ROCKY MOUNT, N.C. -- For Hardee's management and its franchisees, the goal is deceptively simple: serve better food.
"We need to get some better-tasting products," especially hamburgers, says Roy Murphy, who became Hardee's president six months ago, after CKE of Anaheim, Calif., bought the Hardee's chain.
"We've got good products; they need to be more consistent," says Bill Boddie, president of Boddie-Noell, which owns 340 Hardee's franchises, with a tad more diplomacy.
Their agreement, even on a subject as negative as bad food, bodes well for the perenially fourth-place hamburger chain (behind McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's).
For years, disgruntled franchisees, who at one time owned up to 75 percent of Hardee's restaurants, tried to improve sales by adding their own items to menus. That led to inconsistency in both availability and quality.
So while a Big Mac is a Big Mac is a Big Mac, the same wasn't always true of a Char Deluxe.
"The root of it goes back to the lack of clear, focused leadership from the company," Boddie says. "We've not had the marketing we've needed. We've not had the discipline."
Boddie is president of the Independent Hardee's Franchisee Association, which represented 1,200 to 1,300 restaurants as of Jan. 1. The group formed just about the same time as CKE was buying Hardee's last April. The group formed "for the right reasons, for positive reasons," Boddie says.
"With CKE coming in, it gives us a more formal organization to deal with them and help them understand the Hardee's system better," Boddie says.
Although some former Hardee's managers felt threatened by the association, Murphy is not. He was executive vice president of operations at CKE, which owns Carl's Jr., whose franchisees also had their own association. "When I came here, someone told me Hardee's had fought the association," Murphy says. "I said I more than welcomed it."
The chain has taken several steps toward its goal of better food, including a new coated French fry. Since September, Hardee's has tested the French fry companywide.
The Rocky Mount-based chain will begin marketing the fry as soon as it selects a new advertising agency, Murphy says.
"I would put it up against Burger King or any of the newer ones," Murphy says. "It stays a lot hotter. When you're driving home, it doesn't get soggy like other French fries. It's a very good product."
And Hardee's is continuing a return to the charcoal-broiled burger, which once was once the restaurant's trademark. The chain ended that product in 1985, 11 years after Mama Cass last sang a jingle that was easily one of the most memorable in advertising.
"Hurry on down to Hardee's, where the burgers are charcoal-broiled," she sang.
When Murphy's appointment as Hardee's president was announced, his assistant in California -- a product of the East Coast -- chimed in with that jingle.
"I said, `there must be a lot of equity in that brand you remember that,"' Murphy says.
In non-food changes, CKE also is buying out franchisees who want to sell, something that the previous management did not do, allowing Hardee's other chains to buy the restaurants. "They're making sure they're not sold to any competitors," Boddie says. "They're buying them as a Hardee's to run as a Hardee's."
By March, when its purchase of 557 restaurants from one franchisee is complete, Hardee's will own nearly 50 percent of its 3,048 outlets.
Hardee's has the No. 1 breakfast in what the industry calls quick-service restaurants. And Carl's Jr. is known for its great burgers, Murphy says. Although there have been delays, he says CKE still plans to eventually combine those products in Hardee's restaurants.
"If we can be successful at doing that, we can have the best of both worlds," Murphy says.