Carl N. Karcher; 90 remarkable years

Craig Fiegener,


(Karcher is seen in a tribute video on the company website.)

In 90 years Carl N. Karcher did what most only dream of. He created an empire. Of course, he didn’t realize that’s what would happen when he started his business, with a single hot dog cart, on July 17, 1941. I know that, because he and I talked about it.

I’ve been a longtime admirer of Karcher. Few people have his nonstop energy. Judy Silva, a friend of his, said “Hit the door running! That’s the key to trying to keep up with a leader who arises at 3:30 a.m., watches cable news, reads the newspapers, attends Mass at 6:30 and whose first appointment of the day is at 7:15 a.m.”

I had the opportunity to have lunch with Carl Karcher in August of 1993. We met in his office in Anaheim, a location that was then the Carl’s Jr. headquarters. Carl invited me to lunch after I sent a quick note asking for some time with him. I was a reporter at KFI-AM, but this meeting was not a news assignment. I just wanted the chance to meet a legend, to pick his brain, to listen, and to learn.

I remember sending the letter on a Monday, by Wednesday I had a handwritten reply. Mr. Karcher told me that his assistant was expecting my call, and that I could schedule a lunch, in his office “anytime.”

We dined together about a week later. The fare, of course, was brought up to the office from the Carl’s Jr. downstairs. We ordered via his secretary. Carl had deep fried zucchini, and a chicken sandwich. I ordered a Western Bacon Cheeseburger, fries and a coke. Carl pulled out place settings from his top desk drawer, and set them on the front edge of his desk. That’s where we lunched. It was cozy, and surreal.

His spacious office was filled with pictures of his journey along life and the business world. There was a huge picture window, framed to provide a perfect view of the 30′-by-50′ American flag at company headquarters.

Karcher eagerly answered questions about the founding of his company, its expansion, offering stock and going public, and his battles with the board of directors. Stock problems led to insider trading accusations, and boardroom disputes once led to his dismissal from his own company. When the dust settled, he returned as the figurehead of Carl’s Jr, with a half-million dollar a year contract.

Karcher had become an ambassador for the American dream, and for Carl’s Jr.

One topic we did discuss, a lot, was success. I had pressed him on this. “When did you know that you had something, that Carl’s Jr. was going to be a wild success?” In his booming voice, he stammered for an answer, he wasn’t sure, it just happened. Karcher said, “In 1968, or so, we made five-million-dollars, you know that was a lot of money, so I figured that we had something.”

Yes, he did. He even had a swimming pool with a brilliant gold star at the center of the deep end.

I’m enamored with the Carl’s Jr. story for a couple reasons. He saw problems as opportunities; too many people see problems as a chance to complain. Karcher could also envision success, and then do the work required to create it.

In my book, that deserves a star!
The following information has been provided to by

Carl N. Karcher was born January 16, 1917 in Upper Sandusky, Ohio. His formal schooling lasted through the eighth grade, when he left school to assist his parents on the family farm.

As a young man, Carl made the decision to move from Ohio to Anaheim, California. He worked 12–hour days, six days a week, at his uncle’s feed and seed store for $18 per week. In August, 1938, he went home to Ohio until a new opportunity arose.

The following year, Carl returned to California and was hired as a bread wrapper for Armstrong Bakery in Los Angeles, quickly earning a promotion to a sales and delivery position. He married Margaret Heinz on November 30, 1939 – a marriage that endured for more than 66 years, and yielded a closeknit family of 12 children, 51 grandchildren and 45 great–grandchildren.

1941 was the year that changed Carl’s life, from a career standpoint. He and Margaret purchased a hot dog cart on July 17, 1941 for $326 ($15 cash and $311 borrowed on his 1941 Plymouth Super Deluxe). The first day’s sales totaled $14.75. Business grew, and on January 16, 1945, Carl opened Carl’s Drive–In Barbecue in Anaheim, Calif. The first Carl’s Jr.® restaurants opened in 1956.

Today, the business that began with that first hot dog cart has grown to include more than 3,000 restaurants, and 30,000 employees worldwide. CKE Restaurants, Inc., through its subsidiaries, had a total of 3,036 franchised or company-operated restaurants in 43 states and in 13 countries, including 1,121 Carl’s Jr.® restaurants, 1,915 Hardee’s® restaurants.

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Saturday, January 12, 2008

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