Are Carl's Jr. and Hardees the Same Thing? Not For Long

CKE Restaurants has announced its intent to differentiate the regional fast food chains.

hardees and carls jr comparison
Photo: Dave Rowland / jetcityimage / Getty Images

To paraphrase Shakespeare, a burger by any other name would taste just as beefy. Americans in various parts of the country have seen this concept play out firsthand if they've ever stopped into the drive-thru at Carl's Jr. or Hardee's, depending on whether they're on the West Coast and Northeast or South and Midwest, respectively. While both restaurants sport red and white cursive logos with a smiling yellow star (his name is Happy, by the way), they've maintained a precarious joint-personality, both unified and not, in terms of their menus and advertising. That foggy relationship is set to clear up, however, as CKE Restaurants announced yesterday it would be taking the fast food chains in separate creative directions.

As we covered earlier this year, the smaller 1,633-location Carl's Jr. wing of the company has set its sights on expansion, putting what it calls its flagship store in the heart of Manhattan with another 30-plus restaurants opening worldwide this past month. Meanwhile, the larger Hardee's footprint, purchased by CKE in 1997, has been a mainstay of middle American fast food options with over 2,244 locations. As sister restaurants, the latter has, while adopting much of the Carl's Jr. menu, managed to stick to its home-style appeal, with the former incorporating Hardee's handmade-quality items into its guy's guy grub image.

While parts of the brand will remain connected, the announcement of a so-called parting of ways is focused on Carl's Jr. finding its own voice. That voice? Matthew McConaughey, who recorded a rhythmic tune for the brand (though isn't an official spokesperson) about its Western Bacon Cheeseburger.

The separation of the brands is beginning with that new advertising push, which will be spearheaded by creative agency Havas, the company behind the McConaughey ditty and upcoming accompanying commercials.

CKE Restaurants CEO Jason Marker teased that shift in focus earlier this year at the opening of Manhattan's first Carl's Jr. location. "We fundamentally believe the brands are two different brands, and that's a significantly different approach to how we're going to manage them moving forward," Marker told us at the time. "They're both incredible brands in their own right with incredible regional equities and people have massive loyalty toward them. [Carl's Jr. and Hardee's] are in different locations with different consumers and we're going to manage them that way, so that's a big change for the business. We're going through very exciting times at the moment, we're pitching advertising agencies, it's a time of change and development for the brands," Marker said.

CKE test kitchen director Owen Klein also laid out how the company views that regional equity, citing that, "the majority of [Carl's Jr.] restaurants are in Southern California, so items like guacamole burgers and jalapeño burgers really speak to that customer [...] Hardee's caters to more of a homestyle, down-home-type audience that wants their food done right and to taste good, so a little more southern-geared and more about the service model."

Those inklings of separate brand identities were solidified by CKE in an email to Food & Wine this afternoon. "Carl's Jr. will continue to celebrate its distinct West Coast feel, but we're giving the brand an edge to make it even harder to ignore. You can see that come to life in the new campaign that features in-your-face imagery with Matthew's iconic voice and swagger. From here, we'll continue to bring the edge to life in ways that make sense for the brand, always keeping quality, taste, and value of the food firmly as the star," a CKE spokesperson said. "Hardee's is food that feeds the soul and rests on our handmade American classics like Made From Scratch Biscuits and hand-scooped milkshakes. I don't want to give too much away right now, but rest assured, regardless where they sit and who they serve, quality, taste, value and an incredible customer experience will always sit at the center of both brands."

So what can you expect to see changing at your local Carl's Jr./Hardee's in the near future? Initially, when CKE acquired Hardee's, some locations were converted to Carl's Jr. restaurants, however, a spokesperson for CKE tells us via email there are no plans to do so at the moment, meaning whatever version of the previously jointed chains you've got down the block is going to stay that way. Additionally, the menus won't see any subtractions just yet, but new items will be in the works. "Carl's Jr. and Hardee's will still share some product launches. Our new Charbroiled Slider menu is a good example of products that work across both brands. In April, we'll release our Jolly Rancher Milkshake nationwide in both restaurants. But as we begin to create two distinct brands, it only makes sense to create exclusive menu items for each."

For now, all the company is saying regarding brand-exclusive food is that Hardee's customers can expect a little something different in the morning, as it teased "we're going to get creative with breakfast and biscuits." Hey, we've only got Carl's Jr. around here. Can we get some creative biscuits, too?

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