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.
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.
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.