Signs Hardee's Might Not Be Around Much Longer

Everyone has an opinion on their favorite fast food chain. For many, the drive-through window gives them a nostalgic memory of their childhood, or a quick and easy choice when cooking isn't an option. Hardee's is at the top of the list for many in the Southeast and Midwest. Founded in 1960 in Greenville, North Carolina by Wilber Hardee, when milkshakes were just 20 cents, the franchise has now grown to over 1,800 U.S. stores and locations across 13 countries. The Hardee's menu is known for having a little bit of everything, from lunch and dinner favorites like chicken fingers and burgers to breakfast options, including an array of biscuit sandwiches. However, take-out connoisseurs might be upset to know that Hardee's may not be around much longer to satisfy their cravings.

As impressive as 1,800 stores is, Hardee's used to have over 3,100 — stores have slowly closed since CKE Restaurants acquired the company in 1997. Here are reasons why Hardee's might be in danger of biting the dust.

Summit Restaurant Holdings declared bankruptcy

The biggest, and most recent, indicator that Hardee's is in trouble is that Summit Restaurant Holdings declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy in May 2023 (via Restaurant Business). Summit, a major franchise holder of Hardee's, closed 39 restaurants in eight states, including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Kansas, Missouri, Montana, and Wyoming.

Although Summit is not the parent company of Hardee's — that's CKE Restaurant Holdings — a franchise owner with that many stores in its portfolio can still do a lot of damage to a restaurant's overall brand and reputation. This huge number of stores closing is a bad sign. However, a spokesperson for CKE told Nation's Restaurant News, "Summit is working diligently to ensure that the impact to guests, employees, vendors, and communities is minimized."

Summit is hopeful to find a buyer to take over and maintain the remaining 100 stores it still owns. A spokesperson said to Restaurant Business that CKE wishes to find a "qualified and well-capitalized buyer, with a record of success across the restaurant, entertainment, food, beverage and retail markets." It remains to be seen if someone will see the value in taking over the imperiled Hardee's properties.

Controversial ads alienated the customer base

Although the bankruptcy of Summit is the most recent unfortunate occurrence for Hardee's, its string of bad luck starts earlier. From 2009-2015, sexually suggestive ads produced for Hardee's and Carl's Jr. upset viewers across the country. A study from testing firm Ameritest, reported by AdAge, polled audiences and found 52% of the viewers found a Carl's Jr. commercial "offensive" and 51% found it "irritating and annoying." 

Some of the most popular models, actresses, and female public figures of the 2000s got in on the cheeky commercials for Hardee's and Carl's Jr., including Paris Hilton, Heidi Klum, Kim Kardashian, Kate Upton, and Emily Ratajkowski. It ignited a backlash over whether the classic "sex sells" idiom in advertising should apply to burgers.

In 2017, the brand decided to pivot and stop using women as props in its ads to refocus on the food itself. Executive Creative Director Jason Norcross pointed out in Adweek, "Some of the product attributes got lost because people were too busy ogling girls." But had the damage already been done? Although the brand has decided to move in a different direction, it hung its reputation on these commercials for years.

A trademark dispute prevented Hardee's from expanding into Canada

If you try to find a Hardee's in Canada, you won't have much luck — the brand doesn't exist up north due to a trademark dispute. A very popular Canadian chain, Harvey's, already existed in Canada prior to Hardee's expansion. There was pushback from our Northern neighbors given the remarkable similarity in both name and menu items. Although Carl's Jr. and Hardee's are separate restaurants, the two are both owned by CKE, so the compromise is that Carl's Jr.' is allowed to exist in Canada, while Hardee's cannot. Business Wire reports that the first Carl's Jr. opened in 2011 in British Columbia under the operation of Jove Franchise Development. Andrew F. Puzder, CEO of CKE said, "We are confident that the strength of our brand combined with Jove's management expertise and passion for our brand will secure a bright future for Carl's Jr. in the Canadian market."

Although it seems as if Carl Jr.'s is benefitting from the deal, one might argue that being pushed out of a major food market like the entire country of Canada is also contributing to a lack of brand awareness, factoring into Hardee's decline.

Customer reviews are miserable

Unfortunately, the online feedback from customers who have eaten at multiple Hardee's locations is appalling. Hardee's has an average of 2.2 stars (out of 5) on Trustpilot, with reviews such as "Rude employee. Poor management." from user Kelly Cox. User Lucceey recounts, "I could not believe what I saw in one of my plates with tenders ...I  [saw] a fly. I literally threw my plate out." Finally, "When I got home my order was wrong," says Ella Snodderly.

