The sizzle formerly created by Carl's Jr. and Hardee's provocative burger promotions has been refined as part of a new focus on pioneering food innovations and appealing to more discerning customers. 

For years, the marketing approach and menu introductions from CKE Restaurants Holdings Inc.’s Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. restaurants have been bold, provocative and ultra-indulgent. The same company that has unapologetically put 1,000-plus calorie burgers on its menu and infamously hired burger divas including Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian to seductively promote its offerings has more recently adopted a more refined approach to its menu development and even a hint of self-deprecation in its latest marketing campaign. In April, the company formally announced it was taking a less risqué approach.

“After gaining mainstream notoriety for over a decade as the ‘bikinis-and-burgers’ brands, Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s have completely revamped their advertising and marketing direction, shirking its image as provocateurs in favor of one as relentless pioneers – ‘Pioneers of the Great American Burger,’ to be exact,” the company stated in a press release.

The chain was one of the first to add Angus burgers to its menus and was a quick-service pioneer by adding turkey burgers to its menu in 2011 in an apparent attempt at broadening the appeal spectrum to include both indulgent-minded consumers and those seeking a less-bold option.

Owen Klein, vice president of global product development and innovation at CKE Restaurants, says being first to market a breed in the QSR segment was a foundational move for the company, that is still paying dividends today.

“Our Angus burger is one of the earliest proof points of both restaurants’ commitment to being quality leaders in our category,” he says, “even if we were leading a category of one,” at least until McDonald’s followed suit. This planted a seed for CKE, as it eventually evolved to a quality-based approach. “It’s no secret Angus beef tastes better in a burger. We knew it back then and so did our customer, especially the burger lovers we were hoping to connect with,” Klein says. “Calling out ‘Angus’ in our marketing became and still is a cornerstone of how we promoted it – especially when we were the first and only ones in our segment to serve Angus beef. It helped us earn valuable credibility with burger lovers and paved the way for Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s to really become burger destinations over the years.”

It’s been a hard-to-ignore path from the ultra-indulgent era that included Carl’s Jr. introducing its Original Six Dollar Burger, a 1/2-lb. Angus beef patty in 2001 followed by Hardee’s rollout of its 1/3-lb. Original Thickburger in 2003 – and about six years later seeing McDonald’s Corp. rollout its Angus burger. Meanwhile, the burgers were promoted using titillating TV ads starring burger girls ranging from a car-washing Jessica Simpson to, more recently, supermodel Charlotte McKinney promoting Carl’s Jr.’s All Natural Burger line in 2015 and mixed martial arts fighter Ronda Rousey pitching Carl’s breakfast sandwich.

Current campaigns take a tongue-in-cheek poke at the days when burger babes were the bait to selling a $6, restaurant-style burger during an era when many QSR competitors were focusing on value menus and at least one sandwich chain tempted customers with 12-in. subs for $5. Characters in the most recent campaign signal an end to the burger babe days and a nod to more diverse menu items and offerings that demand more from their fast-food than quick-service at a bargain price.

‘Cleaner' menu options

In early 2017, CKE announced the introduction of its “no antibiotics-ever” charbroiled chicken line at Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. restaurants, an extension of the company’s more natural beef additions. Brad Haley, chief marketing officer for both chains, acknowledged that after it introduced its all-natural, grass-fed burgers with no hormones, steroids or antibiotics in 2015, it made sense to offer a comparable chicken option.

“While the public’s desire for decadent burgers isn’t going away anytime soon, more and more consumers are looking for ‘cleaner’ and more all-natural, menu options, too,” said Haley this past March. “A few years ago, we became the first major fast food chains to offer all-natural, grass-fed beef burgers with no added hormones, steroids or antibiotics, and we’re still the only ones doing so today. So, we naturally wanted to try to do something similar with our charbroiled, chicken breast fillet sandwiches, but we had set the bar pretty high for ourselves with our All-Natural Burger,” he said when the chicken was launched in March.

Klein adds that expectations among consumers have evolved and CKE isn’t about to ignore their preferences.

“Thanks to our purposeful and continuous feedback process across our product and menu development process, we’ve known that our customers today care more about what goes into their food,” he says. “And for chicken, antibiotics has been one of the biggest motivators in the decision-making process for restaurants in the quick-service and fast-casual segments.”

More recently, the chicken sandwich line expanded to include a Hawaiian-style variety and the Chicken Club. It’s part of a menu that is always evolving, Klein says, and in this case heading off dried out breast meat.

“We had two drivers behind our move to a no-antibiotics ever chicken breast lineup, listening to our customers about not only what goes into their food, but their desire to explore new, more adventurous flavors. Our marinating and charbroiling process ensures a juicer chicken, and we know from comments we see every day that consumers aren’t shy about calling out dry chicken,” Klein says. “We wanted to give them a tastier, juicier option.”

CKE recently added to its antibiotic-free charbroiled chicken line-up with its Hawaiian Chicken Sandwich. A marination and charbroiled process prevents the chicken from drying out.

Next on the menu

When it comes to developing the next tastier, juicier option, CKE’s innovation team will experiment with about 500 menu ideas for limited-time offers each year. As those 500 items are analyzed and assessed internally, only a fraction of them make the cut to be test marketed at select restaurants.

Klein says, “This gives us a sense of its sales viability and projecting how the menu would perform across the entire system, which is one of the reasons why historically, only 12-15 limited-time offerings and new menu items are added each year.”

Some of the more innovative introductions CKE’s brands have rolled out this year included its all-day Breakfast Burger, the Baby Back Rib Burger and the Aporkalypse Burrito and Biscuit.

Supply chain factors always play a big part in the development and viability of new products each year. Klein says macrolevel indicators, including the price of oil play a role as does timing.

“Since our restaurant’s menu offerings change over time, one of the most important criteria we also look at for proteins is seasonality and occasion-driven buying, like turkey-inspired items around Thanksgiving,” Klein says.

One item that has transformed the menu offerings at Carl’s Jr., Hardee’s and almost all other quick-service and other foodservice segments is bacon. Klein says in the last three to four years, bacon has become a linchpin of both burger chains.

“To say we use bacon a lot is probably an understatement. It’s featured as a topical to items as well as a stand-alone, especially for breakfast,” Klein says. “In fact, bacon-inspired items account for most of the sales on Hardee’s menu.”

Because bacon has become a foodservice staple on most menus, the challenge is more often in finding new ways to utilize the versatile and iconic meat. It is featured multi-dimensionally in CKE’s burger chains. Klein says the Three-Way Thickburger, which was launched last year at both restaurants, is an example of utilizing bacon uniquely.

“In addition to featured thick cut applewood-smoked strips and crumbles, we worked hard to get bacon jam right and incorporate it as a featured ingredient across our entire system for this LTO – another first for our category,” Klein says.

Like most global chains menu consistency is key, but CKE maintains a degree of flexibility, according to Klein. Region-to-region and market-to-market, he says “There isn’t a ton of variance across our menu around the globe. By design, we want a core menu from Tokyo to Texas that is consistent – although we do rely on our international franchisees to guide us on what we need to deliver on that very promise in their respective regions.

“Feedback from operators in those regions is valuable and the comments range from, ‘Here are the suppliers we need to work with in my region’, to ‘We can’t deliver consistent quality on this key ingredient’. Or sometimes, ‘This breakfast item should be offered as a dessert’, which was direction we received from our Japanese franchisees about repurposing our short stack of breakfast pancakes for their region – which we did,” he says.

“And sometimes that direction does inspire region-specific menu items, like our Tropical Mango Milkshake, that is only available in New Zealand.”