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Entries in restaurant business (14)

Friday
Sep012017

Franchise Litigation Rising Over Dietary Considerations

Chair, Franchise & Distribution Practice Group

by Barry Kurtz

818-907-3006

 

Rising concerns over food sourcing and preparation is leading to more and more litigation for restaurants and franchises.

Most of the lawsuits claim discrimination, which makes sense as many dietary strictures are rooted in religious tradition. Other restaurant lawsuits are based on disability discrimination, as some plaintiffs suffer physical hardships when their dietary needs are not met, or are blatantly ignored.

Then there are franchisor-franchisee lawsuits, generally over how restaurants are allowed or not allowed to market, and regarding suppliers of specialty foods.

Here’s a closer look at the litigation menu:

First Course, Gluten Free

Gluten-free Diner DiscriminationRecently, a living-history museum in Virginia forced a fifth grade student on a school field trip to eat his home-prepared gluten-free (GF) meal outside in the rain – the museum’s restaurant had a strict “no outside food” policy. The boy’s father tried to talk to the restaurant employee who was enforcing the rule and then to the manager, who steadfastly refused to make an exception.

The family’s GF discrimination lawsuit cites violations of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the Virginia Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act.

Here in California, a gluten-free class action lawsuit was recently dropped by the lead plaintiff. In this case, Anna Marie Phillips was contesting P.F. Chang’s $1 surcharge for GF menu items, pointing out that customers who asked for vegan substitutions, or peanut and peanut oil-free dishes, were not similarly charged. Phillips dropped her suit because of complaints from a group who advocates for celiac disease victims.

But even though the suit was dropped, a legal question looms: Is Celiac Disease considered a disability under the federal ADA or various state laws?

Restauranteurs wanting to avoid ADA suits may be best advised to accommodate GF diners whenever they can – without surcharges, unless the extra costs apply to all special requests. (We can hear the revamped Burger King commercial now: “Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce, special orders don’t upset us…if we can charge you just a dollar more…”)

On the other side of the healthy food coin, a customer in Massachusetts brought a class action lawsuit against 20 Dunkin’ Donuts stores last year. His complaint?  He asked for real butter on his bagel but was served a butter substitute instead. The point in this case, according to the plaintiff’s attorney, is the need for truthful representations.

Point taken. At the point of a butter knife.

Second Course: Religious Concerns

Food and Cultural ConcertsAlso of note recently are the lawsuits initiated by those concerned with kashrut (kosher) or halal diets. Though pork is forbidden in both of these, the lists of allowed and forbidden foods diversify a bit for Jews and Muslims.

A Muslim customer in Michigan sued Little Caesars for $100 million last May, alleging he accidentally ate pepperoni, which is strictly prohibited by Islamic law because it is composed of pork. The plaintiff specifically ordered halal pizzas, and though the boxes were labeled halal, they were topped with regular, non-halal pepperoni.

On the other hand, many Hindus believe in non-violence, including non-violence toward animals. Thus, many practitioners are vegetarian, or lacto-vegetarian, if not fully vegan. Some Hindus will eat meat, but draw the line at beef.

Remember the lawsuit over french fries? McDonald’s labeled their fries vegetarian, but litigation ensued when customers realized the fries and hash browns were cooked in a vegetable oil containing “the essence of beef” to enhance flavor. The franchisor paid over $10 million to settle the complaints.

It’s important for franchisors, franchisees, distributors or suppliers, and employees to know the differences between halal, kosher, Hindu, vegetarian and vegan diets. Wait staff, food expediters and kitchen staff should be especially aware of legal consequences when making a simple mistake, like putting meat-filled samosas in a vegetarian-labeled container.

Even if such mistakes don’t lead to lawsuits, they definitely lead to customer mistrust and injured reputations for the restaurant.

Third Course: Franchise Agreements and Policies That Just Won’t Fly

Unauthorized products, particularly in the food industry, can cause system-wide problems. One of the primary purposes of franchisors approving suppliers is so that the corporate office can trace problems in food quality or sanitation. Outbreaks of food poisoning, a discovery that a unit’s fries are cooked in oils containing animal byproducts, or that a hot dog isn’t really kosher all lead to an injured reputation for the unit as well as the franchise system.

