WILBER HARDEE, 89
Founder of fast-food chain
Wilber Hardee, a farm boy turned grill cook who went on to open the first Hardee's hamburger stand in 1960, starting a chain that now has nearly 2,000 restaurants in the United States and overseas, died last week at his home in Greenville, N.C., of a heart attack.
It was on an empty lot in Greenville, near East Carolina College (now a university), that Hardee opened his first hamburger stand Sept. 3, 1960. There was no dining room, no drive-up window. Charcoal-broiled hamburgers and milkshakes sold for 15 cents apiece.
There are now 1,926 Hardee's restaurants, mostly in the Southeast and the Midwest, most of them franchises of CKE Restaurants, which bought the Hardee's chain in 1997. Last year, the Hardee's division, which specializes in Thickburgers weighing from one-third to two-thirds of a pound and costing up to $4.49, had revenue of $1.8 billion.
Although he would hold an interest in more than 80 other restaurants during his career, Mr. Hardee did not make much of a profit as founder of the chain that bears his name. He sold his share in what was then a five-franchise operation in 1963, for $37,000.
"Back in the '60s, it was pretty good money," said a daughter, Ann Hardee Riggs, "but not that much."
Born in Martin County, N.C., on Aug. 15, 1918, Mr. Hardee was one of five children of Henry and Mary Hardee. Not interested in the family corn and tobacco farm, the young Hardee got a job as a grill cook at a local eatery. In World War II, he was a Navy cook in the Pacific. While home on furlough in 1945, he married Kathryn Roebuck.
Mr. Hardee's first wife died in 1980. In 1986, he married Helen Galloway.
After World War II, Mr. Hardee returned to Greenville and opened a restaurant; he and his wife lived in the back. By 1960, when he opened his first hamburger stand, Mr. Hardee already owned 15 restaurants.
He took on two partners, Jim Gardner and Leonard Rawls, in 1961. They opened a second Hardee's, in Rocky Mount, N.C. But difficulties with his partners soon led him to sell his share. Mr. Hardee later started another hamburger chain, called Little Mint, which eventually had about 25 franchised locations in North and South Carolina.
Ann Hardee Riggs said her father had never failed to get a kick out of seeing the red and white sign of the Hardee's chain. "Anywhere he would go, he was proud to see his name up there," she said.