Courtesy of Carl's Jr.

What the brand hopes to bring to NYC’s fast food scene, and why it didn’t go with a Hardee’s.

Adam Campbell-Schmitt
January 31, 2018

Carl’s Jr., the oddly-named, uber-satisfying burger chain that’s a staple of the West Coast fast food scene, is opening its first Manhattan location today. But last night, to celebrate its new midtown digs, the brand let a select few witness the premiere of an off-Broadway musical—a first for any quick-service food brand—starring the company’s mascot.

Featuring a troupe of six actors, “Written in the Stars” told the (fictional, if you needed that spelled out) story of Happy Star as he struggles to become an actor in New York’s theater scene only to discover that his true passion is making great burgers. With snappy jokes, light jabs at reality television, ‘90s music (there’s a character named after the Smash Mouth hit “All Star”) and a song about longing for certainty in the future, the touching 24-minute story also served up enough self-deprecation to prove the Carl’s Jr. team knows this was a bit over-the-top and yet, given the surroundings, completely appropriate.

Courtesy of Carl's Jr.

Opening bright and early for breakfast this morning, the new 7th Avenue location near Penn Station is officially the second in New York City (another opened earlier this month in Coney Island), but beyond song and dance, Carl’s Jr. is also bringing a few new items to the menu that will debut at the Manhattan store today.

As competitors like McDonald’s and Taco Bell have revamped their value menus, Carl’s Jr.—which has been a bit higher-end/higher-priced than the rest—is also offering up low-cost versions of its char-broiled burgers in the form of sliders. Meaty and flavorful as their larger cousins, the mini-burgers come in single, double, and triple patty versions at $1, $1.50, and $2 a pop, respectively. There’s also a two-slider value meal with fries and drink for just $5. For what it's worth, the small-but-mighty sliders smoke anything else for a buck-fifty on similar burger chains' menus in terms of flavor and actually feeling like you, you know, ate something.

Adam Campbell-Schmitt

"Carving out a strategy for value is where that product was born from," CKE Restaurants (Carl's Jr.'s parent company) test kitchen director Owen Klein tells Food & Wine. "But we didn't just want to give people a cheap piece of crap, so leveraging our heritage in char-broiled beef and putting it on a soft, buttery roll really is a nostalgic experience for me; it tastes like a burger from childhood. It goes through our char-broiler just like our regular burger, so a massive difference in flavor and quality of meat." To go with those burgers, big and small, the Manhattan location will also serve beer and wine including Brooklyn Brewery's Brooklyn Lager.

On the dessert end, the Carl’s Jr. team has created what, at first mention, could seem like a mistake, but in practice totally works: a Jolly Rancher milkshake. Featuring hand-scooped vanilla ice cream, the drink is blended and topped with chopped up pieces of all five flavors of the hard candy. If it sounds like the next Unicorn Frappuccino, that’s precisely the point. "Jolly Rancher milkshakes came out of a fair amount of consumer research, taking a look at how can we get something Instagrammable and Tweetable that people want to tell other people that they're having, so we checked off the box with all five flavors spinning a rainbow in there," Klein explains. "Also, Jolly Rancher is the third most popular candy in the country and something we wanted to bring our vanilla shake to life with. At first, we just topped it with them and thought it was okay, but then we spun them in and that citrusy-sweet thing really worked with the vanilla milkshake. We think it's delicious and borderline addictive."

Adam Campbell-Schmitt

If you're worried about shards of candies in your drink, based on my taste test and the development process, that doesn't seem to be an issue. Klein says a lot of work was put into finding the precise piece size that would fit through a straw. "We found a candy chopper who could do what we wanted—there's a few out there amazingly enough—and that can supply 3,000 restaurants with chopped Jolly Ranchers. There's a science to it."

What’s also interesting is what CKE Restaurants didn’t bring to its newest location: the Hardee’s name. Anyone living in the southeast and midwest parts of the country may be more familiar with the smiling star and script-written logo sporting a different moniker, a leftover from the company's acquisition of Hardee's in 1997. "They're both incredible brands in their own right with incredible regional equities," CKE Restaurants CEO Jason Marker tells Food & Wine. "This brand has got that California-cool vibe and that edginess, what we call an 'impossible to ignore attitude,' and we think that this brand proposition fits well with what New York stands for. New Yorkers are discerning food people, they're interested in quality, they want brands that have an attitude and style, they don't want a brand next door to another one that looks the same and smells the same," Marker explains.

Courtesy of Carl's Jr.

So what should New Yorkers expect from Carl's Jr.? "One of the things that really differentiates us is that we're not afraid to put the work in for higher quality food," Klein says. For the uninitiated, that comes in the form hand-breaded chicken tenders, starting with raw tenderloins dipped in buttermilk and flash-fried, hand-scooped milkshakes which opt for hard ice cream rather than from a soft-serve machine offering a thicker result, and biscuits made from scratch "granny style." Another feature not seen in the competition is the staff bringing your food to you at your table once it's ready. All of that manual labor is antithetical to most quick-serve strategies, but Klein insists it's the what they want to be known for. "We want to push an innovate in spaces we can own, so taking food cues from a lot of the independents out there versus looking at what our competition is doing."

It will be interesting to see how Carl's Jr. fares in the Big Apple, where there's a bevy of burgers available from less-hands-on chains like McDonald's and Burger King, and fast-casual sit-down joints like Five Guys. But Marker thinks Carl's Jr. will fill a niche slightly in between those offerings. "We believe we have a very important place in New York. There's fast food and we like to talk about being fast food plus."

Carl's Jr. is located at 425 7th Ave, New York, NY 10001