Alright, so I know that “corporate” and “chain” tend to be dirty words around MBIP, but I’d wager those two are about the only ones you might not get away with saying here. Nevertheless, I’d like to touch upon a corporate-run chain that I’ve heard many people say has fallen from grace through the years.
Maybe “fallen from grace” is too harsh, as I’m sure there are readers out there that still enjoy it (myself included) or maybe even work there…how about we say “it isn’t what it used to be”. That’s at least fair, right?
I was inspired in part for this topic by “Used To Be a Pizza Hut”—a great blog devoted to those distinct pavilion-style buildings that you guessed it—used to be Pizza Huts, abandoned since the chain started moving into strip mall take-out locations. True, there’s a fair share out there, as well as lots of former homes to a once much more prevalent fast food chain. Its current incarnation bears little resemblance to what it was, and with the number of locations they used to have versus now, maybe the phrase “fallen from grace” isn’t too far off the mark.
McDonalds has shelled out billions upon billions of McBucks to be the top of mind awareness dog when it comes to fast food. How many people do you know erroneously refer to all chicken nuggets as Chicken McNuggets? Exactly.
But I’m not McHere to McTalk about McThem. Around Peoria, we once seemed to have different ideas about which fast food chain was King (and it wasn’t the Burger one either).
I’m talking about Mickey D and BK’s brown and orange cousin Hardee’s. Once upon a time, it reigned supreme in Peoria. In fact I daresay that Hardee’s locations may have once outnumbered McDonald’s in and around Peoria. Whether that was true or not, it most certainly is not now. At my last unofficial count, Peoria was down to just three Hardees locations—Adams St, Willow Knolls and Northpoint, two of which are dual-branded with “Red Burrito”, so maybe they only count as half Hardee’s?
Now, this does not count East Peoria, Pekin, or any other surrounding territories where you can still find a few, but Hardee’s is by no means growing in the Peoria area, whereas last time I checked, McDonalds continues adding to its roster.
Hardee’s formed in the 1960s and grew rather quickly through franchising and buyouts. In 1971, they acquired “Sandy’s”, the popular hamburger chain started here in Peoria. Sandy’s was successful, but could not compete with those McBucks the Golden Arches and other competitors were dumping into television advertising, and all Sandy’s locations gradually converted to the Hardee’s name through the 1970’s. By the 1980’s they reached a peak of over 4,000 locations.
I loved McDonaldland and its Happy Meals just as much as any 80s kid, but most of the adults in my life seemed to prefer Hardee’s, and they were the ones driving, so they usually won out. This was cool with me too, as Hardee’s was the undisputed champ of fast food promotions in those days, like in 1984 when the “Gremlins” were featured in a series of read-along books and records (yes, records—and I had all five).
Their most successful promotion came in 1987 when cinnamon and raisin biscuits were added to their popular “Rise ‘n Shine” breakfast menu and who better to plug such an item than singing and dancing raisins?
Hardee’s tapped the highly popular “California Raisins” as the wrinkled faces of this campaign, appearing as “Claymation” in commercials and as figurines and other merchandise in restaurants. The figurines triggered a collecting craze, and more sets of the Raisins followed in 1988, 1991, and 2001.
Based on the success of the Raisins, Hardee’s dared to strike promotional gold again with the “Tang Mouths”—remember those sassy anthropomorphic sets of human lips that walked, talked, and cracked jokes in “Tang” commercials back then? A set of 4 figurines appeared at Hardees in 1989, for 99 cents each with a dessert or order of breakfast hash rounds (yes, hash rounds—do your Hardee's homework).
The Mouths didn’t catch on like the Raisins did, and only made one appearance in your local Hardee’s. I collected all 4 from Hardee’s Kid Meals and by trading a cereal box “Duck Tales” ink stamper during a playground swap meet I organized and managed in those days.
In the summer of 1989, Hardee’s ran a special promotion for the release of “Ghostbusters 2” that zapped them right in the gozers...
Haughtily anointing itself the official Headquarters of Ghostbusters 2, and tricking out their locations as such, the main component of the promo was a set of “Ghostblaster” noise making toys. After 2.8 million units were sold at $1.79 each, Hardee’s voluntarily recalled the Ghostblasters gadgets when reports of children ingesting their small parts began to trickle into the news…as you can imagine, these days they’re hot eBay items, and a complete wrapped set goes for $120, in case you have any children you want to feed them to...
In 1990, the Tom Cruise film “Days of Thunder” featured the Hardee’s logo prominently emblazoned on one of the film’s race cars accompanied, of course, by a full promotional campaign at all locations.
Getting back to their food though, the effect of cost cutting that had taken place by corporate in the early 80’s which included switching from chargrilled to fried burgers began catching up to them. Hardees was constantly expanding its menu (perhaps to direct customers away from the subpar burgers) by offering fried chicken, roast beef, and many other items, signifying a lack of focus and pulling themselves in too many different directions. They downsized to half the number of locations, and in 1997, while positioned as the number four fast food restaurant in the country, a big announcement was made...
