Fast Food Emporium Opened in Greenville, 1960

The first Hardee’s franchise in Rocky Mount, shown here in the 1980s. Image from the State Archives.On September 3, 1960, Wilbur Hardee opened a drive-in hamburger stand in Greenville, launching what would become Hardee’s Food Systems, Inc., the fifth-largest fast-food restaurant chain in the United States.

The former Martin County farm boy and World War II Navy cook initially sold his charcoal-broiled hamburgers and milkshakes for 15 cents each, mainly to students at nearby East Carolina University. In 1961, Hardee took on two partners and opened a second restaurant in Rocky Mount. By 1963, the business had grown to a five-restaurant franchise.

A 1972 Hardee’s tote bag. Image from the N.C. Museum of History.Hardee lost controlling interest in the operation that same year during a card game with his partners. He later sold his remaining shares for $37,000, but Hardee’s namesake eatery wasn’t his only endeavor. During his lifetime, he opened 85 restaurants throughout the Southeast, including Biscuit Town, Hot Dog City and Beef and Shake. He also started another hamburger chain called Little Mint that grew to 25 locations in the Carolinas.

But it was the Hardee’s chain that achieved the greatest success. In 1997, St. Louis-based CKE Restaurants Inc. bought Hardee’s, which last year boasted more than 2,000 locations worldwide and $1.8 billion in revenue.

Hardee died in 2008 at age 89.

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