Marcel Proust had his madeleine, the simple French sponge cake that famously unlocked a torrent of childhood memories in his Remembrance of Things Past after the Narrator dunked one in tea and took a sip.
My yummy time machine was the Junior Cheeseburger from Carl's Jr.
I hadn't tried one in years when I recently ordered it at the fast-food giant's location on Harbor Boulevard and Broadway in Anaheim. It's a glorified junior-high cafeteria burger, really: a thin patty, two pickles (if you're lucky), a floppy slice of American cheese, mustard, ketchup and buns so threadbare that I left a thumb imprint after unwrapping it. But the combo of tart condiments, charbroiled beef, rubbery cheese and the pickle's slight snap triggered anecdote after anecdote, all centered on this Carl's and this exact meal.
With the first bite, I'm suddenly 4 again, waiting in line with my parents and 1-year-old sister as we prepare to dine for the first time at an American restaurant. I become 8 in the second chomp, playing hooky with my cousins from a summer camp across the street at the Anaheim Central Library. I'm then a teenager, throwing fries at my pals from Anaheim High School over the tall dining booths and getting scolded by the store manager. In my mid-20s, I buy three to go for old time's sake before heading down to City Hall—and now, the Junior Cheeseburger is done in four bites.
It was everything I remembered—small and not much, but joyous and just perfect. But as I took the last nibble, the present returned. A radical revamp had turned the Carl's of my youth into a Ruby's ripoff. Photos from the company's past decorated the restaurant, along with tiled floors and brushed-steel accents to create a sense of nostalgia. Instead of smiling teens, though, harried-looking Latino immigrants manned the front counter. And the marquee behind them, bright with photos of gargantuan burgers I had never tasted—the 1/2 Pound Original Six Dollar Thickburger®, the Single All Natural Burger, the Big Carl™—crowded out longtime Carl's classics such as the Western Bacon Cheeseburger, the Famous Star . . . and my Junior Cheeseburger, which didn't merit a mention on the menu anymore.
Next to the counter hung a plaque commemorating Carl's Jr.'s founders, Carl and Margaret Karcher. It hangs in each restaurant, telling curious customers how this multinational started with just a hot-dog cart in Los Angeles bought with $311 borrowed against a Plymouth Super Deluxe. "The American Dream is alive and well in this country of ours," reads a quote by Carl at the bottom. "I know. I lived it."
Wholesome, fuddy-duddy and eternally sunny—that was Carl's Jr. because that was Karcher, a burly, gravel-voiced man who relished being the hometown hero gone big and whose impish grin became immortalized thanks to the company's Happy Star logo. But that corporate spirit, much like the Carl's of my youth, is long gone—and in its place is a wrecker ready to march on Washington.
The Carl's of today is best known for tawdry commercials featuring D-listers or double-D-ers orgasmically swallowing engorged burgers. The attitude flows from the philosophy of current CEO Andrew Puzder, who told Entrepreneur in 2015, "I like our ads. I like beautiful women eating burgers in bikinis. I think it's very American." His CKE Restaurants (which owns Carl's Jr., Hardee's, Green Burrito and Red Burrito) has attracted multiple lawsuits, workplace-discrimination and sexual-harassment claims, and wage-theft investigations under his watch. Nevertheless, he's Donald Trump's choice to head the U.S. Department of Labor, and he's scheduled to sit through Senate confirmation hearings on Feb. 7.
Workers' rights groups across the country have organized against Puzder's nomination since it was announced in December. They paint the 66-year-old as emblematic of the problem-plagued fast-food industry, and they fear his profits-above-all philosophy will threaten American labor.
"The Labor Secretary serves as the chief advocate and protector of our nation's workforce," National Employment Law Project executive director Christine Owens told the Los Angeles Times in December. "But based on Mr. Puzder's own comments, it's hard to think of anyone less suited for the job of lifting up America's forgotten workers—as Trump had campaigned on—than Puzder."
Even more criminal is Puzder's cheapening of Carl's Jr., memorably mocked in 2006's prophetic film Idiocracy in which a future kiosk advertised "EXTRA BIG ASS FRIES" before it called soldiers to arrest a desperate mother who couldn't afford them. (Years later, Puzder would tell Business Insider he was interested in automated tellers because "They're always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there's never a slip-and-fall, or an age-, sex- or race-discrimination case.")
