Chain plans to let out its belt, adding 59 Twin Cities locations over several years.
Hardee's is looking to supersize its share of the Twin Cities burger market, with plans to nearly quadruple its number of restaurants locally.
The St. Louis-based chain, known for its thick burgers and racy ads featuring supermodels, wants to get in on the burger boom underway in the Twin Cities and across the country. Hardee's owner CKE Restaurants hopes to open 59 new restaurants in the metro area over the next several years and hundreds nationwide.
"Burgers are hot everywhere right now," said Sam Oches, editor of QSR Magazine, a fast-casual restaurant news publication. As better-burger chains like Five Guys Burgers and Fries and Smashburger have gained in popularity, he said older stalwarts like Hardee's are "trying to rev up their brands."
While designer burger joints typically seek higher-income customers, Hardee's has gone after a completely different crowd: 18- to 24-year-old men. It's a strategy that could allow the chain to carve out a niche in the Twin Cities.
"When you see their commercials with [supermodel] Kate Upton and these big sizzling burgers, I think they really understand who their demographic is," Oches said.
And burgers are big business. The nation's burger chains rake in $70 billion annually, according to food industry researcher Technomic. The better burger segment accounts for about $2.5 billion of the industry, which is dominated by large, quick-service chains like McDonald's.
Hardee's, the No. 6 burger chain, plans to open stores after several years of sluggish growth. Sales at its U.S. locations grew from $1.66 billion to $1.8 billion from 2007 to 2011. And the number of U.S. stores fell to 1,694 from 1,760. It has 21 locations in the Twin Cities.
Unlike better-burger chains, which offer a more streamlined menu, Hardee's serves a variety of items, including biscuits and other Southern-style fare not carried by other chains.
"The Midwest loves its comfort food," Oches said, and the Twin Cities could be a good opportunity for Hardee's.
CKE, based in Carpinteria, Calif., said Hardee's sees great potential in the Minneapolis area.
"Our brand recognition and current franchisees' performance, along with the Midwest's rapidly growing desire for great-tasting burgers, makes the city an ideal expansion market," Jim Sullivan, CKE's senior vice president of domestic franchise development, said in a statement.
CKE, which also owns the Carl's Jr. and Green Burrito chains, declined to make an executive available for an interview.
The company is hosting an "executive roundtable" July 31 in Minneapolis to promote franchise opportunities. Candidates need a minimum net worth of $1 million and minimum liquidity of $300,000.
But experts say it might be tough for Hardee's to pursue such aggressive growth because of the local competition.
"It's one thing to say you're going to [open new franchises]," said Bob Goldin, executive vice president of Technomic. "It's another thing getting there."
Hardee's Twin Cities push is part of a larger effort, which includes adding locations in Philadelphia, New Jersey, Atlanta, Charlotte and Florida.
Hardee's has more than 1,900 restaurants worldwide.