How Carl's Jr. and Hardee's are jumping on the branded sneaker trend
Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s are dropping two pairs of athletic shoes this month that are so exclusive, even the sneaker-wearing VP of marketing for the restaurant chains isn’t getting a pair.
The specialty kicks are a way for the chains to express their own version of attainable luxury and “crave culture,” says Patty Trevino, senior VP of marketing at CKE Restaurants, which runs both chains.
Each pair of athletic-inspired sneakers was crafted by Dominic Ciambrone, aka “The Shoe Surgeon,” and cost thousands of dollars. The Carl’s Jr. pair is a colorful callback to the burger chain’s California roots, while the Hardee’s pair features a darker camo look in a nod to hunters and others in the Midwest and South that dine at the fast-food chain.
While Ciambrone often gets calls from brands to do customized shoes based on existing styles, particularly Air Jordan 1s, these were created from scratch. “We were able to do something completely unique and original,” says Ciambrone.
Trevino says she sees the shoes as a way to participate in a cultural moment. Sneaker culture was already hot, and that has only gotten hotter as people get casual during COVID-19. Trevino herself admits she’s abandoned high heels for multiple pairs of tennis shoes during the coronavirus pandemic, yet still looks for pairs that have some style.
“Sneakers are definitely a portal into storytelling,” says Nick DePaula, who covers the footwear industry for ESPN. But limited branded launches are just that: limited. Such shoes attract social media attention, then “it just kind of goes into the abyss of the internet from there,” says DePaula.
Still, creating unique shoes can help brands stand out with people who are into fashion and sneaker culture. They are often the younger consumers coveted by brands. CKE’s footwear includes chunky soles shipped from Italy, which were then hand colored. Both pairs have the chains’ Happy Star logo. There’s even a pocket in the tongue tag perfect for ketchup packets.
“I think the hope is that fans of one half of the collaboration will discover the other half of the collaboration,” Matt Powell, senior industry advisor of sports at NPD Group, says of the broader trend of food-related footwear. “It really is not intended to drive volume, it’s really about getting PR.”
CKE’s Trevino sees more of an appetite for such items.
“It’s really how you bring it to life that’s unique to your brand,” she says.
The shoes are available by purchasing $10 raffle tickets. Proceeds will be donated to Stars for Heroes, a fundraising campaign to benefit military-focused organizations. The shoes promote the Steakhouse Angus Thickburger, which is returning to Carl’s Jr. and debuting at Hardee’s. It’s a more premium play, again tying into that idea of attainable luxury.
“There’s a need for new ways of marketing, new ways to get things out there,” says Ciambrone.
This is his first burger collaboration, and it’s one with a bit of a personal connection, as Ciambrone says he grew up going to Carl’s Jr., and that his dad went to the chain’s first stand.
Other restaurant chains including Dunkin’ and food brands including Jolly Rancher and Twix have had limited-edition footwear in recent years. Ciambrone worked on the 2017 and 2018 limited runs of Pizza Hut Pie Tops, and his more recent brand work includes an Old No. 7 court shoe inspired by the Jack Daniel’s whiskey bottle and shoes for Bodyarmor Edge.
Brands have also played into some of their key products with specialty footwear such as this month’s Denny’s pancake slippers, last month's Oscar Mayer bacon-scented shoelaces, and last year’s KFC chicken bucket-like Crocs.
“It seems to me there’s another collaboration announcement every 10 seconds,” says Powell.
That means it's hard to break through. DePaula, whose footwear industry knowledge includes leading Sole Collector magazine for seven years, says food branded footwear that isn’t an official collaboration with a sneaker brand tends to carry less cache among collectors. When a brand uses a customizer to create its own look, “it’s just a concept shoe that they try to create to generate some interest,” he says.
Official collabs that have done well recently include last year’s Nike SB “Chunky Dunky” Ben & Jerry’s shoes, which was one of the most coveted shoes—not just within branded items but “amongst all shoes,” says DePaula. That official Nike collaboration quickly sold out at its $100 price and now has bids exceeding $1,700 on sites such as StockX.
And while brands tend to go for exclusivity, with limited quantities of their buzz-building shoes, food-related sneakers are even getting full releases. That includes Reebok Shaqnosis Hot Ones basketball shoe released last year that ties back to Shaquille O’Neal’s meme-worthy March 2019 appearance on the YouTube series, on which celebrities taste hot sauces that go up in heat as their interviews progress. It’s currently selling for $159.99 at Dick’s Sporting Goods.