Fast-food chain Carl’s Jr. is known for its bosomy brand ambassadors, debaucherous burgers and a clientele that leans toward young, hungry dudes.
But the wizard behind the curtain isn’t a frat boy with a salad allergy. It’s Andy Puzder, a 62-year-old jogger and devoted grandfather of six who has never met “celebutante” Paris Hilton.
Remember her? Nearly a decade ago, she shimmied into a slinky bathing suit, lathered herself up with soap suds and downed a burger atop a car in an infamous Carl’s Jr. television ad.
Puzder has spent the last 12 years approving similar marketing efforts as the chief executive of CKE Inc. The company is based in Carpinteria and owns Carl’s Jr. and its sister chain Hardee’s.
He has also presided over a rescinded attempt at an initial public stock offering, preserved the company’s indulgent menu, fretted over looming Obamacare regulations and attempted to keep innovating at a company with 72-year-old roots.
Puzder arrived for a late lunch recently at a busy Carl’s Jr. near Los Angeles International Airport, leaving his silver Mercedes-Benz sedan in a parking lot scented with French fries. Perched on a stool at a window table, he skimmed through emails from his son’s high school.
Puzder has six children, ranging from the 15-year-old student to a 41-year-old nuclear physicist. He acts young, rolling up his shirt sleeves and donning stylish rimless glasses. He professes to love the songstress Adele.
He shows off smartphone photos of his second wife, a health nut who looks to be about 35 (she’s actually 51). When 20-year-old Danish model Nina Agdal, scantily clad and gorgeous, shot her recent Carl’s Jr. ad campaign in Hawaii, Puzder stayed away.
“I’m happily married and would like to stay that way,” he joked.
Like his wife, Puzder keeps his waistline trim. But his personal wellness goals haven’t threatened Carl’s Jr.'s and Hardee’s reputations as sauce-soaked temples of caloric excess.
Outside of online menus listing good-for-you options, the brands “don’t really advertise the healthy food products,” Puzder said.
The company sells 20 times more Western Bacon Cheeseburgers, with 740 calories apiece, than it does BBQ chicken sandwiches, which each have 390 calories.
“It’s not our personality and it won’t become our personality,” Puzder said of the health craze that has swept rivals such as McDonald’s. “All of our products are indulgent, decadent.”
His personal favorite: the Memphis BBQ burger. But for lunch, he ordered the chain’s latest debut, the Charbroiled Atlantic Cod Fish Sandwich.
He expects imitations of the sandwich, made without frying and using a more expensive fish than the Alaskan pollock favored by competitors, to hit the market soon.
“We get copied a lot, but that’s OK,” he said.
Puzder grew up in Chagrin Falls, an Ohio farm town where sawdust blanketed the floor of the grocery store and cows nibbled grass outside classroom windows. He has never worked behind the counter at a restaurant.
He came into the CKE fold through Carl’s Jr. founder Carl Karcher, a business visionary with a complicated public legacy riddled with strong stances on divisive issues. Puzder became Karcher’s personal attorney in 1990 and moved to California soon after to help unravel Karcher’s financial troubles.
Puzder says he remembers Karcher as a personable man who would pick up cigarette butts strewn in parking lots and chat with strangers as if they were old friends.
Now Puzder is running the business, one with locations in 42 states and 27 foreign countries. CKE’s revenue last year was $1.3 billion. Including franchisees, the gauge reached $3.8 billion.
In August, CKE pulled its IPO at the last minute after investors balked at its expected price range of $14 to $16 a share.
These days, Puzder says, CKE is “not looking to do an IPO,” although going public is still an option down the line.
“We didn’t need to do it,” he said. “The general market conditions were beyond our control, and when they turned, there was no reason to go out.”
Economic factors, including higher payroll taxes, lofty gasoline prices and general pessimism, are tempering customer spending. President Obama’s healthcare reforms will be “a big problem for American businesses” when they go into effect in 2014, Puzder said.
He expects the rules, which will require large companies to offer health coverage to full-time employees, to cause a boost in part-time positions.
Four in 10 workers at Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s are on part-time schedules. Paying to cover the rest won’t be cheap, he said.
“We’re doing what we can to keep the costs in line, and we don’t want to raise prices,” he said. “But certainly price increases are on the table for everybody.”
The company’s three corporate offices in Carpinteria, Anaheim and St. Louis also represent a hefty expense. Puzder believes that CKE should have only two facilities. There aren’t any concrete plans to move, however. Although he has met with Texas Gov. Rick Perry about a possible relocation, Puzder said he “hasn’t figured out how to make the state work economically.”
But there’s plenty to keep Puzder busy. CKE, which is owned by private equity firm Apollo Global Management, also runs chains such as the Mexican-style Green Burrito and Red Burrito. Carl’s Jr. hopes to expand into India. Someday Puzder would like to see a veggie burger.
Until then, he said, the company will stick to a tried-and-true tactic: promoting premium products such as its Six Dollar Burger instead of relying on low-priced items on a dollar menu.
“You can demean your product if you’re locked into a price point,” he said. “We’d rather have a message of value for the money rather than one about a lot of gut-filling, bottom-feeder stuff.”