ST. LOUIS – Two weeks since serving up its Monster Thickburger packing 1,420 calories and 107 grams of fat, Hardee's (search) looks to beef up sales with a new multimillion-dollar ad campaign.
Some may wonder whether that's even needed, given the St. Louis-based restaurant chain's claims that the self-described "monument of decadence" has done fine by free word of mouth.
Just a day after the Monster's rollout Nov. 15, Jay Leno (search) quipped on "The Tonight Show" that the megaburger "actually comes in a little cardboard box shaped like a coffin." On David Letterman's (search) "Late Show," an actor playing the chief of Hardee's corporate parent in a sketch clutches his chest, then keels over dead when asked of any health risks of a burger that size.
Media outlets from Japan, Spain, England, France and Australia have reported about the Monster. Some newspaper editorial pages have weighed in, one suggesting that Hardee's — despite those poking fun at, even mocking, the Monster — may have the last laugh.
"I don't think any of us anticipated anything like the media uproar we've seen," says Andy Puzder, president and chief executive of CKE Restaurants Inc. (CKR), the California-based parent of Hardee's Food Systems Inc.
Even before the unfolding Monster-peddling ad campaign — expected to run several months and cost roughly $8 million to $10 million — "you can certainly say it exceeded all my expectations," Puzder said Monday.
He declined to offer specifics on sales but suggested he's a believer that sometimes even punch lines can help bottom lines.
While McDonald's (MCD), Wendy's (WEN) and other rival fast-food giants are offering salads and other lower-calorie fare, Hardee's appears comfortable going against the grain, staking its future — at least near-term — on behemoth burgers.
Hardee's has big hopes for the Monster — two 1/3-pound slabs of Angus beef, four strips of bacon, three slices of cheese and mayonnaise on a buttered sesame seed bun. Add fries and a soda and a single meal would involve more calories and fat than most people should get in a day.
Hardee's already was offering five sandwiches with 1,000 calories or more, and eight overall that have more calories than what was once the big-burger standard — the 600-calorie Big Mac.
"Not every product has to be aimed at the health-conscious," Puzder said, noting that since the introduction of the Thickburger family in April 2003, sales for the 2,067-restaurant chain have risen steadily.
Though CKE fell to a loss in the second-quarter ending Aug. 9 — given charges for settlement reserves and debt refinancing — the company for the four weeks ending Nov. 1 said its same-store sales rose for the 17th consecutive period at Hardee's and its sister Carl's Jr. chain.
CKE shares slipped three cents to close at $12.78 on the New York Stock Exchange, near the high end of its 52-week range of $5.74 to $14.54.
Still, many have questioned Hardee's approach at a time when airlines say America's growing waistlines are hurting their bottom lines, costing them more in fuel.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest (search), a Washington-based advocate for nutrition and health, dubbed the Thickburgers "food porn," the Monster "the fast-food equivalent of a snuff film."
"At a time of rampant heart disease and obesity, it is the height of corporate irresponsibility for a major chain to peddle a 1,420-calorie sandwich," the center said.
Lighten up, others say.
"Let the food puritans say what they will," the Star Tribune of Minneapolis said in an editorial last week, "There's nothing really wrong with counting the occasional juicy burger among life's simple pleasures."
"The promotional campaign has relied so heavily on humor that it seems possible to take the Monster Thickburger itself as kind of a goof on the fast-food industry's belated and rather lame, lawsuit-driven trend toward healthier menu choices," the newspaper said, asking "does anyone who savors a good green salad really think McDonald's or Subway is the place to go?"
Chase Squires, a St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times reporter, tried the Monster Thickburger and found it "kind of mushy," opining in a column Nov. 23 that there were healthier food options. Holiday air travelers, he suggested, should go lighter on the airlines and "have a stick of butter instead. That has only 800 calories and 88 grams of fat. We could always wrap it in bacon."
Puzder has the stomach for such dissent.
"We want Hardee's to be known as the place for big, juicy, decadent burgers," he says. "Every time (comics or critics) come out with something, it helps us advance the impression of the brand. This all helps."