Sunday, December 28, 2008

Requiem For A Hamburger

My love affair with hamburgers began as soon as I had my own money to spend. At the age of ten, I began selling the Grand Forks Herald on the streets of downtown. Only on rare occasions did I indulge myself with the burger-fries-Coke combination which cost, at the time, about forty-five cents. That, of course, was in the pre McDonald's midwest when a handmade hamburger came with lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle, and the other stuff if you wanted. Cheese was an extra nickle.

During my high school years and my stint in the Navy, I gradually became able to rival Popeye's buddy Wimpy as a hamburger connoisseur. I ate White Castles five at a time and Big Macs two at a time.

When I relocated to Orange County in 1968, I discovered Carl's Jr. That was it. One Superstar with cheese, fries and a Coke was about two bucks and it was a full lunch. You could watch the patties roll off the conveyor and be immediately slapped onto a bun already loaded with goodies. I think I must've eaten something like 300 Superstars a year for a few years.

I sort of upgraded by dining tastes a mite after I moved to San Diego. I was making more money and meeting a better class of feminine accompaniment, and I swerved away from hamburgers for a few years, in favor of steak, seafood, Mexican, Chinese, Cajun, Italian food and even the occasional New York Jewish deli sandwich.

After I came back to OC and LA, I spent more time with onsite field work, and lunches became more fast foody, I naturally returned to Carl's Jr for lunch much of the time.They weren't the same.

Carl Karcher started Carl's Jr in 1946, with a hot dog stand. He made money in an America and a California before the War on Productivity, and was able to reinvest part of his profits and build a hot dog and hamburger diners all over Orange County, and beyond. Some might remember the nice, clown-faced gentleman advertising on tv in the 1980's and 1990's. Carl Karcher.

He was a very conservative Catholic man, part of the old guard Orange County conservative majority that.....sort of lingers there to this day. In a GWB-inspired weakened state.

In the mid 1990's, I think it was, that the Karcher Ent board squeezed Carl out of the chairmanship of the enterprise he created. The quality of the Carl's Jr hamburger has been in decline ever since.

You don't get patties fresh off the conveyor any more. They sit in a pile and congeal until they are ordered. The meat doesn't smell good any more. The relatively new Six Dollar burgers are a little better--but only if you happen to get one whose patty was recently grilled.

After Mr Karcher's face disappeared from the tv screen, he was replaced by unkempt twenty-something louts who dribbled catsup down their shirts.

Like in Ayn Rand's America, Carl's Jr's motor has been stopped. Its motive power is grinding to a halt. It's really too bad that Carl didn't have a Dagny Karcher to keep the business going and advancing, but it wasn't to be. The heirs are apparently lawyers or marketing types, who care nothing for the product, just the corporate bottom line. If that sounds anti-capitalist on my part--it isn't. Making a "profit" by lowering the quality of the product is a very short-term, suicidal policy.

Sadly, Carl Karcher lived to see his empire enter its death throes. He passed away in January, almost a year ago, and the Carl's Jr burger chain will follow soon--unless somebody wakes up over there.

I had a hamburger for lunch today. It was not at Carl's Jr.

Warm regards,

Col. Hogan
Stalag California


T. F. Stern said...

We have Zios, a national chain Italian food place. We used to go there once a month because they had good food at reasonable prices and you could have all the bread and dipping oil you wanted. A couple of months ago we noticed the quality of their food went down, they also changed from pure olive oil to a blend of oils that tasted more like motor oil than olive oil. Scratch one regular customer...

steveintx said...

When I went to Justin's BCT graduation in South Carolina I stopped at a few McDonalds east of here. The one that I ate at in Columbia was fantastic. Also the one in Okla City was really good. When I came back to Amarillo the food tasted like cardboard, with ketchup. I came to the conclusion that it's the store, not the entire chain that sucks

Anonymous said...

When you find a place you like, you gotta stick with them. Those are the best ones. But all good things must come to an end i suppose.

Col. Hogan said...

One neat thing about chains is that they (usually) are consistent. I've run across inconsistency at times, as Steve says, but if you're in a very weird part of Arkansas, a McDonald's can look pretty good.

For years, I could depend 'pon Carl's for hot, juicy, tasty hamburgers. It's not quite an act of nature, though, nor a coincidence when a corporation retires its builder, and suddenly things change--usually for the worse.

