’s, 1,233 Carl’s Jr., all with similar menus.

Karcher died in January 2008 of Parkinson’s Disease. He was 90. Wilber Hardee followed him five months later. He died at home from a heart attack on June 20, two months shy of his 90th birthday.

Hardee’s released a lengthy obituary, proclaiming him the company’s founder. The Associated Press picked up the story, and it appeared in newspapers nationwide and even on some network news broadcasts.

The New York Times published an obituary, which also appeared in the Boston Globe. So did The Los Angeles Times, The Baltimore Sun, and other major newspapers.

In death, Wilber Hardee finally received the wide recognition that he’d long been denied.

Jerry Bledsoe is an award-winning journalist and author of 22 books. His work has appeared in Esquire, The Washington Post, and New York magazine. He is the founder and publisher of Down Home Press. He and his wife, Linda, live in Asheboro and in Carroll County, Virginia.

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15 Responses to The Story of Hardee’s

  1. David McCall says:

    I agree. Why stray away from the burgers that made you famous! You competed well with the Husky Deluxe and the Husky Jr! The Big Twin is also great. The BABY BOOMERS remember this time and you should go back and hurry on down to Hardee’s, where the burgers are charco-broiled!! The other chains stayed with their menus, so why don’t you?

  2. I simply CANNOT believe that no one has mentioned Wilber Hardee’s signature creation, the HARDEE’S HUSKEE! Best hamburger I have EVER tasted, even to this day! As an East Carolina student in 1964, I used to eat at the original Hardee’s on 14th St. in Greenville often and, thanks to a friend, Jack Hardy (no relation, of course) got to meet Mr. Hardee and tell him how much I enjoyed his Hardee’s Huskee. I’d give a year of my life (alright, maybe 5 minutes…lol) for one of those Hardee’s Huskee hamburgers!

  3. JB Braxton says:

    Wilbur and my dad (Guy Braxton) were friends. In the late ’50s, it was a Saturday ritual to ride over to Greenville with Dad from Ayden (my home town) to get burgers at the Silo Restaurant. The Silo was one of Wilbur’s ventures before he founded Hardees. The Silo served steaks that were char grilled. I have no doubt that those burgers were ground from steak trimmings, were also char grilled right alongside the steaks, and tasted INCREDIBLE. You know they had to be incredibly delicious for us to drive the 20 miles (round trip) to go their weekly just for burgers. So this was the way it worked…you could go inside the Silo and order/eat your burger…but we never did that when we were just ordering hamburgers. We would walk up to the kitchen screen door at the rear of the restaurant and order and receive them “to-go” …they were handed out that door in little brown grocery bags. Getting your burgers this way become ever-increasingly popular with the locals…so much so that there would often be no where to park behind the restaurant and a line of people outside that door waiting on their burgers. The motivation was already there for Wilbur to open a new restaurant dedicated for burger sales even before he visited the McDonald’s in Greensboro. When the 1st Hardee’s opened on 14th Street in Greenville, it was a great event and made those wonderful burger trips over from Ayden even better…a regular road trip for me during my high school years.

    It never occurred to me until I read several articles / comments recently that the later Hardee’s Corporation had secreted away their true history even claiming the first Hardee’s was in Rocky Mount. I know the facts…I was there. Plain and simple…the company was founded by Wilbur at its first Greenville 14th Street location in 1960 with its beginning over at the Silo Restaurant. If only I could travel back in time and stand at that kitchen door with my dad and taste again those truly amazing burgers…but it still lives in my memories.

    By the way, I never see in any of The Little Mint accounts (Wilbur’s next mid-60’s venture following Hardees) any mention of its Ayden location. YES, there was a Little Mind in Ayden…one of its earliest locations…and it was Ayden’s first chain burger restaurant other than the local burger joints (the Ayden Pool Room and the lunch counter at Edward’s Pharmacy). I was there the first day it opened and recall that while the burgers were good, they never reached that pinnacle of burger perfection of those Silo and early Hardees burgers. Driving thru the Little Mint parking lot was the place to see and be seen on Friday and Saturday nights in my little home town.

    Wilbur Hardee was a visionary / pioneer in the fast foods industry, and its good to see that before his passing he began to receive some recognition for his accomplishments.

    • Norwood Jackson says:

      I have many of the same memories of Hardees and growing up in Ayden. Do you remember the Apple Turnover factory in Ayden. I think that was also one of Wilber’s ventures. I knew his daughter and son-in-law in Kinston in the seventies and eighties. They had probably the last Little Mint in Vernon Park Mall. I also think my family lived next door to your family in the fifties in Ayden. Debra and I were mascots for the graduating class of AHS in 1956.

  4. Buddy Hardee says:

    Wilbur was quite a man. I had just gotten married and started a new job when Wilbur approached me and wanted me to come to work for him I declined, but my brother did. He had two little Mints in Elizabeth City, one on the Weeksville highway. My relationship to Wilbur, he was my father’s brother..


  5. Paul Durham says:

    Wow! Until I read this story I never knew the origin of the Little Mint, which was right beside the Hardee’s in Wilson on Herring Avenue (I think the first Hardee’s here). Wilson, of course, was a Hardee’s town, at one time having 4 in business here with no other fast food franchise having more than one.

    Hardee’s was always my favorite and I remember those signature orange-tile roofs, the roast beef sandwiches and the breakfast biscuits (which was another first for a burger chain, if I’m not mistaken).

