Carl Karcher Was God

But progress defeated the burger bigot baron's brand

Growing up in Anaheim in the late 1980s, I thought Carl Karcher was God. His signature was on the gift certificate for a free Carl's Jr. kids' meal that elementary teachers gave to students with good grades. My family ate at his restaurants almost weekly, since a Carl's Jr. stands right across Broadway from Anaheim's Central Library. The gentle giant attended Mass daily at my Catholic parish, St. Boniface, always sitting in the front pew. Instead of living far from the burger-eating crowds, Karcher resided in a modest two-story house within walking distance of Latino-heavy Pearson Park. I never mustered the courage to ask for one of the free-hamburger coupons the tycoon kept in his wallet like most of us carry credit-card receipts, but my friends who did always remembered he handed them out with a smile as large as his restaurant's trademark Happy Star.

It was only upon adulthood that I learned about the Karcher reviled by progressives: the CEO fined hundreds of thousands of dollars by the SEC for insider trading; the Lincoln Club co-founder who once told the Los Angeles Times he thought some of Joe McCarthy's "points were valid"; the fool who not only gave money to support the infamously anti-gay 1978 Briggs Initiative, but who also played the role of ignoramus for decades afterward about it—he once told The Orange County Register that Briggs was meant to prohibit teachers from "indoctrinat[ing] your child into becoming a homosexual," and therefore not "about being anti-gay."

This dual legacy of kindness and bigotry colored most obituaries of Karcher, who passed away last Friday at 90 due to complications from pneumonia. Also noted were his contributions to the fast-food industry: salad bars, paying upfront for a meal, the self-service soda fountain. But few bothered to discuss the declining quality of Carl's beloved brand over the past couple of years—and how it was all his fault.

You couldn’t beat his meat
Courtesy CKE Restaurants Inc.
You couldn’t beat his meat

In the old days, Karcher always balanced his capitalistic drive with genuine humility. The original genius of Carl's Jr. was its straightforward offerings—Famous Star for the adults, junior cheeseburger for the kiddies, a Western Bacon Cheeseburger for both, all of it affordable for a working-class family or kids pooling together pennies and dimes after school, all featuring the same patties charbroiled to blackness, with pickles and mustard to offset the char, held between chewy, delicious buns that were a remnant of Karcher's old job working at a bakery. It's an oversimplification of theme for sure, but it earned Karcher millions and solidified his standing as an Orange County institution. Not only that, but you took a certain pride about eating at Carl's—it was Orange County, the lifework of an accessible tycoon.

But that wasn't enough. Karcher started losing control of the company once he looked to expand beyond charbroiled burgers. It might've made financial sense to begin acquiring subpar brands such as Hardee's, La Salsa and Green Burrito, but the moves diluted the burgers.

I doubt Karcher cared much, though, except for those tawdry commercials featuring Hugh Hefner, Paris Hilton, and ejaculatory ketchup stains that offended his Catholic sensibilities while fattening his coffers. In the opening chapter of Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser asked Karcher if he ever missed the old days, when he ran just a couple of restaurants and the county was rural and bucolic. "No," Karcher replied. "I believe in progress."

Progress. Progress is Gospel in this county of plenty, and it earned Karcher fortune and fame-but at the cost of what made us worship Him in the first place.