In April 1997, CKE Restaurants Holdings, Inc., the parent company of Carl's Jr., paid $327 million to Montreal-based Imasco Limited for Hardee's. The merger created a chain of 3,828 restaurants – 3,152 Hardee's outlets in 40 states and 10 foreign countries and 676 Carl's Jr. outlets, primarily in California.
Hardee's founder, Wilber Hardee, opened his first restaurant in Greenville, North Carolina, on September 3, 1960. After a year of success, Wilber decided to look into expanding his restaurant and opening another location so he met with James Gardner and Leonard Rawls to discuss doing so. Shortly thereafter, the first company store was opened in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, in May 1961 by James Carson Gardner and Leonard Rawls on McDonald Street in on North Church Street in Rocky Mount, known within the chain as building number 1. That location was demolished in 2007 and replaced with a veterans' park named for Jack Laughery, a former Hardee's chairman and military veteran.
According to Wilber Hardee, Gardner and Rawls won a controlling share of the company from him in a game of poker. After realizing that he had lost control over his namesake company, Hardee sold his remaining shares to them as well.
Rawls and Gardner sold their first franchises to a small group of longtime friends and acquaintances who formed their own companies and over time, built hundreds more franchised locations. Hardee’s Food Systems went public in 1963 with Rawls as president. Gardner, who was vice president, had political ambitions and left the company when he was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1966.
The 1964 menu included: hamburger-15 cents, cheeseburger-20 cents, fries-10 cents, apple turnovers-15 cents, milk-12 cents, coffee-10 cents, Coke, Pepsi, root beer and orange soda-15 cents and 10 cents, and milkshakes (chocolate-strawberry-vanilla)-20 cents. Strawberry shakes were created from vanilla by addition of a berry syrup which had to be mixed with a spindle.