    I like the current menu at Hardee’s but would love to have a Big Deluxe again!

    Thanks for the story.

  6. Joseph Leonard Rawls III says:

    Leonard Rawls- co-founder of Hardee’s was my father who passed away in 1982. He poured his heart and soul and many years of hard work only to be forced out of the company by men he had been decent enough to keep on with Hardee’s as Vice Presidents, mainly Jack Laughery who turned the rest of the Board of Directors against him and forced him out of the company he turned into a fast Food giant. He was an excellent business man. He just had too big of a heart. I also graduated from UNC in business and know all to well how ruthless you must be as a business man to be successful. My father could have ended up with billions if he had handled things differently. He still was very successful and had 7 Canton Station Chinese restaurants. His only failed venture was a beautiful ship docked in Newport News, Va. that he purchased for over two million and turned it into a beautiful seafood restaurant with excellent food but it was just too expensive for that area. Had it been in New York City I feel sure it would have been an unbelievable success. I have been in the construction business for 30 years and have done pretty well for myself but when I was young I never imagined my Dad would only be worth a couple of million when he died at age 51. I am now 54 and just beginning to make some big investments. Please feel free to contact me if you are interested in making some real money. Life has taught me many things in my 54 years but I think most of all that you have got to be ruthless in the business world to survive. I remember when Jerry Richardson, ex pro football player purchased his first Hardee’s sitting in our family room in Rocky Mount. Look at him now; he started Denny’s which has been an enormous success and then started the Carolina Panthers professional football team. Had my Dad lived longer, I am sure he would have been very successful again and may have been one of the Panthers investors. Oh well, life goes on. I am just happy to be with my family and have what I do have. It means much more when you have to work hard for your money. I was spoiled rotten growing up and never imagined I would want for anything. My how things can change. Enough about all of that. Life is good and I am happy to still be alive at 54 and have no heart problems and have a beautiful family. Good luck to you all in your endeavors. Just remember, watch your back and do-not trust anyone. Joseph Leonard Rawls III

    • Sam A. Manning says:

      Leonard was a good friend and my accountant. We visited often in my hometown, Enfield, at his satellite office there and discussed new business opportunities. He had bought, I think two, “Good Humor” type ice cream trucks hired drivers to operate them and wanted to get involved in some other type of food business. He told me Wilber Hardee in Greenville was a client and Leonard was impressed by the money he was making selling fifteen cent hamburgers. He talked to Wilber about forming a partnership and opening a restaurant in Rocky Mount. He borrowed a traffic counter from a friend and sat in Hardee’s parking lot one Sunday counting the various products that were purchased to make sure that Wilber wasn’t giving him inflated numbers. They struck a deal, along with another investor, and “Hardee’s” was born. The last time I saw Leonard was in the late 60’s or early 70’s during a June German intermission. He told me he was having the best time of his life and burning the candle at both ends. I talked with him on the phone a few times after that, about some business matters. He was always a good friend and I know, first hand, Hardee’s would not have happened but for him. He saw a good opportunity and turned it into a major enterprise. Leonard III says he can help make some real money. Well if he has his dad’s genes, I want to talk with him.

  7. clark hotard says:

    I knew Wilbur in the middle 60’s. Took him to La to our plant and thats where Little Mint was born. I built the first Little Mint for him which had a steel M in the front. I later lost track of him when I went to Alaska to work. He always had a new Lincoln and I went with him a few years when he picked them up. In new orleans, we rented a covvertable and he and his partner and I went to T Petaries restaurant, where Wilber ordered cigars for all 3 of us. He gave the waiter $100 bill and when he came back with the 3 cigars and change, Wilber told him to keep the change. That made his day ‘,back in the middle 60’s………..He and I shared many a drink together………..clark hotard

  8. D Curtis says:

    Your article really brought back some memories and it was a shock to see that little boy who won the TV back in 1962 in one of the photos. 49 yrs ago that was me without the wrinkles and baldness and my kids and grandkids think it is hillarious that TVs were big, bulky and black and white, or grandad was once young…. Thanks for bring back some memories of the old Greenville and fun times.

  9. Mary Kathryn Hardee Baker says:

    Thank you so much for this, this is my father and I have enjoyed this so much! Daddy passed 6/20/08 and he would have loved it too!

    • Mary, I hope you are well.

    • To Mary Kathryn Hardee Baker: I enjoyed the article too. I remember sitting in class at school with you and when the Little Mints were still open you brought us little promotional things to school, either pencils or balloons. I am so happy that Wilbur received the credit. I always heard he was the founder and was convinced, just wanted to know how it all happened.


  10. Loy Dellinger says:

    Mr. Hardee picked me up hitching a ride from Greenville to Rocky Mount to get some tickets for a Fleetwood Mac concert at Atlantic Christian College. We rode in Wilbur’s New Lincoln, while mine, an older 69 Mark 1, was parked at ECU due to the gas shortage. I was a student and we didn’t talk about religion, even though that was my major. We had a great time and he drove me to AC and waited while I picked up the tickets. Mr. Hardee told me about his beginnings and his third grade education. It was a great ride and experience with a man I will never forget. God Bless you Wilbur. Wish my Dad had been along because he would have told you those Republicans and Yankees would have s@#* you. God Speed. Loy Dellinger Class of 75 ECU. Carolina Cajun.com

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