Wilbur Hardee founded the Hardee's restaurant chain in North Carolina 1960, but he didn't stop there. The entrepreneur also launched a host of lesser-known eateries in his home state, such as Biscuit Town, Hot Dog City and Beef and Shake.
But even decades after leaving Hardee's, 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, 89, died Friday 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.
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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.
N.C. 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.
Over his life time, Hardee launched 85 different restaurants throughout the Southeast, according to CKE.
“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.”
Even though he hadn't worked at Hardee's since the 1960s, he still called the company every now and then to give them a tip or two, Riggs said.