At 1,420 calories and 107 grams of fat, Hardee's Monster Thickburger couldn't escape notice in these diet-conscious times.
Or the jabs of late-night talk show hosts.
Just a day after the Monster's rollout Nov. 15, Jay Leno quipped on "The Tonight Show" that the megaburger "actually comes in a little cardboard box shaped like a coffin." On David Letterman's "Late Show," an actor playing the chief of Hardee's corporate parent, CKE Restaurants Inc., in a sketch clutched his chest, then keeled over when asked of any health risks of a burger that size.
Media outlets from Japan, Spain, England, France and Australia have reported about the Monster.
"I don't think any of us anticipated anything like the media uproar we've seen," says Andy Puzder, the real president and CEO of California-based CKE.
But the word-of mouth advertising, coming on top of a new ad campaign, has had just the impact the company wanted. People have just had to try the Monster. All of it.
"You can certainly say it exceeded all my expectations," Puzder said of sales, although he declined to offer specifics.
The fuss is all about a super-supersized burger — two 1/3-pound slabs of all-Angus beef, four strips of bacon, three slices of cheese and mayonnaise on a buttered sesame seed bun. The sandwich alone sells for $5.49, or $7.09 with fries and a soda. The combo packs more calories and fat than most people should get in a day.
A Monster Thickburger bought by a reporter Monday at a St. Louis Hardee's was presented appealingly enough, wrapped neatly in light paper and standing a whopping 2 1/2 inches tall inside a box. But the double-pattied behemoth, bought as part of combo with French fries and a drink, stretched the mouth and stomach, too much for the reporter to absorb in one sitting.
Hardee's timing is interesting; McDonald's, Wendy's and other rival fast-food giants are offering salads and other lower-calorie fare. But Hardee's appears comfortable staking its future — at least near-term — on gargantuan burgers.
Hardee's already was offering five sandwiches with 1,000 calories or more, and eight overall that have more calories than what was once the big-burger standard — the 560-calorie Big Mac.
Still, the company has plenty of competition when it comes to big-calorie sandwiches. According to the corporate Web sites of the larger fast-food chains, the Double Quarter Pounder with cheese at McDonald's has 730 calories and 40 grams of fat, the Burger King Double Whopper with cheese (1,060 calories, 69 grams of fat), and the Wendy's Classic Triple with cheese (940 and 56).
"Not every product has to be aimed at the health-conscious," Puzder said, noting that since the introduction of the Thickburger family in April 2003, sales for the 2,067-restaurant chain have risen steadily.
Though CKE fell to a loss in the second-quarter ending Aug. 9 — given charges for settlement reserves and debt refinancing — the company said sales at its Hardee's and the Carl's Jr. chains rose in the four weeks ended Nov. 1 for the 17th straight reporting period.
Edwin Depke, 80, a retired box company worker who has long loved the Thickburgers, was won over by the Monster at a St. Louis Hardee's.
Calories schmalories, he said.
"They're big and thick, with all the trimmings," Depke said. "You don't have to worry about all bun and no meat."
"They're really good. Eat one, and you don't have to worry about another. It's a meal."
Still, many have questioned Hardee's approach at a time when airlines say America's growing waistlines are hurting their bottom lines, costing them more in fuel.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington-based advocate for nutrition and health, dubbed the Thickburgers "food porn," the Monster "the fast-food equivalent of a snuff film."
"At a time of rampant heart disease and obesity, it is the height of corporate irresponsibility for a major chain to peddle a 1,420-calorie sandwich," the center said.
Lighten up, others say.
"Let the food puritans say what they will," the Star Tribune of Minneapolis said in an editorial. "There's nothing really wrong with counting the occasional juicy burger among life's simple pleasures."
"The promotional campaign has relied so heavily on humor that it seems possible to take the Monster Thickburger itself as kind of a goof on the fast-food industry's belated and rather lame, lawsuit-driven trend toward healthier menu choices," the newspaper said, asking "does anyone who savors a good green salad really think McDonald's or Subway is the place to go?"
Chase Squires, a St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times reporter, tried the Monster Thickburger and found it "kind of mushy," opining in a column Nov. 23 that there were healthier food options. Holiday air travelers, he suggested, should go lighter on the airlines and "have a stick of butter instead. That has only 800 calories and 88 grams of fat. We could always wrap it in bacon."
Puzder has the stomach for such dissent.
"We want Hardee's to be known as the place for big, juicy, decadent burgers," he says. "Every time (comics or critics) come out with something, it helps us advance the impression of the brand. This all helps."