The poor reviews continue on Yelp, where Hardee's has a 2.3 rating out of 5, which according to Yelp "indicates that most customers are generally dissatisfied." You could back that statement up by reading customer reports such as "We left without even eating. Service was rude and trash," from Sarah T. and "The service and the sanitation is horrible. Do not recommend." from Cody B. Finally, Raj J. reports, "Went in there for chicken, was told after deciding what we wanted that they were completely out of chicken."

Downsizing drinks

Some eagle-eyed customers have noticed that the sizes of Hardee's drinks have changed. A Reddit user reports that it has discontinued its 44-ounce drinks, downsizing its largest size to thirty-two ounces — but still charging "large" prices. Reducing the amount of liquid for consumers implies Hardee's is finding innovative ways to save money through customer sacrifice.

The change has not gone unnoticed, either. Several X users have commented on the smaller sizes. @AmberStamper101 tweeted "@Hardees what are your drink sizes? Was given a kids cup with my combo instead of a small. The worker insisted that was the right size." On Medium, another X user is quoted as saying "Why does Hardee's think it's okay to make their drink sizes smaller and charge the same price?"

Although the drink sizes have changed, as the user above noted, the prices have not. By charging the customers the same price for less drink volume, Hardee's is saving money in ways that come at the expense of the consumer – which could have the consequence of alienating the loyal customer base.

Hardee's can't crack top rankings

If the poor customer reviews on Trustpilot and Yelp weren't indicative enough, Hardee's has failed to crack the top rankings of fast food chains and drive throughs by reviewers and food blogs. For example, Taste of Home ranked the Top Eight drive-though burgers, and Hardee's came in at number five. The review stated, "The patty on this burger was pretty darn thin. I felt like the proportion of patty to bun was off balance...not worth a special trip."

YouGov, an online polling firm, released the most popular dining brands in America. Hardee's comes in at a disappointing number forty-nine with 54% popularity. YouGov states that its rankings are based on popularity, and "Popularity is the percentage of people who have a positive opinion of a dining brand." The only upside is that Hardee's did outrank its sister restaurant Carl Jr.'s, which came in even lower at number seventy-four with 46% popularity.

Another blog, It's a Southern Thing, shared their opinion on eleven southern fast food chains...and Hardee's came in low on the list at number ten. However, writer Amber Sutton does point out that there are still items on the menu to appreciate, and it's a reliable brand, even if it's not the best.

Tied for last place in drive-through satisfaction

The drive-through experience is meant to be efficient. And yet, continuing with dismal reviews, Hardee's came in dead last in customer drive-in satisfaction, as reported in an Intouch Insight study covered by Newsweek. Hardee's failed in overall service, in an embarrassing three-way tie with Arby's and Dunkin' Donuts. All three, according to Intouch, failed on speed and accuracy, coming in at 82% satisfaction. While that seems like a relatively high percentage, consider that other brands like Chick-fil-A scored over 90%.

Perhaps in an effort to improve the drive-through experience, Hardee's is starting to test out A.I. chatbots to respond to drivers. Although the technology is still relatively new, it does seem as if human error is being removed from the equation, allowing workers more freedom to cook and to respond to customers in-store. The only downside is these machines have a hard time hearing over loud noises or answering irregular questions, so it remains to be seen whether, in the long run, they'll help or hinder Hardee's customers.

Removing plant-based menu options

The plant-based menu options Hardee's introduced in 2019 have already been removed as of 2023. Hardee's created a Beyond Thickburger and Beyond Sausage biscuit for its vegetarian and health-conscious consumers in a partnership with Beyond Meat. However, disappointingly, the efforts did not drum up the new business Hardee's would have hoped.

While the roll-out of these plant-based options was widely announced and supported by large organizations such as PETA, their disappearance has been much quieter and more mysterious. It seems as if poor sales was the major, logical, factor for pulling them off the menu, despite a small but loyal contingent of customers who enjoyed having an alternative meat option. The demand for vegetarian options just wasn't high enough to justify the cost of the Beyond options, and Hardee's is continuing to look for ways to cut spending and double down on ita most popular menu items.

Rising food, transportation, and labor costs

As cited in the Summit bankruptcy filing, rising costs combined with lower sales across the board are the number one reason why Hardee's locations are closing. While it's true these food, transportation, and labor issues have affected just about every sector of the economy in the last few years, they have had a tremendous impact on Hardee's locations. Court documents indicate "Summit struggled with declining traffic during the pandemic and subsequent pressures on rising food and labor costs, which drained the company of cash flow" (via Restaurant Business). Smaller profit margins and less foot traffic also were factors in the decline of business, Daniel Dooley, CEO of distressed business consulting practice MorrisAnderson, revealed to Restaurant Dive.

In a State of the Industry study, it was revealed costs across the board in the industry are going up from 1%-5% in 2024, on both the supply side and the labor side, indicating these trends may get worse before they get better. Hardee's will need to significantly increase its customer base soon to offset the costs.