For these iconic brands, balancing industry legacy with tech-focused upgrades is the name of the game. 

Hardees turned 60 years old in 2020, and Carl’s Jr. turned 80 in 2021. For these legacy brands, owned by parent company CKE Restaurants, a strategic and robust post-pandemic plan is underway. 

“Prior to COVID, customers were already gravitating toward off-premises dining,” says Matthew Walls, chief global development officer for CKE. “The pandemic not only accelerated that process, it took away any and all doubt about it being a passing trend.” 

Since the pandemic started, CKE leadership has gone all in on technological investments that will transform the way Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. interact with their customers and employees. Moving forward, the plan is for CKE to be synonymous with innovation. 

“COVID served as an accelerator of our multifaceted guest facing digital initiatives,” says Phil Crawford, chief technology officer at CKE. “Traditionally the restaurant industry has lagged behind in terms of technological adoption and innovation as compared to other industries.  Now, however, the restaurant industry is in a unique position to leverage technology to enable and streamline efficiency, such as with operations, labor, and supply chain, as well as deliver best-in-class guest facing solutions.”

Now, the company is incorporating technological upgrades throughout its restaurants and re-engineering its real estate plan. “We are adapting our real estate strategy to enable the optimum customer experience,” Walls says.  

That means omnichannel stores with smaller dining rooms, order ahead capabilities with drive-thru or curbside pickup, third-party delivery partnerships, and other guest-facing upgrades. 

“It’s about transformation through proper investment, innovation, and thought leadership,” Crawford says.  “Whether that’s launching contactless technology for front-of-house and back-of-house, mobile order and pay via apps or responsive websites, experimenting with AI in the drive thru, or voice interaction, predictive and personalized loyalty solutions or even robotic process automation (RPA) for operations— The end goal is to create a frictionless experience for our guests.” 

Not all the changes are for the benefit of guests. CKE is also rethinking employee needs and how to make their jobs easier and less stressful. In addition to technological investments in smart kitchens and frictionless payment systems, they’re also thinking about things like flooring.

“Technology doesn’t always have to mean ‘digital,’” Walls says. “It can be flooring that is more comfortable to stand on and easier to clean. Technology should make the lives of our guests and team members better. If we can reallocate some labor to increase the quality of customers’ experience and make our team members’ experiences better, then that’s what we should do.” 

Known for one-of-a-kind premium menu items, Hardee’s and CKE have both U.S. and international footprints with more than 3,800 franchised or company-operated restaurants in 44 states and 43 foreign countries and U.S. territories. Walls says the company is actively looking for franchisees for both brands, which are especially popular with breakfast and lunch eaters. 

“Customers love our Made From Scratch™ biscuits, hand-breaded chicken and 100 percent Black Angus Thickburgers and are accustomed to having that in their life,” he says. “Not only will we heighten the service level for those customers, we want to introduce the brand to a new customer base.” 

To do that, CKE often looks to its international markets, which are often ahead of the U.S. in terms of consumer trends. Most international CKE stores are in airports or other nontraditional spaces, which fits with the growing trend of smaller footprints that are able to rely on fewer employees. The brand is currently exploring co-branding opportunities with transportation hubs and recently opened stores in Beijing Capital International Airport and Paris Charles de Gaulle. 

As for the U.S., CKE has several unique franchising opportunities. Walls is especially interested in franchisees who want to build in the upper Midwest (particularly Michigan and Ohio), Texas, and New England. 

 “I am so excited about the opportunities for growth,” he says. “We want franchisee candidates who really understand those areas and love serving guests. In Texas, we’re looking for franchisees who want to experience explosive growth. There is huge potential in Texas—not just in Dallas and Houston, but also in smaller towns.”

When legacy brands meet technological innovation, incredible things can happen, which is exactly what CKE is counting on. 

Crawford mentions an ethos that he says is foundational for CKE as it pertains to technology.  

“Technology should be an enabler, not a hindrance when it comes to the guest experience,” he says. “These investments position us in a way that we can hold on to our legacy, but leverage technology to amplify guest satisfaction.”  

For more on franchising with CKE Restaurants, visit the company’s website

By Davina van Buren


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