Wilbur Hardee was born on August 15, 1917, in the rural community of Martin County, North Carolina, but his desire for adventure led him away from his family's farm. Those adventures often included hitchhiking trips with close friend Bill Edwards as far south as Miami, Florida, and New Orleans, Louisiana, and as far north as Washington, D.C.
After stints as a musician and grill cook, Hardee joined the United States Navy to serve his country during World War II. Granted a furlough following his uncle's death, Hardee returned to the States where he met Kathryn Roebuck, whom he would marry in 1945.
Although he had settled down, Hardee never lost the adventurous spirit of his youth that would lead him to become one of the most forward-thinking entrepreneurs of his time.
With the help of his wife, Hardee opened his first restaurants in North Carolina, the Do Drop Inn, Port Terminal Inn (both of which he later sold), and the Silo Restaurant. Ever observant, Hardee studied the things that the public seems to respond to the most at existing quick-serve restaurants at the time, and an idea formed that would evolve into the first Hardee's restaurant concept.
On September 3, 1960, Wilbur Hardee opened his new restaurant, a drive-in, on the busy corner of 14th and Charles Streets in what was then a popular cruising district near the East Carolina University campus in Greenville, North Carolina. The very first Hardee's had no tables, no waiters, and only a few items on the menu. But, the drive-thru restaurant was an immediate success. The main attraction was a 15-cent fresh-ground, lean beef burger that was made to order on a custom-build charcoal broiler.
The successful business model soon attracted interested partners. Jim Gardner and Leonard Rawls made the trip across the state to meet with Hardee and discuss plans for expansion. The trio soon formed a partnership and opened the first Hardee's franchise restaurant in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, on May 5, 1961.
Rawls had attended high school with two other entrepreneurial spirits, Nick and Mayo Boddie. They would eventually team up with their uncle, Carleton Noell and form Boddie-Noell Enterprises (BNE). Upon viewing the enormous success of the early Hardee's restaurants, the industrious group bought five franchises for $1,500 each. Today, BNE operates just under 350 Hardee's restaurants, making them the brand's largest privately held franchisee.
Wilbur Hardee eventually severed ties with his partners, who quickly turned the Hardee's name into one of the most recognized restaurants in the nation. The company went public in 1963, expanded rapidly with over 1,900 locations across the Midwest and Southeast today, as well as over 200 international locations, mainly in the Middle East. The Hardee's corporate offices remained in Rocky Mount until 2001, when parent company CKE moved Hardee's headquarters to its present location in downtown St. Louis, Missouri.
Hardee remained a restaurant mainstay in North Carolina, even without his signature restaurant. Between 1949 and 1991, he began 85 different restaurants throughout the Southeast.
Although Hardee had not been affiliated with the company that bore his name for many years, he was invited to participate in the 40th anniversary celebration of the franchise by CKE in 2000, where he met a kindred spirit, the late Carl Karcher, founder of CKE's other quick-service restaurant chain, Carl's Jr.
Arrangements are being made by Wilkerson Funeral Home & Crematory. A private memorial service will be held at a later date.
Hardee was preceded in death by his first wife, Kathryn Roebuck Hardee, and daughters Janie Hardee Smith and Doris Rae Hardee. He is survived by wife of 22 years, Helen Galloway Hardee; daughters, Ann Hardee Riggs, Mary Kathryn Hardee Baker, and Becky Hardee Eissens; step-daughter, Patricia Vernon Phelps; grandchildren Gregory Lee Riggs, Scottie Smith, the Reverend Marcus L. Riggs, James Wesley Riggs, James William Hodges, Yvonne Hardee Moore, Skylar Alexis Stox, and Sierra Grace Stox; and nine great-grandchildren.