Column: There’s no difference between Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s — until there is

Former CKE Restaurants CEO Andy Puzder stands in front of the star icon that serves both Hardee's and Carl's Jr. restaurants.
(Jack Plunkett / AP)

My wife Hedy and I spent last week with our daughter and her family in rural North Carolina.

It was blessedly quiet — except for the full-throated cicadas — but also hot.

Ah, summer in the South.

We’ve visited their community several times a year for the past 13 or 14 years and have witnessed mammoth changes.


Let’s see: a Target discount store opened half a dozen years ago; a Starbucks was welcomed three summers back; and an Olive Garden went in two years ago.

But the biggest recent advancement to hit our Mayberry, R.F.D. relations — meriting front-page headlines in the local bugle — is that a Hardee’s will soon open on the Interstate. Whoop, whoop!

A local resident was quoted in the article as saying that the restaurant will allow him to consume “buttery biscuits and black angus burgers” to his heart’s content. Bless his soul!

Madison Avenue pays real cash money to copywriters to invent such testimonials. This one was for real!

In case you don’t know — and why would you? — Hardee’s is the East Coast equivalent of Carl’s Jr.

Well, to be completely accurate, they’re two siblings with the same parent: CKE Restaurants. They’ve been a team since 1997, and they market their chains almost identically.

If you see Carl’s Jr., you’ve seen Hardee’s. And vice-versa.

Hardee’s is a fixture in the South, Mid-Atlantic and Midwest. Carl’s Jr. is big in the West. They use the same branding — the distinctive red-and-yellow color scheme and that zippy little star logo. I can attest to the fact that Carl’s Jr./Hardee’s provides customers with charbroiled excellence.

When my son Jimmy was a little tyke four decades ago, he would beg me to take him to “Hamburger Star.” That was his designation for Carl’s Jr. He loved that cuddly little gaseous mass — the star not the jalapeno burger!

I’ve since never been able to call it anything else. It’s emblazoned upon my consciousness as immutably as the fact that Coke, Target and the Angels all wear red. It’s called branding.

It’s not Carl’s Jr. It’s not Hardee’s. To me, it’s forever Hamburger Star.

Shortly after our daughter and son-in-law moved from Southern California to North Carolina nearly 14 years ago, the family had another Hamburger Star close-encounter.

My son-in-law John is a firefighter. One day, while off duty, he came upon a single-car accident. An elderly gentleman had crashed into a light pole. No serious injuries, but my son-in-law called for paramedics.

The dispatcher asked for a location. John knew the street name, but looked around for a further identifier. He spotted the familiar star.

“The accident is in front of Carl’s Jr.,” he replied.

John was raised in Huntington Beach.

“Carl who?” asked the Southern accented voice at the other end of the line. “Never heard of him.”

“Carl’s Jr., you know, the restaurant,” John clarified.

Nope, the flummoxed dispatcher didn’t know the restaurant.

“What are ya’ll talkin’ about?” he asked, irritation welling in his voice.

That distinctive red-and-yellow color scheme — and happy little star — had been rattling around John’s Huntington Beach noggin for decades, occupying a place on his hierarchy of fast food brands. Tens of thousands of impressions over the years had left him with MacDonald’s, Jack-in-the-Box and Carl’s Jr. as his top trio.

John glanced back at the restaurant and now clearly saw the name, “Hardee’s.” What the hey?

“Well,” he explained, “I know it’s Carl’s Jr., but the sign says … Hardee’s.”

“Oh, Hardee’s,” the disembodied voice shot back. “Why didn’t ya’ll say so?”

There’s no right or wrong here, it’s just that John had been raised in a different milieu.

The elderly Southern gentleman’s life didn’t hang in the balance, so nothing was lost in the kerfuffle. But my son-in-law’s eyes were opened. Things aren’t always as they seem.

Hardee’s isn’t Carl’s Jr. — though, in point of fact, I guess it is.

Anyway, my kids and grandkids are happy to have a Hardee’s in the neighborhood.

It serves up one fine buttered biscuit!

JIM CARNETT, who lives in Costa Mesa, worked for Orange Coast College for 37 years.