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Hardee's, Carl's Jr. chains part ways in fast-food image shakeup

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 6/19/2018 Lizzy Alfs

NASHVILLE -- It’s a new dawn for fast-food chain Hardee’s and Carl's Jr. after two decades of trying to operate -- and co-brand -- in tandem.

Hardee's, 58-year-old burger chain headquartered just outside of Nashville unveiled its first store redesign in a suburb here as part of an ongoing rebranding effort meant to separate it from Carl’s Jr. and clean up the chain's reputation. 

Now, instead of advertisements featuring bikini-clad women -- from Paris Hilton to supermodel Kate Upton -- devouring burgers, Hardee's is after a more wholesome image with its food taking center stage for the first time in years.

The changes come under the direction of CEO Jason Marker, a former KFC president who took the helm of Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr.’s parent company CKE Restaurants just over a year ago. Marker replaced Andy Puzder, who resigned from CKE shortly after failing in his bid to become President Trump’s Labor Secretary.

“Basically everything we looked at said these two brands need to be separated," Marker said. "The reason it’s important is because it means we don’t have to compromise. From a food point of view, you don’t have to invent one thing that satisfies two very different brands.”

The way Marker sees it, Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. have unique personalities and customers use the chains differently. Hardee’s, for instance, counts on breakfast for 47 percent of the chain’s overall business. For Carl's Jr., it's only 17 percent.

“Carl’s Jr. is West Coast cool, bold, aggressive, impossible to ignore, famous for very disruptive advertising strategies. Hardee’s is far more authentic and proud," Marker said. "We refer to it as 'down-home food done right.'” 

A public breakup

Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. made public their breakup in separate recent ad campaigns. Hardee’s features a small-town theme with music by Big Wet and the tagline “Tastes Like America,” while Carl’s Jr. promotes “Big Taste You Can Feel” with a voice over by Matthew McConaughey.

The ads represent a step change for the company, which closely aligned the two brands after a 1997 merger. It was then that Carl’s Jr. operator CKE bought Hardee’s from Imasco for about $327 million. 

It was only a year ago that CKE was embarked on its most aggressive attempt to co-brand the two chains, inventing a fictional founder named Carl Hardee. The story line involved him trying to reclaim the chain from his spoiled son. In fact, Carl's Jr. was founded in Anaheim, Calif., in the 1950s by Carl Karcher, who starred in Carl's Jr. ads for years.

Carl’s Jr. operates mostly on the West Coast with 1,152 U.S. locations. Hardee’s dominates in the Southeast and Midwest with 1,865 U.S. locations. Together, the chains have 870 international restaurants in 46 countries with plans to open 1,000 more over the next five years.

Separating the brands will mean store redesigns for Hardee’s, which is slated for 10 remodels by September and about 100 by January.

Hardee's new look

The first redesign in Nashville's Bellevue neighborhood drives home the small-town vibe, with American flags designed from license plates, a Nascar replica in the drive-thru and license plates handed out as table numbers.

“It’s really about celebrating our American heritage and our great food quality,” Marker said.

Putting the spotlight back on the food is crucial to driving customers to the fast-food chain as the overall U.S. restaurant industry struggles with flat to declining visits. Quick-service restaurants are doing better than most other categories, but that segment still only saw a 1 percent increase in visits in 2017, according to The NPD Group.

Related video: Why so many fast food logos are red (provided by Business Insider)

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Hardee’s is reminding customers its biscuits are kneaded, rolled and baked every 15 minutes. Its chicken tenders are hand-breaded and the milkshakes are hand-scooped.

“My menu development team has actually been gifted with an awesome task when we split these brands apart a couple months ago – to develop personalities for two different menus. With Hardee’s in particular, embracing Midwestern and Southern roots is something we’re going after very adamantly right now,” said Owen Klein, vice president of global product development and innovation for CKE.

Sliders help boost traffic

CKE Restaurants is a privately held company and doesn’t report sales figures, but Hardee’s saw its best traffic growth of the past two years when it debuted $5 value meals and a limited time offer on sliders, the company said. Nationwide, spending on value menus at quick-service restaurants was up by 13 percent in the first quarter of 2018, according to The NPD Group.

Hardee’s is one of several fast-food chains tweaking its image and redesigning its stores to appeal to a wider demographic, particularly a younger audience. McDonald’s, which plans to modernize most of its freestanding restaurants by the end of 2020, debuted an upscale outpost in Green Hills this year with self-order kiosks, a private events room, educational games for kids and a three-story PlayPlace.


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