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In a word: Carl's Sr.

The specs: #00899  
3311 Parmenter St., Middleton 53562
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JM ate the roast beef and fries.
Nichole ate the turkey burger with onion rings.
The bill was about $10, or $5/person, plus tip.
JM gave Hardee's a C+; Nichole gave Hardee's a D+ (see our grading rubric).

When nerdoms were handed out, JM started with geography. All manner of maps pleased his eyes and led him into strange waters.  For starters, he had the state capitals memorized prior to Kindergarten.  Maps, too, led him to name telephone poles, appreciate golf (look! a little map of the holes!) and develop a love of road trips from an early age.

His heart palpitated during a Southern road trip when he discovered a state's 'blue signs' (i.e., the signs at an exit that tell you what gas, food and lodging are at the exit).  That road trip was his first taste of data collection as he counted all of the businesses' frequencies from exit to exit.  When he got home, he nearly wrote to the DOT to have them consider adding these signs to Wisconsin exits.  They went up anyway. 

Fast food restaurants also held fascination for the boy as there were none in his hometown.  Certainly he had regular access to one of the finest roadside diners in the state, if not the region, but there was no McDonald's in 1980s Osseo, and weirder still there was no Hardee's.

Hardee's during the 80s felt like a competitor with Arby's.  They were the place that sold really good roast beef sandwiches with great BBQ sauce.  Sure they had burgers, but when JM needed California Raisins paraphernalia, a roast beef and drink would get him a figurine as well.

And between Eau Claire and the Dells every single exit that had fast food, had a Hardee's.

So what happened?

Hardee's hit hard times during the 1990s. (JM moved to Hudson at the same time but is hardly to blame... Hudson had a Hardee's, too.) By the end of the decade, they had sold off many locations and eventually sold the whole shebang to Carl's Jr.  Upon moving to Madison for his first real job, JM's last breakfast with his move in companions (Nichole, parents, BFF) was at the Hardee's on Fish Hatch.  It closed within three months.

It is hard to find many Hardee's these days.  Middleton has the one we ate at, while there's also one at East Towne.  Those blue signs between here and Eau Claire only offer a few Hardee's and even the one that first broke through in Osseo and opened that exit up to McDonalds is greatly diminished.  Hardee's shtick of giant burger sandwiches doesn't work when you can just go to Culver's (80s Hardee's true spiritual descendants).

Enough gauze wrapped childhood nostalgia; should you go to Hardee's today?  Enh, not really. JM got the roast beef for old times sake and Arby's product is better and you can get it with cheddar.  Nichole's turkey burger was fine, almost classy for fast food, topped with trimmed lettuce leaf and swaddled in white paper.


Are we the only ones who find the Hardee's star a little sinister? (Norm MacDonald notwithstanding.)


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I have to say, Hardee's is my go-to guilty pleasure. Turkey burger with curly fries. I'm pretty sensitive to beef and Hardee's is one of two restaurants (of all types and price points) where I don't get sick from eating the turkey burger. (My assumption is they have a dedicated grill area or clean it really well while other places do not.). I may have to stop by in the next couple of days now...

Being from Michigan, I've never been to a Hardee's. I take it from your closing paragraphs that it wouldn't be worth making a trip up to Middleton to try it for the first time?

I have good memories of Hardee's from the 80s too, though not as detailed as yours. I do remember the star on the box and those delicious curly fries. I should look up where all the Hardee's were in Madison in the 80s to see if the location would bring back more memories.

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Listen to The Corner Table podcast "Remembering Restaurants," aired December 24, 2020, where Chris and Lindsay talk with us "about the menus and memories left behind when restaurants go away."

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