Further, consistently ignoring the franchisors requirements regarding ingredient sourcing can lead to an agreement termination, and possibly, litigation.

But here’s another twist on the food supply problem:

KFC Franchisee Halal Chicken

The KFC Corporation (franchisor of Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants, or “KFC”) was recently accused of enforcing an allegedly unknown policy that prohibits religious claims regarding KFC products.

The plaintiff, a multi-unit franchisee owner, alleges he has sold halal chicken for 14 years with KFC’s help; the religious claims prohibition is not part of the franchise agreement or disclosure statement; and at no time since opening his first restaurant did the franchisor ever mention the prohibition. The franchisee claims he was first made aware of the provision in December 2016, and that KFC’s policy violates the Illinois Halal Food Act. He expects to lose $1 million in revenue annually.

Boxing It All Up

It’s easy to sum up the lessons – be respectful, be aware, and be proactive.

To avoid potential litigation, restaurant operators should ensure all employees handling food are well trained. It may be difficult to instill knowledge about every ingredient in every menu item, but at least train workers to ask management or kitchen staff when they don’t know the answers to customer food questions. Front of the house staff should never tell the customer what s/he thinks the customer wants to hear, or provide the easy answer when busy.

Also, be very wary of triggering discrimination complaints like the ones mentioned in the gluten-free lawsuits cited earlier. There shouldn’t be one set of rules for GF requests, another for people with allergy concerns, and others for halal or kosher diets. If imposing surcharges for one type of food modification, impose the same surcharges for all. (Though it’s probably best not to initiate extra charges at all.)

Franchisors, ensure franchisees are using approved suppliers only. If making policy changes about food supply or anything else, first consider whether or not those changes are going to cause economic hardships for the franchisees, and whether or not the changes are contractually enforceable.

Franchisees, don’t go off menu with ingredients. The suppliers pre-approved by the franchisor are generally well-vetted. Their ingredients may cost a little more, but you can probably assume the higher costs are due to better quality, legitimate certifications, and the like.

Barry Kurtz is a California Bar Certified Specialist in Franchise & Distribution Law.

Disclaimer:
This Blog/Web Site is made available by the lawyer or law firm publisher for educational purposes only, to provide general information and a general understanding of the law, not to provide specific legal advice. By using this blog site you understand there is no attorney client relationship between you and the Blog/Web Site publisher. The Blog/Web Site should not be used as a substitute for obtaining legal advice from a licensed professional attorney in your state.

Monday
Jul172017

So You Say You Want a Revolution? Franchises Evolve as Retail Declines

Franchise Distribution Attorney Barry KurtzBar Certified Franchise & Distribution Law Specialist

by Barry Kurtz

818-907-3006

 

You’ve seen the news: retailers are struggling. Traditional anchor stores like Macy’s and Sears are closing up shop, creating a domino effect of fiscal death for shopping malls across the country. The Los Angeles Times reports over 8,000 retail stores may close before years’ end. 

Empty Food Courts Hurt Franchises

This is bad for Quick Serve Restaurants (QSRs) that have done a booming business in traditional mall food courts. But like all threatened species, there is a solution: Evolve. Though the traditional mall may be singing a swan song, other types of shopping complexes are doing good business.

Brick & Mortar Restaurant Locations

Not all malls are dead or dying, of course. And some properties will attempt a comeback through “experiential retail”, converting large anchor stores into movie theaters, restaurants, gyms, laser tag playgrounds or other facilities, which will hopefully lure back the smaller retailers as well as consumer foot traffic. But for franchisees leasing space in malls that are truly facing a decline, it may be time to revise a franchise agreement to accommodate a move to a more lucrative location. Consider alternative venues:

Outlet Malls: These still draw customers and generally have booming food courts filled with QSRs and other casual eateries. Many of them also lease space to family-friendly, full service restaurants as well.

Lifestyle Centers: Also known as boutique malls, these are mixed use commercial properties and popular draws for more upscale consumer spending. CityPlace in West Palm Beach or The Grove here in Los Angeles are prime examples. Single location restaurants and chains that are a little higher end tend to set out shingles in these locations. But QSRs may have opportunities in the surrounding areas.

Marketplaces: These settings are also on the rise in the U.S. Check out Grand Central Market in Los Angeles, or a venue like Underground Atlanta in Georgia.

Franchisees, consult with your franchisor regarding pulling up the stakes.

Franchisors, don’t allow franchisees to relocate at will; however, if a franchisee can make a convincing showing that relocation will be in the best interests of both franchisee and franchisor, the franchisor’s consent may be forthcoming. Consider the economic realities – franchisees who turn good profits make for a healthier system.

Food Delivery Services Help FranchisesOther Options for QSRs

Hanging on at the traditional mall food court to the bitter end? That’s understandable in some cases, as moves can be very expensive in terms of cash, lost customer bases and good employees who simply can’t commute to a new store further down the road.

Though foot traffic may be declining, digital sales are up. Consider a mobile delivery service or curbside pickup (consult with the mall’s management for this option) to bolster the account books.

A Morgan Stanley report says $210 billion in restaurant food is consumed outside of the restaurant from which it is ordered each year – though currently, only about five percent of that spend accounts for deliveries of online orders. But a writer for The Motley Fool projects a 15 percent growth in digital deliveries annually.

Whatever a QSR or other franchises decide to do – there are still plenty of options for business growth. You just have to embrace the change.

Barry Kurtz is the Chair of our Franchise & Distribution Practice Group.

Disclaimer:
This Blog/Web Site is made available by the lawyer or law firm publisher for educational purposes only, to provide general information and a general understanding of the law, not to provide specific legal advice. By using this blog site you understand there is no attorney client relationship between you and the Blog/Web Site publisher. The Blog/Web Site should not be used as a substitute for obtaining legal advice from a licensed professional attorney in your state.

Monday
Jul102017

Trimming the Fat: Restaurant Menu Labeling Rule Under Further Review

Franchise LawyerChair, Franchise & Distribution Practice Group

 

by Barry Kurtz

818-907-3006

 

In 2010 as part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act a/k/a “Obamacare”, the federal government set provisions mandating restaurant chains provide nutrition information for menu items. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA or Agency) was supposed to come up with guidelines for compliance.

FDA Menu Rules for Coupons

The Agency did so, issuing its final rule in December 2014. Certain parties requested extended compliance deadlines in July 2015, the FDA announced the following December that concerned restaurants should meet requirements by December 1, 2016; however, on December 30, 2016 the Agency decreed menu labeling enforcement was to begin May 5, 2017.

Or not. In May, the FDA extended the menu labeling compliance deadline once again, pushing everything back to May 7, 2018 to give the Agency time to “consider how we might further reduce the regulatory burden”. Interested franchisors have until August 2, 2017 to weigh in on the interim final rule.

Current Menu Label Requirements

As the FDA Interim Final Rule for restaurants stands now (see: 2016 Labeling Guide for Restaurants), succinctly covered in a mere 58 pages, menu labeling will be required of all covered establishments – restaurants and similar retail food sellers with 20 or more locations doing business under the same name and selling substantially similar menu items. 

Covered establishments may include bakeries, coffee shops, convenience stores and concession stands that meet the above criteria. Eateries that are not considered covered establishments generally don’t meet the 20 location rule. But there are also exemptions for hospitals, schools, transportation carriers (food services on planes and trains), food trucks and sidewalk carts.

Restaurant nutrition labeling will be required on standard menu items, combination meals, variable menu items, side dishes and beverages. Foods that will not require labeling under the current rule include alcoholic beverages (unless they appear on a menu or menu board), condiments, daily specials, temporary market items, custom orders and market-test menu items.

In house and takeout menus and menu boards should include: 

  • Number of calories for each menu item for sale, adjacent to the item or the item’s price, and listed as “cal” or “calories”.

