ST. LOUIS — Wilbur Hardee founded the Hardee's restaurant chain in 1960, but he didn't stop there. The entrepreneur also launched a host of lesser-known eateries in his home state of North Carolina, such as Biscuit Town, Hot Dog City and Beef and Shake.
But even decades after leaving the franchise that still bears his name, Hardee couldn't hide his pride when he passed a location and its marquee that bore his name.
"He considered Hardee's his little child," said Ann Hardee Riggs, Hardee's 60-year-old daughter.
Hardee died Friday, at the age of 89, in Greenville, N.C., the same town where he opened his first Hardee's location, giving birth to a hamburger franchise that is now a division of St. Louis-based CKE Restaurants Inc. Hardee's has grown to include 1,900 locations across the Midwest and Southeast and 200 international locations.
Hardee's has become a mainstay for CKE, which has seen sales and profits rise in recent years based on a strategy of giving hungry customers what they want — even if that happens to be a patently overindulgent Monster Thickburger with 1,420 calories and 107 grams of fat.
Hardee only stayed with the company a few years.
He founded the first Hardee's as a drive-in restaurant near the East Carolina University campus, according to CKE. Although the restaurant didn't have any tables or waiters, it built a loyal following of customers who stopped by for the 15-cent hamburgers that were cooked on a charcoal broiler.
North Carolina businessmen Jim Gardner and Leonard Rawl formed a partnership with Hardee to expand his chain throughout the south. The company went public in 1963, but the partnership between Hardee, Gardner and Rawl did not last much longer.
The way Hardee tells it, the business venture went south one night when the three men were drinking and playing cards. Hardee later told his family he bet his newly minted Hardee's stock during the game. He lost. The next morning, Rawl and Gardner owned a 51 percent controlling share in the company.
Being an independent type, Hardee sold his remaining stake for $37,000 and went on to form other ventures, his daughter said.
"He was the type of man that did not like to be controlled, so he just turned it completely over to them and walked out," Riggs said.
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Over his lifetime, Hardee launched 85 different restaurants throughout the Southeast, according to CKE. Riggs said he loved to serve food, though he never cooked at home. His kids often dined at his restaurants growing up.
"He was the type of man that loved to invent, and loved to start things," recalled Riggs. "His mind was always ahead of whatever generations were thinking of."
Hardee was preceded in death by his first wife, Kathryn Roebuck Hardee, and daughters Janie Hardee Smith and Doris Rae Hardee. He is survived by wife of 22 years, Helen Galloway Hardee; and his daughters, Ann Hardee Riggs, Mary Kathryn Hardee Baker, and Becky Hardee Eissens.
Even though he hadn't worked at Hardee's since the 1960s, he still called the company every now and then to give it a tip or two, Riggs said.
"The only philosophy he gave me was: 'If you don't eat it, don't give it to your customers. Make sure they get first quality,'" she said.
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