When Carl Karcher packed his belongings into a 1936 Ford belonging to his friends Ralph and John Meyer, saying good bye to his family and their farm, he took with him little more than his dreams of someday starting his own business, ambition, faith, and a willingness to work hard. Apparently it was enough. Today he is the Chairman Emeritus of the expanding Carl Karcher Enterprises, the fourth largest hamburger chain operation in the U.S. with annual sales of over 614 million and 19,400 employees at the four thousand fast food restaurants. Once someone told Carl he was lucky to have all that he possesses, his comment was that it is not luck but a lot of hard work.
As Carl sits in his Anaheim office and recounts the story of his success to Chet Cooper, one can easily see this is a man filled with ambition, a living version of the American Dream. Even at a time when most men would sit back on their laurels and reflect on their success, Carl still continues his daily routine of rising early, attending 6 o'clock mass and arriving at the office by 7:00. Compared to his workday back in 1941, these are easy ones. As a full time employee of the Armstrong Bakery, Carl and his wife Margaret borrowed $315 on their Plymouth and added $15 of their own to buy the hotdog cart and started their own business on July 17, 1941.
Their first stand was at the corner of Florence and Central in South Central Los Angeles across the street from the Goodyear plant. A few carts later... Carl and Margaret moved to Anaheim and opened their first full-service restaurant, Carl's Drive-In Barbecue, which opened on January 16, 1945. Carl always enjoyed his work and attempted to treat his customers as if they were in his own home. He believed that hard work and dedication would make him successful at whatever he tried to accomplish... and it did! Chet asked Carl if he had originally intended to develop such a large business. Carl's response was that he thought he would "give it a shot and we just kept moving forward". And move forward they did!
In 1946, Carl introduced hamburgers to the menu for the first time. In 1950, the first two Carl's Jr. Restaurants were opened in Anaheim and nearby Brea. They were so called "Carl's' Jr." because they were smaller versions of the original drive-in barbecue. The new restaurants had a new supervisor, Don Karcher, Carl's younger brother. The menu in the early restaurants offered guests a wide variety of products, from burgers and french fries to dinner platters and desserts. Unlike other restaurants at the time, guests paid for their food when they placed their orders, then waited as their orders were quickly prepared. The new restaurants were easily recognized by their new signs that featured a star.
By the end of the 1950s, there were four Carl's Jr. restaurants in Orange County. In 1966, with 24 restaurants, the Company was incorporated and became Carl Karcher Enterprises. In 1968, the company launched a full-scale expansion program, the buildings were redesigned and for faster service, the restaurants had a streamlined menu, serving hamburgers, hot dogs, fries, malts and beverages. The new concept became very popular and Carl's Jr. surged forward, adding 15 to 20 new restaurants a year.
In 1974, the first modern drive-thru was built. In 1975, a milestone was reached...the 100th Carl's Jr. Restaurant was opened. A new Corporate Headquarters was opened in Anaheim in 1976. Two years later, a new $5 million dollar, 149,000 square-foot food production and distribution services facility was built adjacent to the administrative offices. In 1979, our first out-of-state Carl's Jr. opened in Las Vegas, Nevada. By the end of the year, CKE sales exceeded the $100 million mark. In 1980, Carl's' younger brother, Don Karcher assumed the responsibilities of President and Chief Operating Officer. Carl remained with the company as Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer.
In 1981, the 300th restaurant was opened, and CKE became a publicly held Company for the first time. In 1984, the Carl's Jr. Restaurant concept was franchised for the first time, and the years following saw continued growth, expansion and success. Carl's Jr. became a market leader with its freshly prepared food, and conveniences, such as a debit card system.
Today, Carl's Jr. is regarded as one of the premier organizations in the food service industry. For many people a career so demanding would be all they could handle, but Carl still had time to raise a family of twelve children. His children all have very fond memories of the loving support they received from Mom and Dad who never failed to take time out of their busy schedules for family vacations, trips to the beach, mountain drives or to gather around the table for a family meal. The children all share fond memories of their fathers' pranks and how he would laugh harder than anyone at his own jokes. Joe Karcher tells of one of his fathers favorite tricks to play with the children on a mountain drive, "Öit was not uncommon for dad to see how close he could get to the edge of a cliff before someone in the car screamed". Today his forty grandchildren and eighteen great-grandchildren are the target for his pranks.