How do I know Carl's Jr. was once great? We in Orange County remember when the chain meant quality because it was a reflection of Karcher, who cared mightily about us. Then Puzder came along and remade Carl's into his own. The move paid off handsomely for CKE's owners: What was once a regional chain with 648 locations in 1993, when Karcher lost control and Puzder made moves that eventually brought him to power, is now a worldwide phenomenon boasting 3,750 branches, with more than 100,000 employees and more than $4.3 billion in revenue.
But Carl's Jr.'s lost its soul in the process. And it still breaks my hangry heart.
* * * * *
The Carl's in Fountain Valley off Harbor Boulevard and Edinger Avenue is busy for lunch. The line goes fast, though, and I'm next in less than a minute. Before me is a prominent photo for a California Classic Double Cheeseburger. Two beef patties, cheese, grilled onions, Thousand Island dressing, lettuce and tomato—sounds like a Double Double to me.
I'm trying to like Carl's again for this story, so I order it. No, I don't want a combo, I tell the cashier. No, I don't want the Budweiser Beer Cheese Bacon Fries. I just want the California Classic. The waitress delivers it to my table within minutes—far faster than In-N-Out. Promising.
But its execution is all wrong. There's too much dressing, which is too chalky, and the Thousand Island flavor drowns out the grilled onions. The lettuce and tomato are soft instead of crispy; the bun rips apart too easily. I make it halfway through the Classic before giving up. This burger isn't bad, but it's unoriginal and a mockery of the Happy Star way.
Eric Schlosser began his seminal 2001 book, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, with the story of Carl's Jr., describing it as a "fast-food parable about how the industry started and where it can lead." Carl Karcher's saga was truly the American dream: son of a sharecropper, grandson of German immigrants, eighth-grade dropout, an Ohio farmboy who went West in 1937 as a 20-year-old to work at his uncle's feed store in then-rural Anaheim. In 1945, he started his first restaurant, Carl's Drive-in Barbecue, after running successful hot-dog stands in South Central Los Angeles. He opened it off what's now Harbor Boulevard and La Palma Parkway, on land across the street from the orange groves of his wife's family. Eleven years later, the first Carl's Jr. popped up off Lincoln Boulevard, on land now part of St. Boniface Church, the Karchers' home parish where Carl and Margaret attended morning Mass daily for decades.
Through innovations (America's first salad bar and fill-yourself soda fountain, among others) and simple, flame-licked burgers, Karcher's empire grew into one of the largest privately owned restaurant chains in the United States. His personal fortune topped $100 million, but Karcher never lost his humility: a large statue of St. Francis Assisi stood in the lobby at CKE's corporate headquarters, and Karcher began all board meetings with a prayer.
Schlosser did a great job of telling this tale, as well as the troubles that eventually befell Karcher. The only thing the author missed was contextualizing how the mogul loomed over Anaheim life for decades. He was one of us, one of the most approachable multimillionaires in Orange County history.
Although he had homes on the coast, the Karcher compound was in the middle of residential Anaheim, a 6,500-square-foot house just a 15-minute walk from corporate headquarters. Kids from across the city descended on the Karcher home every Halloween, knowing they'd either get a full-sized candy bar or a Carl's Jr. gift certificate—or both. If you couldn't go that night, you knew that the reward for good grades at Anaheim elementary schools from the 1970s through the 1990s was a Happy Star meal certificate signed by Karcher himself. And if you worked up the nerve to approach him whenever he was around town, he'd give you a coupon for a free hamburger.