It's a lot easier to expect a great meal if the restaurateur is a chef, than if he's a lawyer or a marketer.

The Wine Commonsewer said...

I can remember Carl's Jr BEFORE there was a conveyor. They were even better.

The very first meal I ever bought for myself with my own money was a Carls hot dog. Man, what a feeling that was. They ditched the hot dog long before the sell off.

I met Carl Karcher several times. He was a good guy and generous to boot. I'm sure he's turned over in his grave numerous times---every time one of the commercials airs.

he was replaced by unkempt twenty-something louts who dribbled catsup down their shirts.

And Paris, having sex with a car....

I sometimes I think I'm just old, but it seems like fast food used to be better. Less cardboard, more taste.

I asked my dad about that and he told me that he used to eat at the original Mickie Dees on E Street in Berdoo back in the day and that the burgers were fabulous. This from a man who wouldn't take me to Mickie Dees as a child for love nor money because he hated the Kroc version of burger conformity more than you can imagine.

Col. Hogan said...


I knew you'd fill me in on the stuff I either forgot or didn't know. I'd love to have met Karcher, just as I'd love to have met Walter Knott or Walt Disney. (Aside: Debbie did meet Walt Disney once.) They were among those who made Orange County.

I won't even mention John Schmitz or Bob Dornan (Oops, I just did!)

smartass sob said...

I like the burgers at Whataburger, if I'm going to eat one at a chain. They don't cook the meat ahead of time and there isn't a conveyor - the pattys are fresh grilled while you wait. If you ever find yourself in Texas, between Austin and Houston, there's a little town called Fayettesville about ten miles from LaGrange. In that town there is a small restaurant called Orsak's Cafe and they make and serve one of the best hamburgers I've ever eaten. I get over there at least once or twice a year and I always stop and have one. They taste the way hamburgers did when I was a kid - I suspect they use a better grade or cut of meat than the chains do.


steveintx said...

We have a couple of places here that are pretty good. Lone Star Cafe and Coyote Bluff both know how to make a great hamburger. They are both about $8 but at least you know you ate something and you will have pleasant memories of the place (they're both dumps).

Lone Chatelaine said...

I miss In-n-Out burgers. I loved those when I lived in LA. Don't have them down south here :-(

The Wine Commonsewer said...

As an aside, the reason that Ray Kroc got interested in McDonalds is because they kept ordering meat grinders from the company he worked for. Kroc couldn't believe that anyone could sell enough hamburgers to justify the purchase of all those meat grinders. So he came to Ca to find out what was going on and was stunned. Shortly thereafter he made the McDonald Brothers an offer they couldn't refuse.

One reason why burgers were so good back then is because the meat was ground fresh on the premises.

The Wine Commonsewer said...

LC, I love In-N-Out Burgers. When I was a lad, it was a long drive to find one. We had to drive all the way to Azusa from the OC to get one.

The Wine Commonsewer said...

Hey, I met B-1 Bob Dornan a few times when I was a model yoot. He struck you as being crazy even then.

I also met John Schmitz. I believe his family owned the old Iron Horse restaurant in Orange. It was on South Main near the ATT towers.

SASOB, I believe that all good burgers come from a better grade of beef.

All this talk about burgers reminds me that I have a half done post sitting around that is connected to burgers.

steveintx said...

We had an In N Out up here in Amarillo until last year... it finally folded. I'm not sure if it was part of the chain. Had good burgers though.

MK said...

Happy new year TF, hope it's a good year for you and yours.

Col. Hogan said...


I've heard of Whataburger, but I don't think they exist out here. Never seen one.

Years ago, Jack in the Box used to use never-frozen fresh ground beef, but not in the past thirty years or so.

Col. Hogan said...


There are several places to get great burgers in LA, but not enough for one to be nearby. In Los Alamitos, I worked near a place that has excellent burgers and breakfasts.

Where I'm working now, the nearest place that's any good is Pink's, a very good hot dog joint that's been there for over 60 years. But it's not very close, and at mealtimes it's always very crowded.

Col. Hogan said...


There are In-N-Outs all around here, but however many they build, they're always crowded. Good burgers, though. Inexpensive, too.

Ol' BC said...

I just want to wish you and all your regulars(well, even the occasional too) a Happy New Year.

Wimpy said...

I would gladly pay you Tuesday, for a hamburger today.