Carl Karcher – Carls JR.

Circa 1997

When Carl Karcher packed his belongings into a 1936 Ford owned by his friends Ralph and John Meyer he was saying good-bye to his family and their farm. He took with him his dreams of someday starting his own business, his 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 over 19,000 employees and 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 ABILITY Magazine‘s Chet Cooper, one can easily see this is a man filled with ambition. A living icon of the American Dream. Even at a time when most men would sit back on their laurels and reflect on their life, Carl still continues his daily routine of rising early, attending 6:00 a.m. mass and arriving at the office by 7:00. Compared to his workday back in the early 1940’s, these are easy ones.

His first hot dog cart was at the corner of Florence and Central in South Central Los Angeles across the street from the Goodyear plant. It turned out to be a great location. Carl and his wife Margaret borrowed $315 on their Plymouth to buy the hot dog cart, starting their own business on July 17, 1941, still maintaining his full-time job at the Armstrong Bakery. A few carts later… Carl and Margaret moved to Anaheim and opened their first full-service restaurant, Carl’s Drive-In Barbecue, which opened 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.

When asked if he had originally intended to develop such a large business. Carl’s response was, “I thought I 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.

check this out

By the end of the 1950s, there were four Carl’s Jr. restaurants in Orange County, California. 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. In 1979, the 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 Chairman of the Board and CEO.

In 1981, the 300th restaurant was opened, and CKE became a publicly held Company. In 1984, the Carl’s Jr. restaurant concept was franchised, and the years following saw continued growth, expansion and success. Carl’s Jr. became a market leader with its freshly pre pared food, and conveniences, such as the 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 sched ules 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 father’s pranks and how he would laugh harder than anyone at his own jokes. Today his forty grandchildren and eighteen great grandchildren are the target of his pranks.

In spite of Carl’s busy work schedule 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.

check this out

When asked about the extent of his commitment to community involvement he reluctantly states, “there are 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 directors for 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 just to name a few. 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,” sim ply isn’t in his vocabulary.

Carl Karcher interview with Chet Cooper and images of John Wayne
Carl Karcher interview with Chet Cooper and images of the past

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 select ed 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, and 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.

When asked if he held any political ambitions. “It’s no secret that I’ve become known for my strong political views. I’ve often been asked to run for 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. He 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. “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 large group of people, we’ve provided their only job. I’m speaking of course of people with disabilities. They have stated they don’t want a hand out just a hand.

check this out

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 living 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 dis abilities or what they previously thought of as disabilities”, says Carl.

“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”, Carl added.

When asked if he had any advice young entrepreneurs, his advice is simple; “You’ve got to have a dream and an idea. You can never stop dreaming and using positive thinking in your desire to make that dream come true.” Some people might say that Carl has been a lucky man. To this he replies, “The harder you work the luckier you get.”

sharing is caring

we did our part - now do yours and share

like a good neighbor, share

Related Articles: