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Hamburger Diaries: Carl’s Jr.

Sunday, 19 September, 2010

I visited the only Carl’s Jr. within the city of Austin at 609 W. Slaughter Ln. The grounds are well kept and overly spacious. The interior of the restaurant is a bit busy, and they are trying too hard to embrace the legacy of namesake Carl Karcher who was ejected from the company, CKE [Carl Karcher Enterprises] Restaurants, Inc. in 1993. My only awareness of Carl’s Jr. before their acquisition of Hardee’s and subsequent expansion, was the venom left-leaning causes in California expressed for the company. This may have been a reaction to Karcher’s notorious hard-right activism no doubt inspired by his strict Catholicism. Karcher may have been the first catholic member of the John Birch Society.

I suspect Karcher and I would not have enjoyed one another’s dinner conversation. Even so, the spirit of his enterprise and the idea that if you’re willing to bust your hump you too can have at least a little piece of The American Dream makes me wish I were born a few decades earlier. Like the McDonald brothers, the original Carl’s was a barbecue restaurant while the little hamburger joints he started to build were called “Carl’s Junior” to differentiate them. I enjoy the eccentricity of that name, possibly because I wasn’t raised around it. To be clear the trademark is “Carl’s Jr.”, with the apostrophe and period.

1983 Carl's Jr. Sign

An additional point of agreement between the late, esteemed Carl Karcher and myself would be that a quick-service restaurant must be, first and foremost, a nice place to have a nice meal and not an investment opportunity, a branding exercise or cause for actions on the stock market. CKE acquired Hardee’s in 1997 thus bringing the legacy of Sandy’s, Burger Chef, Dee’s, Hardee’s, Carl’s Jr., and Tacos de Carlos under the same structure. From 1996 to 1999 CKE was the corporate parent of Rally’s Restaurants. They kept Rally’s alternate brand The Green Burrito following the sale to Checker’s. With this brand they opened the first dual-branded restaurants following Rally’s brief and ultimately unsuccessful dual-brand experiments in the early 1990s. Oddly, in Rally’s original territories, The Green Burrito is known as The Red Burrito. The same restaurants are called Carl’s Jr. in the West and Hardee’s in the East with minimal menu variation. Austin, Texas is now a Carl’s Jr. territory, although Hardee’s restaurants were open and operating here at least until 1997.

The television ads I’ve found for Mr. Karcher’s namesake are offensive to his conservative values, and to your reviewer’s hippie-lib-pinko oriented respect for human decency.

Recently I’ve consumed materials regarding Hardee’s fiftieth anniversary, which occurs in the month of September 2010. When you see the history of that company laid bare before you it is difficult to avoid the impression that once Wilbur Hardee sold his nascent enterprise so many people wanted to make their mark things readily spiraled out of control. Fried chicken, roast beef, sliced turkey, Li’l Chef Hardee’s, Hardee’s wanted to be all things to all people and what I carry away with me when I think about them at all, is the biscuits. I mention this only because you may now purchase Hardee’s-branded breakfast biscuits, and they really were the best in the business, at Carl’s Jr. If it were not such a pain to travel several miles to Carl’s Jr. I’d have breakfast there as often as I once had a magnificent Hardee’s biscuit breakfast.

The dining room is cramped and busy, but by no means unwelcoming. There are two six-spout fountains, with eight beverages each. I can’t even remember them all, but Dr Pepper, Diet Dr Pepper, Coke Zero, Fanta Orange and Strawberry, and Powerade were all available.

The counter was uncommonly low, maybe only 24 to 28 inches. On six feet of counter there were four stations, two of which were open during a not especially busy Saturday afternoon. The busy layout of the counter was such that the exchange of currency and a table tent was awkward. However, the service was quick, friendly, get you in and out, everything you need and some of what you want. The staff was pleased to be there, and I got nothing of what football coaches in stereotype would call “attitude”.

After the incomprehensibility of the McDonald’s menu, Carl’s Jr’s menu is a revelation. It is a series of photographs properly characterized as Burger Pr0n. Each sandwich presented in a way that all of its component parts are conspicuous in a way that even a blatant list of ingredients would not make more plain. To the right of each picture is the name of the creation and below the price for a sandwich or combo. Waffle fries are not available in my market, to my disappointment. I didn’t ask about the fried zucchini. If I can get fried zucchini, I’ll over look the absence of … oh wait, they have onion rings as well.

My order: the Famous Star in a combo. I am handed a cup and table tent, and pour a cup of Coke Zero. I get to a table, notice the quasi-retro decor and tributes to the company’s history on the walls. I did not think to look at the time. Before I knew it and in an amount of time I would have gladly stood at the counter the same confident young chap who took my order delivered my Famous Star.

Something about the skin-on fries attracts me. In fact, I very nearly overlooked my sandwich for these fries which are thick, obviously previously frozen but savory and with just barely too much salt. These may be the fries P.Terry’s aspires to emulate.

If I may state plainly: Carl’s Jr.’s fries are the best, most satisfying frozen fries I’ve ever had. This is what you’re going for. I am a sucker for Ollie/Rally fries, but honestly these uncoated fries hit every high point. Crunch, texture, heat retention, actual flavor …

The sandwich was a standard, dressed not-quite-quarter-pound burger on a four-inch seeded bun and its description would be wholly unremarkable. The Famous Star is flavorful, rich, just sweet enough and  the dressings are richly flavored. I really enjoyed my Carl’s Jr. meal. In fact I specifically remember thinking how I’d choose Carl’s Jr. over my current default quick-service restaurants if only they had more locations. I was fully prepared to gush all over Carl’s Jr. Just to be sure I stopped on my way out of the restaurant to get a Big Carl to go. This is an analog to the Big Boy, but without the center bun.

The patties were more conspicuous in the Big Boy analogue. While the Famous Star was a wonderfully adequate sandwich; the Big Carl was not. The differential here being the flavor of the alleged-beef patty. In fact the Famous Star would have been a perfectly satisfactory burger had something not distracted me. Every element, including well chosen condiments, rich cheese, cool and flavorful veg, of a magnificent burger was in place with the exception of the actual beef patties.

When you go to Carl’s Jr., don’t waste your time ordering a burger from the menu. Order whatever you want, prepare to enjoy the best, most novel combinations in the business but hold the beef patties. Upon tasting the Big Carl I could not believe how bad the beef was. I’m not even certain it was beef. When I return to Carl’s Jr. I may have a Famous Star, “hold the beef”, or perhaps the guacamole Six Dollar Burger, whose trademark is outdated. Every element of the restaurant is superior with the exception of the alleged beef on the burgers which is so poor and flavorless you may as well order your sandwich without the patties. On my next visit to Carl’s Jr., and I assure you I will return, I need not bother with the pathetic, flavorless and fried patties.

I can’t imagine where I got the idea my sandwich would feature grilled, or perhaps “charco-broiled” beef. The total of three patties I encountered came from the processing plant of the damned. I say without exaggeration that I had a wonderful meal in a wonderful restaurant with something not unlike table service with the exception of the truly pathetic beef on offer.

Enjoy Carl’s Jr., but please do so without the regrettable, alleged beef.

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7 Comments
  1. Graeme permalink
    Tuesday, 21 September, 2010 8:56

    I would be curious to see if the fries remain among the best, or if they were just a relief after your McDonald’s experience. I tend to enjoy their fries at first, but they become too much of a good thing very quickly. That rarely happens to me when it comes to fries.

    I like their guacamole burger. Have I mentioned that I believe they stole the burger from Denver’s Good Times chain? Have you had Good Times? It’s a lot like Rally’s, but it’s the fastest operation I’ve ever dealt with. They have your order to you stunningly fast at the drive through. I’ve never experienced anything like it, and it’s not because it’s been sitting. It’s just assembled quickly. Their operations management must be stellar.

    Anyway, the issue I have with Carl’s Jr. is that they’re not consistent with the condiments. I’m not a mayo kind of guy. They sometimes put it on the guac burger, and sometimes they do not. Because of that unknown, I do not eat there.

    I am intrigued by your report on the burgers. I admit I tend to be distracted by the mess of bacon & guac, so I haven’t really paid attention to the meat as I would like.

    Maybe I’ll give them another shot with this review in mind?

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    • Tuesday, 21 September, 2010 16:09

      My favorite frozen fries previous to these were those served at Jack in the Box and Burger King which superficially appear to be the same product. I still don’t understand the poor, griddle beef as every promo and the illustration implies grilling and it’s just really bland.

      I can’t remember if a certain place I’m remembering was Good Times or Backyard Burgers, but I didn’t go and its gone. Maybe I should make an adjunct for veggie burgers as I now know of three that are on the menu.

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  2. Graeme permalink
    Sunday, 26 September, 2010 10:11

    Given the emphasis this chain places on condiments, it makes sense to me the beef is lousy. Now that I think about it, I remember eating at Carl’s Jr. in Denver. This is right before they started in with the $6 burger campaign. They were suddenly advertising big quick meals, which was pretty much all I ate when I was in grad school (which added serious weight to my frame). I recall having to wait to get a plain burger (ala McDonald’s in the 1970s), and then being disappointed. I don’t recall having been impressed by the fries at the time. Given this was over 10 years ago, I can’t say whether or not the meat or the fries are still the same.

    That not knowing sums up the burger conundrum right there. The national chain with a fixed identity (whether or not it is deserved) is McDonald’s. There are regional chains with a fixed identity. Anything else that’s national or close to it, from Carl’s Jr. to Burger King to Jack in the Box to Sonic all suffer from a sense that they’re flailing. They’re under pressure to be all things to all people while competing with McDonald’s on price. They’re a total mess. I understand Burger King is under new ownership. I read that, and I wonder why anyone would buy the chain. I understand there may be money to wring out of the operation, but what else can be done to ‘add value’ to the brand? What hasn’t been tried?

    Ultimately, I know the money is the point. Winning is impossible in that space, given the sheer distance between McDonald’s & all competitors.

    Favorite chain fries: In ‘n’ Out, Chik-fil-a, and Dick’s (in Seattle). It probably goes without saying that White Castle fries are the worst.

    I wonder if Good Times made it that far south? If you take your new Volvo on a long drive north, I would certainly recommend that chain. Quite good. I think you would find them especially pleasing, as I believe you mentioned you like Rally’s fries. It’s definitely the same concept.

    This reminds me of Checkers. I haven’t had them in years, but I do remember stopping in there one night about 15 years ago in Chicago and being surprised that it was better than I had expected it to be.

    Anyway…

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    • Sunday, 26 September, 2010 20:30

      I wouldn’t say McDonald’s has a fixed identity so much as they have inertia. They can continue along or they can be Woolworth to Redbox’s Foot Locker. It’s not that they could not ever change, but the enterprise is such that it would simply take too long to steer the ship just a few degrees off their present course.

      Everything on CKE store’s menus are subject to market variation. So the fries I’m getting in, technically, the San Antonio market may be different than those of the different franchiser in DFW or Denver or Cleveland and so forth. I find it odd all the QSRs are trying to be old and established, and emphasize their history. Every other retail enterprise tries to impress you that they have the new way of doing things. I don’t know what it is, but there is a lesson in there someplace.

      Jack, Sonic, Whataburger and Taco Bell are operating along the lines of the old diners. That is, the kitchen has a bunch of ingredients that they may assemble in lots of different combinations. You will note that they have relatively few varieties of bread or buns. The bad part is the menu this creates which is impressive but intimidating to newcomers. And I don’t care who you are, you should be welcoming to new customers, unlike McDonalds.