In spite of the busy work schedule he has kept and through the many business difficulties, or "opportunities for improvement" as Carl refers to them, he has found time to give back to the communities. He states that this is one of the true pleasures of business success.
When asked about the extent of his commitment to community involvement he reluctantly states, " there are too many". When pressed for an answer he stated there were somewhere around twenty organizations that he has either a leadership role or a resource involvement with. He sits on the board of The Providence Speech and Hearing Center, The United Way of Orange County, the Lestonnac Free Clinic, South Coast Repertory Theatre, the Orangewood Children's home, the Cal Poly Hospitality Center, Santa Margarita High School and the Right to Life League. There are stories that have been recounted to others of young people he has assisted either through career opportunities or educational scholarships. "I can't" simply isn't in his vocabulary.
He is an active member of the Republican Party and considers one of his proudest appointments to be the chair he filled on the Grace Commission. He was selected as one of the 158 CEOs in the country to study waste in government in the 1980s. This was the beginning of the uncovering of the three-cent screws purchased for $91, food stamp fraud, unpaid government loans. He served on this committee with William Ballhous, president of Beckman Instruments; David Packard of Hewlett Packard; Willard Butcher, chairmen of Chase Manhattan Bank; Don Keough, president of Coca-Cola, and Frank Carey, chairman of the Executive Committee of IBM to name a few. The Grace commission had dispersed filing its 21,000 page report on how the government could save $424.4 billion over a three-year period and many of the suggestions were approved. "It's no secret that I've become known for my strong political views. I've often been asked to run for office. I have no desire to do that, I would not want my time with the family or the company restricted because of the demands of an elected position," responds Carl
When asked if he held any political ambitions. Carl believes he has an obligation to give something back to the communities. "Whenever you're successful you owe that success to the people in the community, because they are the ones buying your product. I am happy to donate funds to various organizations that help people in need. I will never forget the anguish and fear that Margaret and I felt when two of our youngsters contracted polio when they were small-or the alarm we felt when another of our children was stricken with Gulliam-Barre. It's situations like these that test your faith and make you pray harder than ever. If the money we donate helps one child or can ease the pain of one parent, those funds are well spent."
When asked about how his philosophies of giving back to the community have intertwined with his hiring practices he expounds on how important it is to him to provide the time, training and opportunity for young people to gain employment. Explaining to Chet how he has incorporated the A.D.A. in within his practices he states, "We are still in the people business, and we are proud that we have provided many a young person with his or her first job. And for a very special group of people, we've provided their only job. I'm speaking of course of the disabled. They have stated they don't want a hand out just a hand. We are happy to give them one. Many of our managers work closely with Regional Occupation Programs, the Association of Disabled Citizens and the State department of Rehabilitation, as well as local and private organizations, to give mentally and physically disabled men and women the opportunity to earn their own livings and become meaningful members of society by being gainfully employed.
We have developed overlays for the keys of the cash registers with the help of the Braille Institute, so that blind crew members can take orders and help our guests. In other restaurants you'll see employees signing to each other, since we also hire many deaf men and women. We find that other employees are very enthusiastic about their fellow crew members who have disabilities-or what they previously thought of as disabilities."
"In addition we also hire many senior citizens. With a shrinking pool of young workers and a decreasing unemployment rate, all restaurant chains have to be more creative in their recruiting efforts. We have people working for us full-time because they were forced to retire at 65. I know that I never want to stop working, and I am glad that I can offer positions to others who feel the same way."
When asked if he had any advice for the young entrepreneur out there. His advice is fairly simple; "you've got to have a dream-an idea. You can never stop dreaming and using positive thinking in your desire to make that dream come true-to make it happen". Some people might say that Carl has been a lucky man. To this he replies "The harder you work the luckier you get."