Yes, it was genius—maybe even cynical—marketing, but Karcher also had a sense of noblesse oblige: money was important, but community mattered, especially in a working-class town such as Anaheim. Carl's ranked just below Disneyland and the Angels as city institutions residents were not only proud of, but also patronized. How could you not? Its offerings were cheap but delicious. Dozens of my friends or their older siblings got their first job at Carl's Jr., serving friends and family and regulars who knew them by name. Carl's son Jerome became a well-known priest and is currently pastor at St. Vincent de Paul Church in Huntington Beach. Carl even partnered with a developer on a $29 million residential project called Park Vista to remodel 394 apartment units in the notorious Chevy Chase barrio, leaving aside nearly 100 units for affordable housing. "It's great, isn't it?" he asked the Orange County Register on the day of his development's debut. "As I was saying this morning, what's made me so happy in my 47 years of business is to help people."
Just a couple of weeks later, my family moved into a house just down the street from Park Vista.
No one in the city ever gave much thought to Karcher's darker side: the CEO who was fined hundreds of thousands of dollars by the SEC for insider trading in the late 1980s; the Lincoln Club co-founder who once told the Los Angeles Times he thought some of Joseph McCarthy's "points were valid" and that Richard Nixon got a "bum rap"; the fool who not only gave money to support the 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 the Briggs Initiative was meant to prohibit teachers from "indoctrinat[ing] your child into becoming a homosexual" and therefore not "about being anti-gay." He chaired the re-election committee of John Schmitz, the notorious congressman so crazy-conservative that Nixon—Karcher's good friend—worked to successfully defeat him.
None of that mattered, even as students tried to get Carl's Jr. kicked out of Southern California colleges because of Karcher's arch-conservative politics, and pro-choice and LGBT activists staged boycotts outside various locations in OC during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Karcher was our guy; Carl's was our company. To paraphrase the U.S. government's apocryphal assertion about Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, Karcher might've been a conservative loon, but he was our conservative loon.
But his star lost its shine in 1993, when CKE's board of directors ousted the then-76-year-old as chairman after years of declining sales, bad business decisions and mounting debt that broke out into the public. The move made international headlines and embarrassed Karcher—and us.
"I feel I've been stripped of my office by a bunch of turncoats," he announced in a press statement. He was soon reinstated as chairman emeritus, but that meant he was essentially a prop of goodwill, much like the Angels used Gene Autry in his waning days. When Schlosser interviewed him around 1999, he had just lost $100 million in CKE stock after holding on to it for too long and owed friends $8 million in loans.
Nevertheless, Karcher remained positive and knew he had created something worth taking pride in. "Life is beautiful, life is fantastic, and that is how I feel about every day of my life," he told Schlosser, who described him as looking "like a stylish figure from the big-band era."
"I believe in progress," Karcher told Schlosser. But Puzder was ready to progress Carl's in a different direction.
* * * * *
The Western Bacon Cheeseburger is a Puzder favorite, and it's what I choose to give Carl's one more shot. I'm in the drive-thru lane at the outpost on Harbor and Carl Karcher Way. It's down the street from where I grew up, and my family would eat here at least twice a week. This one stands in the shadow of CKE's former headquarters, which now houses a diploma mill.
The community room at this Carl's is gone, replaced with more seats for customers. Homeless people wander around the parking lot. I place my order (no, I don't want a combo or the Classic, but I will take some CrissCut Fries), and I'm told to pay at the second window because there's no one to man the first. The transaction takes seconds—I pay, they hand over a bag with the burger and fries, and I park to eat.
The Western Bacon Cheeseburger looks as big and saucy as I remember it, and the onion rings and bacon strips hang off the patty as they should. The CrissCut Fries smell of crunchy, greasy bliss. But something terrible happens as I munch on the burger: It's bitter. They messed up the sauce, the last link to Karcher's original restaurant. Maybe the CrissCut Fries are better—nope. Acrid. Disgusting. I give up.
I stopped eating regularly at Carl's in the late 1990s, after a vomiting episode at the one off Adams Avenue and Harbor Boulevard near Orange Coast College. Over the years, my friends who grew up in Anaheim did the same, all repeating the same refrain: Carl's now sucks. As it went national, then worldwide, we loyal fans were left with crap.
The devolution of Carl's Jr. happened under Puzder, whom Trump said "has created and boosted the careers of thousands of Americans" in a press release heralding his nomination to lead the Department of Labor. "Andy will fight to make American workers safer and more prosperous by enforcing fair occupational safety standards and ensuring workers receive the benefits they deserve, and he will save small businesses from the crushing burdens of unnecessary regulations that are stunting job growth and suppressing wages."
