CEO keeping Carl's Jr.'s menu 'indulgent, decadent'

Tiffany Hsu / Los Angeles Times /

Published Mar 22, 2013 at 05:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

Fast-food chain Carl’s Jr. is known for its bosomy brand ambassadors, debaucherous burgers and a clientele that leans toward young, hungry dudes.

But the wizard behind the curtain isn’t a frat boy with a salad allergy. It’s Andy Puzder, a 62-year-old jogger and devoted grandfather of six who has never met “celebutante” Paris Hilton.

Remember her? Nearly a decade ago, she shimmied into a slinky bathing suit, lathered herself up with soap suds and downed a burger atop a car in an infamous Carl’s Jr. television ad.

Puzder has spent the past 12 years approving similar marketing efforts as the chief executive of CKE Inc. The company is based in Carpinteria, Calif., and owns Carl’s Jr. and its sister chain, Hardee’s.

Puzder has also presided over a rescinded attempt at an initial public stock offering and attempted to keep innovating at a company with 72-year-old roots.

Puzder arrived for a late lunch recently at a busy Carl’s Jr. near Los Angeles International Airport, leaving his silver Mercedes-Benz sedan in a parking lot scented with french fries. Perched on a stool at a window table, he skimmed through emails from his son’s high school.

Puzder has six children. He acts young, rolling up his shirt sleeves and donning stylish rimless glasses. He professes to love the songstress Adele.

He shows off smartphone photos of his second wife, a health nut who looks to be about 35 (she’s actually 51).

Like his wife, Puzder keeps his waistline trim. But his personal wellness goals haven’t threatened the chains’ reputations as sauce-soaked temples of caloric excess.

Outside of online menus listing good-for-you options, the brands “don’t really advertise the healthy food products,” Puzder said.

The company sells 20 times more Western Bacon Cheeseburgers, with 740 calories apiece, than it does BBQ chicken sandwiches, which each have 390 calories.

“It’s not our personality and it won’t become our personality,” Puzder said of the health craze that has swept rivals such as McDonald’s. “All of our products are indulgent, decadent.”