Restaurant and retail franchisors: could this be you in 2014?

January 3rd, 2014

The case of Wojcik v. Interarch, Inc., currently pending in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois against the fast casual restaurant franchisor Saladworks, LLC, contains a factual scenario that should serve as a valuable reminder for existing franchisors who are updating their Franchise Disclosure Document (“FDD”) for use in 2014, for companies beginning the offer of franchise rights, and for prospective franchisees who are investigating opportunities.   Bottom Line: Franchisors need to be careful not to underestimate site development costs, ongoing operating costs, and the challenges of opening locations in geographic areas not familiar with their brands. 

During 2011, one of the plaintiffs, David Wojcik of suburban Chicago, investigated development of a Saladworks franchise restaurant.   Saladworks is based in suburban Philadelphia, and the bulk of Saladworks locations are within 250 miles of Philadelphia.  When Mr. Wojcik attended Saladworks’ “Discovery Day” to learn more about the franchise, Saladworks’ executives took him to their “Gateway” location, which they described as being typical in terms of physical appearance and menu offerings.   They also told him that Saladworks’ designated commercial real estate firm Site Development, Inc.  (“SDI”) and a designated architecture firm would help Wojcik find a location and design his restaurant.

After reviewing the FDD and going to “discovery day,” Mr. Wojcik convinced his wife Denise that they should sign the franchise agreement and that she should invest $90,000 that they used to purchase a single franchise license plus multi-unit development rights in suburban Chicago.  However, it cost the Wojciks substantially more to open their first Saladworks location than the estimated initial investment cost stated in the FDD, and the business failed within six months – both opening and closing during 2012.

The court decision, denying Saladwork’s and SDI’s motions to dismiss for the most part, is interesting on a couple of legal grounds, including the court’s holding that Saladworks could have violated several franchise agreement provisions by failing to “exercise its discretion in good faith,” and also holding that the site selection firm SDI assumed legal duties to the franchisee not to misrepresent its qualifications to provide site selection advice in suburban Chicago.  However, more instructive are the failed franchisee’s factual allegations concerning representations made to induce its franchise purchase, including those in the FDD.  As the court wrote:

“According to Wojcik, Saladworks misrepresented, among other things, that:

A. “Saladworks had the experience and expertise to support a franchisee’s introduction of its brand in the Chicago market and that Saladworks would be committed to success in this market”;

B. “Wojcik’s Illinois restaurants would basically replicate what he saw on discovery day at the Gateway Restaurant”;

C. InterArch and SDI “would be . . . strong positive factor[s]” in helping him develop his restaurants;

D. Wojcik “would receive a `standard location,'” thus making the financial information Saladworks included in its FDD for franchised restaurants at “standard locations” relevant and meaningful for him.

Wojcik also alleges that Saladworks omitted a number of material facts, including the following:

(1) Saladworks based the projected construction costs disclosed in its FDD on “site locations that did not require any substantial changes in use, e.g., that . . . previously [had] a restaurant on the site. . . .”

(2) “[W]ithin any market there can be material differences between particular sites that will substantially affect the performance of any particular franchise, such that, by inducing franchisees to believe that he or she would receive a `standard location,'” the franchisee was being misled and deceived into believing that SDI and Saladworks had developed some sort of process that eliminated the risk of poor site selection. . . .”

(3) InterArch—Saladworks’ designated architect—”had insufficient familiarity with the local building codes of Schaumburg or the other Illinois communities in which Wojcik was planning to build and InterArch was not licensed in Illinois.”

(4) “[The Saladworks] brand was most successful in a core market area, which included the area covered by an approximate 250-mile radius of Philadelphia. . . . [but] beyond the core market area, most of [Saladworks’] franchises were substantially under-performing in relationship to those that were located within the core market area,” thus making Saladworks’ disclosures about the financial performance of franchised restaurants at “standard locations” deceptive and misleading to a franchisee in Illinois.

(5) The two restaurants for which Saladworks supplied information about average operating costs obtained free labor from new franchisees in training, thus making the average operating costs Saladworks disclosed in its FDD materially misleading.

(6) Saladworks “did not intend to do `brand development advertising’ in Illinois,” and thus, a franchisee in Illinois would receive no benefit from its required contributions to Saladworks’ “Brand Development Fund.”

(7) InterArch, Saladworks’ designated architecture firm, charged a $5,000 “supervision fee,” in addition to its design fee, if the franchisee chose to have InterArch supervise construction of the restaurant.”

This case decision was in the context of Saladworks’ and SDI’s motions to dismiss (the architect, InterArch, had already settled), and many of the allegations recited above may not survive a motion for summary judgment on the failed franchisee’s misrepresentation claims.  For example, as the court also points out, the franchise agreement specifically warned the franchisee that its “Brand Development Fund” contributions did not have to be used to promote the franchisee’s restaurant (as opposed to other System restaurants), and a franchisee in a new region typically should negotiate that point.

However, some issues that renewing franchisors should carefully consider are:

(i) Do franchises outside of your core geographic area struggle, as compared to those in the core?  If so, your Item 19 Financial Performance Representation probably needs to highlight those differences and conspicuously warn prospects considering a franchise that would operate outside of “the core.”

(ii) If your Item 19 disclosure includes operating costs disclosures, are those impacted at all by the use of trainees in place of paid staff?

(iii) if you feel it is necessary to designate a commercial real estate company or architecture firm, be careful about how you promote their abilities, and consider (a) requiring the real estate firm to work with a local firm with whom it would share its fees, and (b) for states where the architect is not licensed, consider allowing the franchisee to select alternative architects upon payment of  a modest review fee to your designated designers.

(iv)  Are your Leasehold Improvement or construction estimates in Item 7 based on certain positive assumptions?  If so, carefully disclose them, and consider whether the high estimate should not include those optimistic assumptions.

From the point of view of a prospective restaurant or retail franchisee, the lesson of this case is to show the kinds of issues you should carefully consider in your due diligence before purchasing a franchise.   While litigation may help you recover if the franchisor is not completely truthful, better to figure it out beforehand!

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