The same press release quoted Puzder: "I look forward to the opportunity to help President-elect Trump restore America's global economic leadership. . . . The right government policies can result in more jobs and better wages for the American worker." He and his wife contributed $626,300 to various candidates and causes during the 2016 presidential cycle, including $75,000 to the Trump Victory PAC, which a policy paper against his nomination described as "by far the largest direct contribution to Trump's campaign of any fast-food CEO."
Puzder is the wayward son Karcher never had. A fellow blue-collar Ohio native and devout Catholic, he helped to author a Missouri bill that declared life began at conception. That law was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1989, thereby allowing states to further restrict abortion rights, and put Puzder on the national conservative map.
By then, he was already helping Karcher. In 1986, Puzder's law firm assigned him to help Karcher fight off an investor's lawsuit filed in Kansas City. He received the case on the day of his second wedding and met with Karcher before going on his honeymoon.
"We just hit it off right from the beginning," Puzder told an interviewer for a 2009 oral history on file at Cal State Fullerton's Center for Oral and Public History (COPH). Puzder became Karcher's personal attorney in 1990, moving to Orange County at Karcher's request to help him in the looming struggle for CKE. He helped Karcher return to the board in 1993 by helping another of his clients, Fidelity National Financial CEO William Foley, become CKE's majority shareholder. The move led to Puzder becoming the company's general counsel—but he didn't take all the credit.
"God had an eye on Carl Karcher," Puzder told COPH interviewer Allison Varzally. "That was kind of a big help as we went through the process."
Karcher had previously tried and failed to open new restaurant concepts and grow Carl's in states outside the American Southwest. But CKE spread rapidly with Puzder on board, acquiring Green Burrito, La Salsa and the Southern chain Hardee's. With Karcher's mentorship and Puzder's own aggressive style (two weeks after becoming the Hardee's CEO in 1997, he flew to the company's North Carolina headquarters and began, as a 2009 Franchise Times profile put it, "firing people"), he became CKE's CEO in 2000.
All along, Puzder and Karcher grew closer. "We were best friends. [My family was] treated like part of the family," Puzder told Varzally. He began attending morning Mass with Karcher, who initiated him into the Knights of Malta. But as CKE expanded and Puzder ascended, Carl's lost its special relationship with Anaheim and Orange County.
The company moved its headquarters to Carpinteria in 2000; Puzder, who never bothered to ingratiate himself with Anaheim residents à la Karcher, decamped to the ultra-exclusive community of Montecito. The new CEO launched the chain's sex-fueled commercials, perhaps the most direct repudiation of the old ways. Karcher had starred in many of the Carl's television ads during the 1980s and 1990s, most memorably in a series of watercolor animated spots with him and an anthropomorphic, arrogant Happy Star plugging a series of new hamburgers, none of which exist today.
"As cute as they were, it was not effective,'" Puzder's then-marketing manager told the Register in 2003, as Carl's shrugged off a flurry of complaints about the clip that started the T&A trend: a blonde straddling a mechanical burger while eating a Western Bacon Six Dollar Burger, with Foghat's "Slow Ride" as the soundtrack. "You have to be attention-getting. It's a very competitive business."
Karcher didn't like the racy ads, but it didn't matter—Puzder saved CKE, and profits made Karcher rich again. As Puzder consolidated control, however, Carl's became something it never used to be: a bad place to work. CKE Restaurants settled three class-action lawsuits in 2004 for $9 million, related to the improper classification of employees as exempt under California's wage and hour laws—and that was just the beginning.
A multipart investigation released this month by the nonprofit news agency Capital & Main found Carl's and Hardee's had more federal employment-discrimination lawsuits against it than any American hamburger chain, stating that the claims "read like stories from the 1940s or '50s, before civil rights laws were ever enacted." They found a dozen wrongful-termination suits filed by former Carl's managers in California alleging age and sex discrimination or retaliation for medical leave or whistleblowing.
The Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a nonprofit representing restaurant workers, anonymously surveyed 564 Carl's and Hardee's workers and declared "sexual harassment is uniquely pervasive at CKE Restaurants" in the fast-food world, disclosing that its analysis found the chain has 1.5 times the rate of sexual harassment of its competitors. Bloomberg BNA revealed in September that nearly 60 percent of Department of Labor investigations of CKE locations under the Federal Labor Standards Act showed at least one violation. A study released earlier this month by the National Employment Law Project estimated that CKE's employees use about $247 million in food stamps, health programs and other safety-net programs "to offset poverty wages and keep its low-wage front-line workers and their families from economic disaster." And 33 complaints alleging all sorts of mistreatment were filed just last week against CKE franchisees with state departments of labor, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and the National Labor Relations Board; a Puzder spokesperson dismissed them all to Nation's Restaurant News as "fake outrage from the unions and special interests which will stop at nothing in order to push their own self-serving agenda."
Puzder isn't fazed by legal claims. "Lawyers support state politicians out of profits from class-action lawsuits," he told a Chapman University School of Law audience during a 2014 speech. "And once they're elected, [they] lobby those politicians to pass more restrictive laws that they can use in their next raid on the California business community."
Nor does he have much regard for employees. He described CKE's general managers to Varzally as "not people with, uh, you know degrees from Wharton [School of Business]. . . . These are people that you're lucky they've got high school educations, although I think most of them do."
One of those general managers is Laura McDonald, who headed a Tucson Carl's for more than 20 years. She's now part of a class-action lawsuit alleging unpaid overtime.
At a recent forum moderated by Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), McDonald called Puzder an embarrasment to Karcher's legacy. "When Carl Karcher was alive and in charge, we felt like someone in the company at least cared about the workers," she said. "Since Mr. Karcher passed away [in 2008], CKE has tightened its budgets in a way that makes it impossible to do the job without working off the clock. Worse, the company just seemed not to care about the employees anymore. I think Carl Karcher would be ashamed of what CKE has done to its employees."
* * * * *
I'm not a food snob. I swear by Del Taco's bean-and-cheese half-pound burrito ($1.08 with taxes), think McDonald's Egg McMuffin is divine, and eat way too many teriyaki bowls. Reese's Pieces is the best dessert ever created, with Reese's Peanut Butter Cups a close second (the recent combining of the two is proof God is great). And my treat for myself whenever I feel I've accomplished something truly extraordinary? Vanilla Zingers washed down with Nesquick Strawberry Milk.
Besides, there's one other Carl's item I like: the Steak & Egg Burrito. Two-thirds of a pound of scrambled eggs, steak, three cheeses and pico de gallo for breakfast, it's surprisingly moist and filling.
But there's no reason to visit Carl's Jr. again. Puzder is taking CKE's corporate offices to Nashville, laying off 51 workers in the process. He won't miss California, which he derided as a "socialist state" in his Cal State Fullerton oral history. He wrecked Carl's, my boyhood delight, so why support his company?
"When Puzder took it over, he brought a much tougher and more ruthless spirit to CKE," wrote Schlosser via email. Despite his epic takedown of the fast-food industry, Schlosser nevertheless appreciated Karcher and Carl's Jr., describing him as "a lovely man with an eighth-grade education who built a fast-food empire from scratch. I had great respect for him, his patriotism and his optimism about America."
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Puzder, on the other hand, represents "one more sign of the Trump administration's contempt for workers" for Schlosser. "For many years, the fast-food industry has led the opposition to increasing the minimum wage, keeping their workforce in poverty," he wrote. "Appointing Puzder—a strong critic of workers' rights and the minimum wage—to head the Department of Labor is a disgrace."
At the end of his oral history, Puzder bizarrely brought up the fact that no country with a Carl's Jr. had ever attacked the United States. "I think the idea of getting the American image out there and letting people know that, you know, America's a great place. And—uh, it can be a lot of fun," he said. "One burger at a time."
Thickburger® diplomacy—he'll do great in Trump's White House. But Puzder can never take away my Junior Cheeseburger, so I return to Proust's madeleine as consolation for the Carl's Jr. I—and so many in Orange County—lost.
"But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered," Proust wrote, "still, alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest."