Leonard Rawls, Wilber Hardee, and Hardee’s Restaurants

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Creating a Chain-Restaurant Foundation Myth

Who founded the Hardee’s restaurant food chain?  It should be a simple question to answer.  What does Wikipedia have to say about that on its “Hardee’s” page?

The first thing one might notice on the right-hand summary panel, even if he didn’t know it already, is that Hardee’s is a gigantic restaurant chain and that it was one of the earliest fast-food hamburger chains.  The date of founding is given as June 23, 1960, while Ray Kroc hadn’t begun to turn McDonald’s into a nationally franchised chain until just five years before that, in 1955.  As of February 2016, Wikipedia tells us, Hardee’s had 5,812 locations.  In addition to the United States, it had restaurants in Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.  The founder of such a business colossus ought to be a well-known and honored man.

Considering the name of the restaurant, it should not surprise us to learn that, according to Wikipedia, the founder of the Hardee’s restaurant chain was a man by the name of Wilber Hardee.  But there’s a major conflict between that right-hand panel and what Wikipedia has in its main text.  The summary panel says that the company was founded in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, but Hardee was a resident of Greenville, a little more than 40 miles southeast of Rocky Mount, and that’s where he opened the one Hardee’s restaurant that he ever owned and operated.  He copied McDonald’s almost completely, except that his hamburgers were broiled over charcoal, and his Greenville restaurant was more like a stationary food truck.  It was not a sit-down restaurant.  There was a parking area, but the restaurant only had two walk-up windows, one for ordering and one for picking up the order.  The text also says that that Greenville restaurant opened in Greenville 20 days before the Hardee’s company was founded in Rocky Mount.  The links are as they appear on the Wikipedia page:

Wilber Hardee (1918–2008) opened his namesake 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 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 during a game of poker. After realizing that he had lost control over his namesake company, Hardee sold his remaining shares to them as well.

However, this story has been disputed by Gardner & Rawls, who bought out Wilber Hardee and began establishing franchises in 1961. According to Jack Laughery, CEO of Hardee’s from 1975 to 1990, “Leonard put together an organization with relatively little capital. If it weren’t for him and Jim Gardner, there wouldn’t be anything of Hardee’s Food Systems.”

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.

It could hardly be clearer that Hardee was not the founder of the restaurant chain that bears his name.  If we check out the linked-to Wikipedia page for Jack Laughery we find this passage:  “In 1971 Sandy’s merged with Hardee’s (a chain begun by Laughery’s friend Leonard Rawls).” (emphasis added)

No substantiation is given for the statement that Laughery and Rawls were already friends at this point, but one can hardly argue with the assertion that Rawls was the man who started the “chain” of Hardee’s restaurants.  There is a very good reason why that Rocky Mount Hardee’s at the fork of McDonald and North Church Street was called “building number 1” within the company.  It was the first restaurant in the chain that Leonard Rawls built.  As Laughery is quoted, quite succinctly, on the Hardee’s Wikipedia page, “If it weren’t for [Rawls] and Jim Gardner, there wouldn’t be anything of Hardee’s Food Systems.”

Notice that he gives precedent to Rawls over Gardner, which is as it should be.  Rawls was the company president, after all.  Gardner was the vice president who soon left the business for politics.  That’s not how it is on the Wikipedia page for Jim Gardner, though.  Here is the complete entry under the section, “Business Career”:

In May 1961, Gardner, along with Joseph Leonard Rawls, Jr., opened the first franchise store of the fast food restaurant Hardee’s in Rocky Mount, North Carolina.[2] Later, in 1969, he bought the troubled Houston Mavericks of the American Basketball Association and moved them to North Carolina a year later as the Carolina Cougars.[3][4]

Even what they say about his business career is incomplete.  Gardner later got back into the restaurant business, opening a branch of the very successful Parker’s barbecue restaurant of Wilson, NC, on the east side of U.S. Rt. 301 in Rocky Mount.  Later he would change its name to Gardner’s, and as one can see from searching the Internet, there are a couple of other Gardner’s restaurants in Rocky Mount, with this one known as the “flagship store.”

Interestingly, just up 301 to the north, in sight of that Parker’s/Gardner’s restaurant was the first Chinese restaurant in Rocky Mount, which was named “Canton Station,”  Rawls’s second restaurant venture.  He had cleverly set it up inside to resemble the luxury dining car on the Orient Express.  He had plans to make those Canton Stations into a chain, and had already opened one in Fayetteville, NC, which only recently closed.  Unfortunately, his plans were ended with his unexpected early death of a heart attack at age 51 in September of 1982.

He was a sufficiently prominent man at the time that his death merited an obituary in The New York Times, and the headline to that obituary, except for a small bobble, had it just right, “Joseph L. Rawls, Jr., Founder of Hardee Restaurant Chain.”  They should have said “Hardee’s,” but Rawls was, indeed, the founder of the chain.

They don’t do quite as well with their first sentence: “Joseph Leonard Rawls Jr., who helped start the Hardee’s restaurant chain, was found dead Monday at his home here.”  They really should have said that he started the Hardee’s restaurant chain, and they suggest as much a bit further along in the article:

Mr. Rawls, a native of Rocky Mount, was chief executive officer of Hardee’s Food Systems Inc. until 1975. He was chairman of the board until 1980 and was a major stockholder until the chain was purchased by a Canadian company in 1980.

In other words, when it comes to the Hardee’s food chain, Rawls was the guy.

Oh yes, the “newspaper of record” has another blunder when it comes to the man that Rawls (and Gardner) bought out.  They call him “Wilbert” Hardee.

The New York Times obituary for Leonard Rawls is perfection, itself, though, compared to the 2008 obituary for Wilber Hardee that appeared in the Los Angeles Times.  “Hamburger chain founder lost controlling share in poker game,” reads the headline, and here’s their first paragraph:

Wilbur Hardee, an entrepreneur who founded the Hardee’s restaurant chain in 1960 with a drive-in hamburger stand near the East Carolina University campus in Greenville, N.C., has died. He was 89.

Notice that they, like their New York counterpart, misspell Hardee’s unconventionally spelled first name, but that’s hardly the worst of it.  They have him as the founder of the Hardee’s restaurant chain, which he was not.  As we have explained, he only established the rough prototype for the chain with his Greenville store.  And the LA Times headlined it all with that disputed story about his losing his share of the business in a poker game.  Here is their support for that assertion:

North Carolina businessmen Jim Gardner and Leonard Rawl formed a partnership with Hardee to expand his chain throughout the South. The company went public in 1963, but the partnership between Hardee, Gardner and Rawl did not last much longer.

According to Hardee, the business venture went south one night when the three men were drinking and playing cards. Hardee later told his family he bet his newly minted Hardee’s stock during the game. He lost. The next morning, Rawl and Gardner owned a 51% controlling share in the company.

Being an independent type, Hardee sold his remaining stake for $37,000 and went on to form other ventures, his daughter Ann Hardee Riggs said.

“He was the type of man that did not like to be controlled, so he just turned it completely over to them and walked out,” Riggs said.

Notice that they misleadingly put Gardner first and they misspell “Rawls” throughout, but, again, that’s not the worst of it.  They talk of expanding “his chain” as though Wilber Hardee had a restaurant chain at the time, which he most assuredly did not.  He only had that one little walk-up restaurant in Greenville.  They would appear to be on a bit more solid ground with Hardee’s daughter as their source for the poker game story, but, in fact, she is most believable when she clues us in as to the sort of headstrong, uncompromising, and basically difficult person her father was.

We get a much better fleshing out of the story of Wilber Hardee and his early loss of control of the restaurant company that bears his name from a profile written by the notable North Carolina journalist, Jerry Bledsoe.  This account of what transpired comes from his article written in Our State in 2011, three years after Hardee’s death, but it is based upon Bledsoe’s interview of Hardee in 1984:

In the first four months, Hardee told me, he made an astounding gross profit of $9,500. From the beginning, Hardee later wrote, he planned to expand and wanted to start a second Hardee’s in Rocky Mount, a 30-minute drive away. He found a site and began talking with a builder who told him that his son, Leonard Rawls, an accountant in his late 20s, could help him. The son became an adviser.

Soon afterward, Hardee said, Rawls brought a friend to meet him. He was Jim Gardner, son of a prominent dairy owner in Rocky Mount. Rawls and Gardner thought that Hardee’s could be expanded into a huge chain by selling franchises and the three of them could get rich from it. Hardee was thrilled by the prospect, and without any money changing hands, he entered into an agreement to incorporate Hardee’s Drive-Ins with his two new partners.

In May 1961, the second Hardee’s, overseen by Rawls and Gardner, opened in Rocky Mount and was also an instant success. Soon after, however, things went sour between the three partners. Hardee realized that the deal he’d made left him with no say in the company. Later, he gave varying versions of how that happened.

One, which became widely reported and accepted as truth, was that he had lost controlling interest in a poker game with Rawls and Gardner. But in a short book he self-published in 2000, he told a different story: He’d been tricked and cheated. He wrote that Rawls invited him out for a steak dinner, plied him with liquor until he was drunk, then took him to a lawyer’s office late at night. Gardner was waiting there. Hardee said he was told they needed to deal with routine legal matters. He was handed a raft of documents that he signed without reading. He later learned that the documents gave Rawls and Gardner permission to begin selling franchises without his involvement.

Hardee didn’t mention these accounts to me when I spent most of a day with him in 1984, including a visit to the site of the original Hardee’s, which was being converted into a medical office. Instead, he told me that when Hardee’s was incorporated, each of the three men was listed as a member of the board with equal say. That allowed Hardee to be outvoted two-to-one on all decisions.

“If you want to know the truth,” Hardee told me, “I was stupid. That’s what I was. You know how it is — you make mistakes.”

Disgusted by the situation, and no longer trusting his partners, Hardee wanted out. “I got out because when I realized what the contract was, I saw I didn’t have anything. I sold out for $20,000. Sold my name.” Later, some claimed that he received $37,000.

As we have seen, among those claiming that Hardee received $37,000 for his share of the business was his own daughter, but she really said it all when she told the Los Angeles Times that he was “the type of man who did not like to be controlled.”  That is to say, he was nobody’s organization man, and as we gather from the Bledsoe article, he might have been intrepid, but, in the final analysis, he really wasn’t much of a businessman.  He later enjoyed some measure of success with a small chain of restaurants called “Little Mint,” but it eventually went belly up, and he also had some passing success at other restaurant ventures.  The death of his first wife of 35 years of a sudden cerebral hemorrhage sent him into depression.  His second wife, who was quite religious, seemed to be a generally good influence on him.  He experienced a religious conversion and gave up drinking.  And though, together, they started a small ministry, he never gave up trying and failing with the restaurant business.

Late Life Elevation and the Last Laugh

“The loss of Hardee’s had caused him deep and lasting bitterness, “ Bledsoe tells us.

“He resented that his role never had been acknowledged, that he never profited from the chain’s great success, that the company recognized Leonard Rawls as its founder and kept the second Hardee’s in Rocky Mount as a showpiece, maintaining that it was the original.”

Wilber Hardee did not profit from the chain’s great success for good reason.  He played no part in it.  The company maintained that the store in Rocky Mount was the original, with its counter for ordering and tables and chairs where one could eat, just like McDonald’s and all the subsequent Hardee’s restaurants, because it was the original store of the Hardee’s chain, not that walk-up store in Greenville.

We learn from Bledsoe that in 1997, CKE, the company that owned the Carl’s Jr. chain of hamburger restaurants popular in the Western United States bought Hardee’s and the two chains merged, offering essentially the same menu.  Then we get this from Bledsoe:

When Hardee’s 40th anniversary was approaching, the company decided to celebrate the date that the first Hardee’s opened. Hardee and his wife were flown to Anaheim, California, where they met Carl Karcher, founder of Carl’s Jr. and with whom Hardee had much in common. Hardee was honored as founder of the chain and the company’s most prestigious franchise award was named for him.  (emphasis added)

It might have been a feel-good moment for all those still living, and if CKE chose to name their most prestigious franchise award for the man whose name graces the stores, that should be their privilege, but they should not have the privilege of lying about the company’s history.  The simple fact is that Wilber Hardee was not the founder of the Hardee’s restaurant chain.  Leonard Rawls was.

Referring to Hardee’s death in 2008, Bledsoe concludes his article like this:

Hardee’s released a lengthy obituary, proclaiming him the company’s founder. The Associated Press picked up the story, and it appeared in newspapers nationwide and even on some network news broadcasts.

The New York Times published an obituary, which also appeared in the Boston Globe. So did The Los Angeles TimesThe Baltimore Sun, and other major newspapers.

In death, Wilber Hardee finally received the wide recognition that he’d long been denied.

Notice that Bledsoe didn’t say that it was the recognition that he deserved, because Hardee didn’t deserve it.  It’s a simple fact that he was not the founder of the Hardee’s restaurant chain.

We have seen the violence done to the truth by the Los Angeles Times version of the obituary.  We can see the press release here as it was picked up by Reuters.  With its title and its first sentence it repeats the falsehood that Wilber Hardee was the founder of Hardee’s restaurants.  In the body of the article one can see that Rawls is the man responsible for the chain’s rapid expansion, but it leaves the false impression that, at least for a time, Hardee was a part of the team bringing about that expansion.  He was not.  He had literally nothing to do with the growth of Hardee’s into a substantial chain of restaurants.

It’s evident that whoever wrote that press release had virtually no knowledge of North Carolina geography.  Check out this passage:

[Hardee’s] successful business model soon attracted interested partners. Jim Gardner and Leonard Rawls made the trip across the state to meet with Hardee and discuss plans for expansion. The trio soon formed a partnership and opened the first Hardee’s franchise restaurant in Rocky Mount, North Carolina on May 5, 1961.

Contrary to what its name suggests, Rocky Mount is not in the mountains.  It is located only a little more than 40 miles to the northwest of Greenville.  It’s right on the fall line that separates North Carolina’s coastal plain and piedmont regions.  It draws its name from the rocky rapids on the Tar River that end the river’s navigability.

The most striking thing about the press release, and this goes back to that earlier decision by CKE to elevate Wilber Hardee to the position of the Hardee’s chain founder, is its Soviet quality.  Our history, they are telling us, is what we say it is. Forget about the objective truth of the matter.  It might smack even more of North Korea, where it is a serious handicap to have any connection to Korea’s traditional ruling class, and a big advantage to come from what the Communists call the proletariat.  Carl Karcher, we are told, recognized that he and Wilber Hardee had a lot in common, that they were kindred spirits.  We can tell from reading Hardee’s obituary that the farm boy Hardee didn’t go to college, and that there is a good chance that he didn’t even graduate from high school.

By contrast, even before they took on the Hardee’s venture, Rawls and Gardner were already about as near to the top of Rocky Mount’s social and economic pyramid as one can get.  Gardner’s Dairy provided milk and ice cream to most of Eastern North Carolina.  Jim Gardner, according to Wikipedia, “attended North Carolina State University.”  Rawls graduated from the prestigious (and expensive) Georgia Military Academy and attended UNC-Chapel Hill, eventually graduating from the now defunct Benjamin Franklin University in Washington, DC.   He had become a certified public accountant after doing graduate work at East Carolina University.  He was a member of the local country club, and his obituary that appeared in the Raleigh News and Observer describes a man loaded down with accolades and social connections and memberships.  He would have been a pillar of the community even if he had not been the man who created the Hardee’s restaurant chain.

If Wilber Hardee was hardscrabble, Rawls and Gardner were bluebloods.  It’s not hard to see that they would have had a hard time working together smoothly.  Their social division would have simply been too great.  With those conflicting stories that he has told about how he left the business, Hardee only makes things worse for himself, making himself appear as the sort of dishonest, undependable person that you would not want as a business partner.  When he tells two different, mutually exclusive stories concerning how he departed from his partnership with Rawls and Gardner, he brands himself as a liar.  Had he only told the poker game or the “Rawls got me drunk” story, and one were to believe it was the absolute truth, he still comes across as a person of very poor judgment.

It might be easy to second-guess in retrospect, but one is tempted to ask what the big problem was for Hardee to be in a situation where he couldn’t call the shots.  The important thing was that the venture succeed, and that all of them could prosper from it.  Just on the face of the matter at the time it was clear that Rawls and Gardner brought to the table two big things that Hardee didn’t have a lot of, money and business contacts.  We might excuse him for not recognizing in the young man Rawls the same sort of entrepreneurial talent that Hardee possessed, along with a sort of sober level-headedness that Hardee appeared to lack.

Those latter qualities came across clearly to me when, as a young professor of economics and business at North Carolina Wesleyan College in Rocky Mount I had Rawls speak to one of my business classes in 1977.  He described how he had educated himself on the franchising method for developing a chain of stores.  He had noticed the Stuckey’s pecan candy and souvenir stores on busy thoroughfares in the East, and since his business would not be in competition with theirs, he figured that the guy behind Stuckey’s would be forthcoming about the tricks of the trade.  That man happened to be Williamson S. Stuckey, Sr., in Eastman, Georgia.  As it turned out, according to Rawls, his expectations were more than met and Stuckey had turned out to be a veritable gold mine of information, eager to share with the young Rawls every trick of the trade that he had learned.

Rawls also told us about starting up his first Canton Station restaurant.  He said that he had conducted a survey of the people of Rocky Mount asking them what sort of restaurant they would like to have in the city that was not already there.  Number one on the survey was a McDonald’s.  At that point, the national chain had still not reached Rocky Mount.  Second place among the answers was more generic, a Chinese restaurant.  I don’t recall if he told us how he got his idea for the name and the décor, but he did tell us how he recruited his Chinese cooks and catered to them and kept them happy on their jobs, recognizing that the product that they turned out was most important for the restaurant’s success.  I must say that that class was a lot better than anything my students got from me or from the readings that I assigned them.  Rawls certainly presented himself as the sort of businessman who was fully capable of building the Hardee’s empire  which everyone at the time believed that he had done.  We had little doubt that he would have the same sort of success with the new Canton Station chain he was beginning to build.

Jerry Bledsoe didn’t tell us the title of that autobiography that Hardee self-published in 2000, but it is The Life and Times of Wilber Hardee: Founder of Hardee’sHe might have deemed that subtitle as necessary as a means of interesting readers, but it shows that he embraced the new foundation myth that the new owners at CKE were and are pushing.  Along with the scurrilous lie (pick one) he told about his erstwhile super-successful business partners snookering him out of the company, this latest one looks particularly out of place above the message in quotes at the bottom of the book’s cover: “Now serving the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Dishonest Wikipedia

The late Wilber Hardee is hardly to be faulted for the lies of commission and omission that continue on the pages of Wikipedia concerning the founding of Hardee’s restaurants, though.  The very first link from our selected quote from their “Hardee’s” page takes you to their “Wilber Hardee” page, and here is that page’s opening sentence:

Wilber Hardee (August 15, 1918 – June 20, 2008) was an American businessman who founded the American fast-food restaurant chain Hardee’s, located mostly in the Midwest and Southeast regions.

How many times do we have to point it out?  He did not found the Hardee’s restaurant chain.

If you click on the link on the Wilber Hardee page to Greenville, NC, you will find there a list of notable people connected to the city, which includes Wilber Hardee.  And what does it say about him that makes him notable?  You guessed it, “founder of Hardee’s.”

Now let’s check out Rocky Mount’s list of notable people.  Of course, the former U.S. congressman and North Carolina lieutenant governor Jim Gardner is there.  And why is he notable? “businessman and politician, former U.S. congressman and lieutenant governor, who co-founded Hardee’s in the city,” they say.  That re-introduces the confusion of the Hardee’s page concerning where Hardee’s restaurants were founded.  And with whom did he co-found Hardee’s?  They don’t say.

So, what about the actual driving force behind the Hardee’s restaurant chain, its president and chairman of the board during those early years of exploding growth, Leonard Rawls?  Hold on to your hats, folks.  Perhaps the most notable person that one might associate with the city, its native son, Rawls, is not even on Wikipedia’s “notable people” list for Rocky Mount.  One can appreciate the egregiousness of the omission by checking out those who are on the list carefully.  It contains people like the writer Jack Kerouac, who has only a tenuous connection to the town, and “educator and blogger” Adrian H. Wood at the very end of the list.  One might characterize her as a Jane Q. Privileged who, like so many others, has apparently been able to game the Wikipedia system to get a page for herself, which somehow then makes her “notable.”

What’s going on?  Why is Leonard Rawls persona non grata on Wikipedia?  If you think that this is just a case of the man somehow falling through the cracks, easily corrected by the citizen participants in the Wikipedia system, that it is truly “made by people like you,” you are in for a rude awakening if you try to set the record straight on the founding of the Hardee’s restaurant chain.  CKE is far from the worst offender in the country when it comes to perpetuating myths.

You might have noticed by now that there’s not even a Wikipedia page for Leonard Rawls.  The man who took over for Rawls as president of Hardee’s after Imasco bought the company, Jack Laughery, we have seen does have a Wikipedia page.  He certainly merits it.  Before he was president of Hardee’s he was president of Sandy’s, which Hardee’s bought out, but he was not the founder of either chain.  To his great credit, Hardee’s continued to grow swiftly under his leadership, just as it had done under Rawls.  Laughery was sort of the anti-Wilber Hardee in that he was apparently the ultimate business organization man.

Notice, as well, that the man who was the founder of the long defunct Sandy’s chain, Gust E. “Brick” Lundberg, also has a Wikipedia page.  The real anomaly is that the true founder of the still-operating restaurant behemoth Hardee’s has no Wikipedia page.  It is very hard to escape the conclusion that the heavy hand of CKE must somehow be at work behind the scenes to sell the foundation myth that CKE is selling.  Here we see that romantic myth summed up in a sentence on the pages of Consumer Reports in an article entitled “How Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s Became One Giant Burger Chain with Two Names”:

Before CKE Restaurants Inc. brought the companies together in the late ’90s, Carl Karcher and Wilber Hardee dreamed and cultivated their respective fast food dynasties in different eras for varying reasons and on separate coasts.

As we have seen, Hardee might have done a lot of dreaming, but Leonard Rawls was the man who did the cultivating of the dynasty.  In fact, as one reads the whole article, which is drawn largely from the same sources that we have used, one can gather that Hardee had nothing to do with the building of the Hardee’s chain, but the misapprehension is planted in the mind of the reader right up at the front.

More evidence that CKE, in furtherance of its romantic foundation myth, is behind the reading of Leonard Rawls out of the business history annals can be found on the CKE Wikipedia page:

In December 2016 Andrew Puzder was nominated by President-elect Donald Trump as US Secretary of Labor and resigned from CKE Restaurants as CEO in March 2017. Puzder ultimately withdrew from the nomination after his own admission of hiring an undocumented immigrant, failing to pay taxes and controversy from his companies’ labor violations became public during the confirmation process.

In one short paragraph we learn that these people are political heavy hitters—it’s not just anybody who gets nominated to be the US Secretary of Labor—and that there is a bit of a smell of corruption associated with them.  Puzder had been the company’s CEO since 2000, but before that he had been founder Carl Karcher’s attorney since 1986.  He doubtless would have been in the thick of the decision-making that resulted in the creation of Hardee’s foundation myth.  CKE seems to be the sort of company that has the muscle and the predilection to lean on Wikipedia to perpetuate the account of its history that it wants.

Rocky Mount’s Failing? 

We can find further evidence that it is CKE, through Wikipedia primarily, that Leonard Rawls has not just been denied his due honor as founder of Hardee’s restaurants, but that he has been virtually erased from history.  Notice that the man who was the CEO at Hardee’s who presided over much of its expansion and who actually had the veterans’ park named for him that replaced Hardee’s #1 when it was demolished in 2007, Jack Laughery, is also missing from Wikipedia’s list of notable people connected to Rocky Mount.  One may surmise that placing his name and primary accomplishment on the list would raise the question of who preceded him, which would lead people to the Rocky Mount native who built the Hardee’s chain in the first place.

But the mention of the honor of naming of the veterans’ park for the Iowa native Laughery raises the obvious question of why the park was not named for the Rocky Mount native, the true founder of Hardee’s restaurants, and community stalwart, Leonard Rawls.

Oh, they say, Laughery was a U.S. military veteran.  But so, too, was Leonard Rawls and Jim Gardner was as well, for that matter.  Could corrupt CKE money and muscle also have been behind this decision?  And where was Gardner when this decision was being made?  He, of all people, must have known what an enormous slight this decision was to the memory of his former partner, Rawls.

As things stand now, the only recognition that his home city has given to Leonard Rawls is by inducting him into its Twin County Museum and Hall of Fame under the “Business and Industry” category.  But they did not do that until 2012.  They inducted James C. Gardner in 2005 and Jack Laughery in 2006.  They even inducted the Boddie Noell Group, which from the earliest days has been the biggest buyer of Hardee’s franchises, in the same year.  And notice how they avoid saying that Rawls was the founder of Hardee’s restaurants:

In 1961 he became chairman and president of a new restaurant operation in Rocky Mount, Hardees [sic] Food Systems. When he left the company in 1975, there were over 900 Hardees [sic] across the southeast. Rawls was also founder of Canton Station restaurants known as Management Affiliates until his death of a heart attack in 1982 at the age of 51.

Had I made my discoveries and written this article in, say, 2007, my sense of outrage over the injustice would have been much greater.  When Laughery was getting that park on the site of the original Hardee’s named for him, Leonard Rawls wasn’t yet even in Rocky Mount’s business hall of fame.

David Martin


The day after I finished this article, my wife and I traveled to Rocky Mount to attend the annual alumni banquet of Red Oak High School.  The school’s last graduating class was in 1966.  In that year it was consolidated with the suburban-Rocky Mount high school of Benvenue and with Nashville High School to become Northern Nash High School (Red Oak had previously absorbed Whitakers High School.).  The next day I had my first look at the Veterans Park on the site of the original restaurant in the Hardee’s chain.  The first thing I noticed was the historical marker.  Like Jim Gardner’s Wikipedia page, it has Gardner’s name ahead of Rawls as the founders of the Hardee’s “fast food chain.”  Also, in that photograph one can see next to it a granite monument that looks a lot like a gravestone, except with a flag growing out of one end.  Engraved on it are the words, “Veterans Memorial at Jack Laughery Park.”

Since the site is where those other two men founded Hardee’s, one might wonder why this third man is the one that the park is named for.  The answer to that question is provided, in part, on a brass plaque with Laughery’s smiling portrait on it and this inscription below the portrait:

This park is dedicated to Jack A. Laughery, community leader, Hardee’s Chairman, restaurateur, family man, and U.S. Army Veteran.  Jack always believed in the power of positive action and worked tirelessly to create opportunity and a better life for everyone he touched.

But one could say all that about Leonard Rawls, and he was the actual founder of Hardee’s, not the man who took over later.  As such, that description would belong right after the name.  He was also from Rocky Mount, not from Iowa.  Rocky Mount native Jim Gardner was a veteran, as well.  All three men served briefly in the period between the Korean and Vietnam Wars during a time when there was a “universal” draft of young men in the country, so, in that sense, they were no more than average Americans.

Things begin to crystallize when we examine another brass plaque at the park.  Its title is “Memorial Contributors.”  As in programs one might see at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, it is arranged in categories from top to bottom, with the biggest contributors in the top category, a major difference being that it doesn’t say how much money one had to give to get into a particular category.  Like the Kennedy Center programs, it also has names for the categories, but in this instance, one might regard the ones chosen to be rather gauche and irreverent.  They are, from highest to lowest, Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross, Bronze Star, and Meritorious Service.

At least, one can’t call it “stolen valor.”  These folks did, after all, pay good money.  But they first had to have the money.  It’s really all very American.  Sinclair Lewis or H.L. Mencken would have appreciated it.

As the old saying goes, “He who pays the piper calls the tune.”  In the rarified air of the “Medal of Honor” category, along with the City of Rocky Mount, we find only the Laughery Foundation, the Boddie-Noell Foundation, Mayo & Jean Boddie, and Mr. & Mrs. Thomas A. Betts, Jr.

We have previously noted the role played by the Boddie-Noell Group as the biggest owners of Hardee’s franchises.  We discover from their Twin County Museum and Hall of Fame entry that the Boddie brothers were born at the Rose Hill Plantation in Nash County.  That’s what’s known as “old money.”  Thomas A. Betts was inducted into the local hall of fame in 2017.  We see there that although he was born in far-off Rockingham County, he grew up in Rocky Mount and has been very successful in the city in the fields of insurance and finance.

Going down to the Distinguished Service Cross and Bronze Star categories, we also find Boddie family members represented.  CKE/Hardee’s Corporation and Hardee’s Restaurants of North Carolina also garnered bronze stars for themselves with their contributions.

Conspicuously missing is anything from the families of the Hardee’s co-founders, Rawls and Gardner.  One clue as to why the heirs of Leonard Rawls would not have pitched in can be found in his aforementioned obituary.  At the time of his death in 1982, of his two children, his daughter was living in Raleigh and his son in San Francisco.  His surviving brother was living in New Bern.

As of this writing, though, Jim Gardner is still alive.  Perhaps we have a chicken vs. egg question here.  If I were in his position, and the city had already decided to name the park for Jack Laughery, I would also not be inclined to contribute any money to the project.  Or perhaps the Laughery heirs simply outbid Gardner for the name of the park.

In Jim Gardner’s defense, perhaps he had no knowledge of the placing of his name ahead of Leonard Rawls on that historical marker before the deed was done.  Arguing the case for simple incompetence and ignorance on the part of the Rocky Mount city government is that they also left off the apostrophe in “Hardee’s” and the “s” at the end of “Systems.”

Let us take a closer look at Jim Gardner.  We see from the Bledsoe article that he seemed to have cozied up to the CKE people as they supplanted Leonard Rawls with Wilber Hardee as the restaurant chain’s honored founder.  This seems to represent a certain opportunism and a lack of loyalty to his partner’s memory and, frankly, to the truth.  He also apparently has no problem with Wikipedia placing his name ahead of Rawls’s as the founders of the Hardee’s chain on their “Jim Gardner” page.

It also paints far less than the full picture to say simply that Gardner left the company for politics.  Here is the key passage from “Harold Cooley, Jim Gardner, and the Rise of the Republican Party in the South.

A major ideological shift in the Democratic party began in the 1960s due to the national party’s support of civil rights legislation. This led to the rise of the Republican party in the American South. One of the clearest examples of these changes occurred in North Carolina’s mostly rural Fourth District of the United States House of Representatives, which included Franklin, Nash, Wake, and Johnston counties for much of the 20th century.

Gardner took the money that he had earned from the Hardee’s venture, switched from the Democratic to the Republican Party, and ran unsuccessfully against the powerful incumbent Cooley in 1964.  Then he scored a resounding success against Cooley in 1966.  That article also notes that Gardner benefitted greatly from the support of Raleigh’s WRAL news commentator, Jesse Helms.  In that role and later as North Carolina’s U.S. Senator, Helms was cut out of the same race-baiting cloth as Alabama’s George Wallace and Georgia’s Lester Maddox.

That NCPedia article, in introducing Gardner, states that he “founded the Hardee’s restaurant chain.”*  The authors support their assertion with a reference that doesn’t support it at all, “Hardee’s Restaurants,” by Thomas Farnham, written in 2006.  Farnham has written perhaps the best short summary of the founding of the Hardee’s restaurant chain that one will find:

[Wilber Hardee’s] restaurant was so successful that it caught the entrepreneurial attention of Rocky Mount businessmen Leonard Rawls, an accountant, and Jim Gardner, then an executive with a dairy processing company. Rawls, Gardner, and Hardee, after brief negotiations, formed a corporation, Hardee’s Drive-Ins, Inc. Hardee owned one-half of the new company and Rawls and Gardner the other. No money changed hands; Rawls and Gardner agreed to bear the cost of opening a second Hardee’s in Rocky Mount. This was as successful as the original Greenville operation, and Rawls and Gardner began making plans to open more restaurants. Hardee did not share his associates’ enthusiasm for expansion, and in June 1961 he sold his share of the business to them for $20,000.

Assuming that that’s how it happened, we can see what Hardee meant when he confessed to Jerry Bledsoe that he was just stupid in his decision-making.

We have also learned a bit more about Jim Gardner’s barbecue restaurant experience in Rocky Mount.  In a telephone interview, a spokesman for Parker’s restaurant in Wilson told us that the original Parker’s restaurant that Gardner opened was, as we understood at the time, a franchise restaurant of Parker’s.  He told us that it was part of several franchised Parker’s restaurants.  However, after a passage of a few years it was determined that Gardner’s franchise in Rocky Mount, along with some of the others, was not adhering to Parker’s standards, and the franchise arrangement was terminated.  At that point, Gardner named the restaurant after his own family and the restaurant has continued to operate quite successfully ever since.

At the Red Oak alumni gathering, I also learned that Rawls had gone farther with his Canton Station expansion than we have recounted here.  I talked to the ex-wife of the owner of Rocky Mount’s Stallings Oil Company, which happens to be listed among the Distinguished Service Cross contributors to the veterans’ park, and she told me that she and her husband, Don Stallings, had bought the Canton Station franchises for Durham and Chapel Hill.

Had Rawls lived, Canton Station might well have become a better-known name than Hardee’s, beating P. F. Chang’s as a national Chinese restaurant chain.

April 29, 2024

*Graciously, upon our prompting, NCPedia has corrected its error calling Jim Gardner the founder of Hardee’s.  Now they acknowledge that his role was subordinate to that of Rawls.  They have also included this article among their references for their article on Gardner’s role in the rise of the Republican Party in the South.

May 7, 2024

2 Thoughts to “Leonard Rawls, Wilber Hardee, and Hardee’s Restaurants”

  1. Coak May

    I grew up in Red Oak and knew some of the people discussed above. I graduated from Red Oak High in 1958 the from Atlantic Christain College in 1964.

    1. As a fellow Red Oaker, I can tell you that Coak was a quite good basketball player, as well.

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