I first visited a Carl’s Jr. in Anaheim, CA in the summer of 1997. I liked it a lot—so much in fact, I went there twice during my vacation. When I got home from that trip, I read in the paper that Carl’s Jr. was coming to Peoria to replace Hardee’s. I’ll admit I was excited, as I had really liked Carl’s in California and having no attachment to Hardees at the time, I didn’t blink. So in the fall of 1997, Hardee’s began getting the “Carl’s Jr” layover, one by one. It was almost a game to one day suddenly see another location “tagged” with the new smiling star mascot.
Carl’s Jr. still sold “Hardees breakfast” and even carried a sign in the windows of every location publicizing this fact. But such a signal is a mixed one for consumers—”so, it’s not Hardees, but they sell Hardee’s breakfast?” “Is this place called Hardee’s until 11 am and Carl’s Jr. after?” It was weird. Plus, people also couldn’t seem to get the new name right (Carl’s Jr? Or Carl Jr’s?).
Believe it or not though, these issues were probably the least of their concerns. Local consumers did not take to the Carl’s Jr. menu and their campaign boasting how messy their burgers were. Sales were indicative that spilling food all over your shirt had very limited appeal.
It didn’t take long for corporate to take action. Next thing you know, before the conversion had even finished, the Carl’s Jr. locations were changing back to Hardee’s, at least in name...the Carl’s Jr. menu remained, and so did the slumping sales. At times, you weren’t sure if you were walking into a Hardee’s or a Carl’s Jr. I even recall McDonalds getting snarky and many of their signs reading “NO IDENTITY CRISIS HERE” Ooh, a mighty passive aggressive burn there, Ronald.
Hardee’s locations began shutting down left and right after the big changeover/Identity crisis of the Late 90’s. Fast forward 15 or so years to now, and the effects of those changes are still evident today, in all the repurposed and empty buildings around us where good people once went for good food.
And of course, we’re going to take a tour of them.
Its best to start our tour at the beginning—on Sheridan Road at the spot that was not only the first Sandy’s but also first to convert to Hardee’s. Sandy’s was a franchise-based chain, and this Hardee’s stayed as such, which gave it the distinction (as they would often boast on their sign) of being the “World’s Oldest Hardee’s Franchise”. I remember slow service here, but they did carry pork tenderloins and unique menu items not found at other Hardee’s. They shut their doors in 1997 when the Carl’s Jr. change-overs started happening. Soon it became a Dairy Queen and hasn’t looked back.
The DQ even still has the Hardee’s sunrise logo etched above their doors! I always get a kick out of seeing that.
McClure Avenue in Peoria lasted a bit longer than many other locations. After life as Hardee’s, it became Grandpa John’s Rib Shack for some time, until that too closed, the building started getting run down, then this fine establishment recently opened, servicing all your smoke and munchie needs.
Western Avenue became Chicago Grill, and now sits as a TitleMax location, because we just can’t have too many of those around town, now can we?
North University near Willow Knolls Road also became Chicago Grill, then after that closed, somehow, someway, somebody looked at it and thought “this would be the perfect place for a Women’s Care Center” and promptly converted the drive-thru into a flower box and slapped the face of a pretty girl on the sign.
Over on Prospect in Peoria Heights, I can’t recall if this Hardee’s was demolished completely or just partially to become Heights Florist a decade or so ago.
Here at this vacant spot on Knoxvillle heading to I-74 East sat a location that closed when the massive I-74 expansion began—the building first served as IDOT’s satellite office during the project and was demolished once work finished.
At MacArthur Highway near the bridge was a unique Hardee’s EXPRESS location, meaning they only had drive-thru service. It too, never made the changeover. It spent a brief period as another sandwich shop but has been empty for awhile again.
Northwoods Mall’s lower level seems to be the most fondly remembered “lost” Hardee’s, which moved in around 1984 when Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlor Restaurant moved out. Featuring an indoor smoking section quite popular with deviant teens, this location went away in the late 90s in the wake of the Carl’s Jr. change-overs. It’s now Lane Bryant, which not only took over Hardee’s space but also the neighboring home of Orange Julius/Freshens Frozen Yogurt.
Hardee’s was so popular that two locations within spitting distance of each other was no big thing—this location on Sterling was directly across from Northwoods Mall and closed in the early 2000’s, since becoming a Subway. That patio used to be a playground.
In East Peoria, this spot became a Fiesta Ranchera, but also closed recently and now sits empty.
If you glance closely, you can even still make out the Hardees logo labelscar at this former Creve Coeur location, now the “Creve Coeur Food Mart and Liquor”
After this one near Pekin High School closed, it spent some time as a Maid-Rite Diner, which also closed and now sits empty. (Pekin still has an open location a few miles away).
There were, I’m sure, other former Hardees locations still littering the area, some sitting with new tenants, and some empty. Hardee’s, from what I understand, is now the number five fast food chain nationwide and plans to grow once again by expanding their presence in the Northeastern United States. Presumably, some will be that dual “Red Burrito” concept, which always seemed like a weird thing to me but hey, it’s lasted a lot longer than the “Carl’s Jr.” name did.
Writing this has made me hungry. I’m off to find some curly fries (those actually are still the same at Hardee’s) and if anyone out there knows of something close to those “all white meat” chicken sticks they sold in the late 80’s, let me know, and you’ll no doubt win me over.