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Hardee's vs. Carl's Jr.: 5 Major Differences

These burger chains may look the same, but there are a few key elements that set them apart.
FACT CHECKED BY Chris Shott

They're known for their charbroiled burgers. They're decked out in matching red and yellow color palettes. And they both use the same smiling gold star, also known as Happy Star, as their logo. There's a reason—or rather, several reasons—why Hardee's and Carl's Jr. are often viewed as the same restaurant with different names.

Operating as sister brands, the two fast-food chains began as separate entities. Founded in 1941, Carl's Jr. got its start as a hot dog cart in Los Angeles before the chain's founder, Carl Karcher, opened the first full-service restaurant in Anaheim, Calif., in 1945. Hardee's, on the other hand, was founded by Wilbur Hardee, who opened the first Hardee's location in Greenville, N.C., in 1960. Then, in 1997, CKE Restaurants Holdings, the parent company of Carl's Jr., acquired Hardee's for $327 million.

Despite their strikingly similar offerings and appearances, Hardee's and Carl's Jr. aren't identical chains. In fact, there are a few key differences you might not have even realized. From their locations to their burgers, here are five key distinctions between the two regional fast-food chains.

Store footprint

carl's jr. sign
Tada Images / Shutterstock

When comparing Hardee's and Carl's Jr., one of the biggest differences to note is their store footprint. Hardee's serves more than 1,800 locations across 32 states, primarily in the southeastern and midwestern U.S. The chain also has an international presence in 13 countries.

Meanwhile, Carl's Jr. has over 1,100 restaurants across 15 states, mostly on the West Coast and in the southwestern U.S. This chain has a larger international presence than Hardee's, operating in 28 countries across the globe. The only states that have both Hardee's and Carl's Jr. locations are Oklahoma and Wyoming.

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Breakfast options

Hardee's breakfast biscuit sanwiches
Hardee's / Facebook

While both chains serve breakfast, Hardee's has a longer list of options on its website. Under the breakfast sandwich category, Hardee's highlights 10 different biscuit sandwiches, while Carl's Jr. has just three. That being said, the number of offerings and availability can vary depending on the location. Hardee's also serves French Toast Dips, a Biscuit 'N' Gravy plate, and breakfast platters. Carl's Jr. doesn't offer these items on its menu, though it does list a couple more breakfast burritos than Hardee's, which only showcases one.

Burgers and sandwiches

person holding carl's Jr. western bacon cheeseburger
Carl's Jr. / Facebook

Both Hardee's and Carl's Jr. are known for their charbroiled burgers and hand-breaded chicken tenders. Despite this overlap, each brand has some offerings that the other one doesn't. For instance, only at Hardee's will you be able to sink your teeth into Nashville hot chicken tenders, either by themselves or on a sandwich. The chain also offers a few Swiss cheese-topped burgers, such as the Frisco Burger and Mushroom & Swiss Burger.

At Carl's Jr., customers can order menu items that feature some West Coast flair like the Guacamole Bacon Angus Cheeseburger and Jalapeño Angus Cheeseburger. Another popular option is the Western Bacon Cheeseburger. Plus, plant-based eaters can take comfort in knowing that Carl's Jr. serves a burger featuring Beyond meat—the Beyond Famous Star With Cheese. This option isn't currently available at Hardee's.

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Additional menu items

person taking carl's jr. zucchini bites
Carl's Jr. / Facebook

When it comes to sweets and sides, Carl's Jr. also outnumbers Hardee's. The West Coast brand offers waffle fries (in addition to the natural-cut fries both chains offer), fried zucchini, onion rings, jalapeño popper bites, as well as chocolate cake, strawberry swirl cheesecake, and a chocolate chip cookie. The only chain-specific items Hardee's offers within this category are apple turnovers and biscuits and gravy, with the biscuits being offered during breakfast hours. Both chains offer cinnamon rolls and hand-sc0oped ice cream shakes. However, like any other chain, menu item availability can vary by location.

Branding

hardee's tastes like america campaign
BusinessWire / YouTube

Logo and color scheme aside, Hardee's and Carl's Jr. have taken different approaches with their brands over the years. For years, the chains stirred up controversy by featuring scantily clad women in their advertisements. Then, in 2018, Hardee's and Carl's Jr. parted ways to showcase two distinct brands with the rollout of separate campaigns.

For Hardee's, this meant conveying more wholesome imagery by highlighting real people and local pride alongside the tagline "Tastes like America." The ad also featured singing from "hick-hop" music star Big Wet to emphasize the brand's "comfort culture," which Hardee's defined as a "down home, done right" approach to food.

A few months before this, Carl's Jr. tapped actor Matthew McConaughey to record the voiceover for the chain's Western Bacon Cheeseburger campaign. The ads featured bold, colorful, energetic imagery, layered with the iconic southern drawl of McConaughey, who used phrases like "oozin' drips," "smackin' lips," and "snizzle-dizzle, piggedy-wiggedy buckwild beef."

Despite being separate brands, Hardee's and Carl's Jr. teamed up in 2020 for their joint "Feed Your Happy" campaign.

Correction: Jan. 22, 2024

An earlier version of this article referred to the Carl's Jr. founder as Carl Ketcher when the founder's name is actually Carl Karcher.

Brianna Ruback
Brianna is a staff writer at Eat This, Not That! She attended Ithaca College, where she graduated with a degree in Journalism and a minor in Communication Studies. Read more about Brianna