West Coast burger chain Carl’s Jr. has made its Manhattan debut not with gimmicky promotions, but a play.
Now open just down the street from Madison Square Garden at 425 Seventh Ave., Carl’s Jr. introduced itself by commissioning what is in all likelihood the first-ever musical about a fast food chain starring its own Happy Star mascot. Happy arrives in the city with a dream — of acting, until he’s forced to fill in for a temperamental celebrity chef and discovers his talent for cooking.
Quirky, a little self-deprecating and looking to distinguish itself in the crowded fast-food market pretty much sums up today’s Carl’s Jr.
“New York is the culinary heart of America,” says Jason Marker, chief executive officer of Carl’s Jr. and its almost-identical sister brand Hardee’s (we’ll get to that). “It is where you test yourself to see if you really belong. We believe we can redefine what fast food is — fighting words, I know.”
Here’s what you need to know about the newest burger player in town.
About the burgers
The chain, which also has a location in Coney Island, is known for charbroiling its burgers, which gives them a noticeably smoky flavor — it also helps that all their beef is Black Angus.
The Western Bacon Cheeseburger earns its accolades with generous slabs of bacon and a barbecue sauce every bit as addictive as the mysterious “special sauce” of the competition.
Their Breakfast Burger, topped with egg, bacon and hash browns, recently went all day.
The chain also dropped a new menu item in time for its Manhattan debut: a generously sized slider made with two beef patties and cheese at the tempting price of $1.50.
The best of the rest
Even if you’re familiar with Southern-style biscuits, they’re executed so well here that breakfast is the clutch time of day. With a golden crisp exterior and fluffy insides, the buttermilk biscuits are kneaded by hand and baked fresh every 15 minutes. Put it this way: Biscuits and gravy is the chain’s top seller in the mornings.
Also brag-worthy are its juicy chicken strips, flash-fried and served with a choice of four sauces. Its milkshakes start with real ice cream and hand-churned with various toppings — look out for a Jolly Ranchers option coming in April. And barbecue potato chips are a promising item previewed at a media sneak peek but still in the development process.
No more Paris Hilton in a bikini
New Yorkers probably don’t not know much about Carl’s Jr. But they probably remember Paris Hilton in a bikini, sudsing up an SUV (then herself) while eating a hamburger. “We’re not pursuing that strategy,” Marker says flatly.
The company has a new slogan, “Pioneers of the great American burger,” and is reviewing ideas from creative agencies to “re-engage consumers in a contemporary expression of edginess and fun that’s more appropriate for today.”
What’s the difference between Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s?
Carl’s Jr. shares its Happy Star mascot and the vast majority of its menus with another burger chain, Hardee’s. What's going on here, exactly?
The first Carl’s Jr. opened in 1956, with the family buying out competing franchise Hardee’s in 1961, according to Bustle. The family tried to convert them all to Carl’s Jr. in the ‘80s but quickly realized that brand loyalty is a powerful force: Hardee’s hardliners refused to visit the rebranded restaurants and they were changed back, according to the economics-focused Marketplace podcast.
The chains keep to their own regions of the country, Carl’s to the West and Southwest, Hardee’s to the Midwest, South and up the East Coast, but only as far as Pennsylvania. CKE Restaurants bought both chains in 1997, and brought on Marker about 10 months ago to lead an effort to finally give them distinct new identities — which are still in the works.
“In the next month or two,” he says, “America will see these two brands emerging and looking very very different.”