Hamburger chain founder lost controlling share in poker game

From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Wilbur Hardee, an entrepreneur who founded the Hardee’s restaurant chain in 1960 with a drive-in hamburger stand near the East Carolina University campus in Greenville, N.C., has died. He was 89.

Hardee died Friday in Greenville of unspecified causes, according to St. Louis-based CKE Restaurants, which operates 1,900 Hardee’s across the Midwest and Southeast and in 200 international locations.

The Hardee’s franchise has become a mainstay for CKE, which has seen sales and profits rise in recent years based on a strategy of giving customers what they want -- even if that happens to be a patently overindulgent Monster Thickburger with 1,420 calories and 107 grams of fat.

Hardee’s first drive-in restaurant didn’t have tables or carhops, but it built a loyal following of customers who stopped in for 15-cent hamburgers cooked on a charcoal broiler. The menu also featured cheeseburgers for 20 cents, French fries, sodas, coffee and apple pie.


North Carolina businessmen Jim Gardner and Leonard Rawl formed a partnership with Hardee to expand his chain throughout the South. The company went public in 1963, but the partnership between Hardee, Gardner and Rawl did not last much longer.

According to Hardee, the business venture went south one night when the three men were drinking and playing cards. Hardee later told his family he bet his newly minted Hardee’s stock during the game. He lost. The next morning, Rawl and Gardner owned a 51% controlling share in the company.

Being an independent type, Hardee sold his remaining stake for $37,000 and went on to form other ventures, his daughter Ann Hardee Riggs said.

“He was the type of man that did not like to be controlled, so he just turned it completely over to them and walked out,” Riggs said.

Hardee was born Aug. 15, 1918, in rural Martin County in eastern North Carolina. He served in the Navy during World War II and in 1945 married Kathryn Roebuck, who died in 1980.

They opened several fast-food restaurants in North Carolina before finding success with Hardee’s.

Over his lifetime, Hardee launched 85 different restaurants throughout the Southeast, including Biscuit Town, Hot Dog City and Beef and Shake, according to CKE. Riggs said her father loved to serve food, and although he never cooked at home, his children often ate at his restaurants.

In addition to his daughter Ann, Hardee is survived by his wife of 22 years, Helen Galloway Hardee; and daughters Mary Kathryn Hardee Baker and Becky Hardee Eissens.