      The thing about Burger King. It’s a good product. It’s a good name. Amazingly consistent. They sold millions of those “Home of the Whopper” boxer shorts without investing a dime. If they could avoid stunts, like 1998’s new fries day, directly copying McD’s, like those playgrounds and stick to the essentials they would not have lost hundreds of stores and some entire markets in the last decade. I don’t know what an investment group sees in the company either. Best breakfast going wherever you can’t get Hardee’s, unless Hardee’s divested their golden-goose biscuits.

      I would be lying if I said I hadn’t been thinking of either:
      How to fix certain QSR chains, or
      What I would do if called upon to create a new QSR chain.

      To tell you the truth, I would avoid burgers like the plague. My ideal chain would be not unlike Yoshinoya Beef Bowl, but I’ll go into that in a proper entry eventually.

      Look at the attempts to revitalize the segment. It always starts with better ingredients, a lower price or both. Think Rally’s in 1985 or P.Terry’s in 2006 who are admittedly less widespread. If I were brought in to “fix” BK, I would go back to basics. Which products make up 65-70% or so of sales? Which products do anomalously well in some regions or cities? and drop everything else.

      This warrants an entry on its own.

      Checker’s was in Austin when I got here. I didn’t appreciate that they were Rally’s del Sud until I tasted that first fry. Checker’s Fries, Rallyfries, Olliefries are in my DNA. They closed all four or five stores in 1997 0r 1998. While I was remorseful about the home team losing the inning, Papa John’s expanded into Austin within that year.

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  3. Ryan G permalink
    Thursday, 20 January, 2011 13:32

    Stan-
    I happened upon your blog while googling a comparison between Rally’s/Checkers and Good Times. I am a Denver area resident, but have travelled to the midwest frequently. So I have experience with both Checker’s/Rally’s and Good Times. They are eerily similar!

    Both sell the same seasoned fries with similar burgers on their respective menus. I managed a good times about 14 years ago so am familiar with their inner workings. They have exemplary processes to pump out truly fast food, they are all about the customer, and put out a great product. Like Rally’s they also offer a dual drive-thru so you can get your food from the driver side or passenger side window of the vehicle.

    If you make it to Colorado you should be able to find one of these fine fast food joints to enjoy the same fries you once enjoyed at Rally’s. They offer an excellent guacamole burger/chicken sandwich and great handspun shakes.

    Something I also found of interest recently while shopping at Wal-Mart; Rally’s seasoned fries are sold in the frozen food section at our local Wal-Mart. While they are not as delectable bake they hold the same flavor as what you would find at Rally’s or Good Times.

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    • Monday, 31 January, 2011 3:05

      Mr. G:

      Welcome aboard, and I apologize for not responding in a timely fashion. I recall Rally’s was but one of a rash of 99¢ burger joints which opened in 1985 in, at least, my home MSA of Louisville, KY and the sole survivor. The fries were the exact recipe served at an earlier long-departed Louisville chain called Ollie’s Trolley. So named because the tiny walk-through restaurants were painted up like streetcars. I do not know where they originated, but prefer to think somebody around Louisville devised the idea.

      On your suggestion, and knowing we had $70 in Wal-Mart gift cards in the house, I have acquired and prepared a small batch of those famous fries. Indeed, they are not the same, but they will have to do. The sports bar around the corner also serves what I still think of as “Ollie Fries”, and I suspect they are the Con-Agra ones sitting in my freezer.

      Please chime in again as I intend to continue with the Hamburger Diaries, although making the time has been difficult recently.

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  4. Thursday, 30 June, 2011 3:08

    Interesting history. Feel feel to join us at Taco de Carlos
    http://www.facebook.com/pages/Taco-de-Carlos-Official-Fan-Page/370758452355?sk=wall

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