  • Statement similar to: “2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice, but calorie needs vary.”

  • Statement similar to: “Additional nutrition information available on request.” 

More Food for Thought (and Rule Commenting)

FDA Nutrition LabelingMany of the provisions in the menu labeling rule have to do with remote points of sale and consumer impulse choices. Generally, these situations occur on premises.

But offsite, the general thinking is this: if a consumer sees restaurant marketing that lists menu items and provides info like a phone number or web link for the consumer to order immediately, nutrition information should be provided for that menu item. For example: 

  • If a pizza chain offers a discount or BOGO (Buy One Get One) offer attached to a takeout menu that already provides nutrition labeling, no further information for that discounted food item is needed on the coupon. On the other hand, if the offer is a “stand alone” coupon, e.g. paper flier without nutrition info affixed to a pizza delivery box, that coupon could be in violation of the menu labeling rule as currently written.

  • Topping options, e.g. mushrooms for pizza, chocolate sprinkles for ice cream, etc. should also have calories listed.

  • Restaurants that offer appetizer or catering platters, should consider listing calories for the entire platter, or per discrete serving unit: “appetizer sampler: 80 cal/buffalo wing, 5 wings”.  

If you plan to weigh in on these or other aspects of the Agency’s proposed plans for nutrition labeling, follow these FDA commenting instructions for written and electronic submissions. Again, input should be properly delivered to the Agency before August 2, 2017.

Barry Kurtz is a Certified Franchise & Distribution Law Specialist in California.

Disclaimer:
This Blog/Web Site is made available by the lawyer or law firm publisher for educational purposes only, to provide general information and a general understanding of the law, not to provide specific legal advice. By using this blog site you understand there is no attorney client relationship between you and the Blog/Web Site publisher. The Blog/Web Site should not be used as a substitute for obtaining legal advice from a licensed professional attorney in your state.

Friday
Jun162017

Old Grounds: A Lack of Prop 65 Warnings Brew Trouble for Coffee Franchisors

 

by Stephen T. Holzer and Barry Kurtz

 

California Prop 65 warnings – many residents barely notice these anymore, as we’ve lived with Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act notices for over 30 years now. They appear at gas pumps; in apartment and office buildings; on packaging for food, toys and other products; and in retail establishments all over the state.

The ubiquitous but largely ignored warnings are clear, generally stating that a consumer may be exposed to certain chemicals that may cause cancer or reproductive harm.

But if the average citizen of California no longer notices the signs, who does? Bounty hunters. More specifically, an opportunistic group of consumers and lawyers who notice the lack of Prop 65 signs and labels. They then file lawsuits on behalf of the public good. Most businesses settle the claims rather than engage in expensive litigation.

This leads to a whole new trend in tort litigation aimed at restaurants, though Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts were named (along with approximately 80 other coffee co-defendants) in a suit brought by the Council for Education and Research on Toxics (CERT) back in 2010. CERT's complaint is that these businesses failed to warn customers of potentially harmful, carcinogenic chemicals in coffee, specifically acrylamide.

In the latest news on this particular CERT suit, Dunkin’ lost its argument for summary judgment. The franchisor claimed it needn’t put warning labels on its coffee because technically, the franchisor doesn’t sell coffee in California. Dunkin’ Brands Inc. oversees a corporation – it doesn’t buy, sell, roast, distribute or even possess coffee.

A Los Angeles Superior Court Judge found that argument weak, and so to court will Dunkin’ go, along with its codefendants. 

More Acrylamide and Other Chemically-Based Acrimony

The chemical acrylamide isn't just found in coffee. It forms on starchy foods as they cook, so toast, French fries and a host of other popular menu items carry trace amounts. Really, just about any one operating a restaurant in California can become a target for this type of tort.

But environmental plaintiffs worry about other chemicals and ingredients too.

Prop 65 and Restaurant Businesses

According to the Mercury News, plaintiffs filed lawsuits last year because of Bisphenol A (BPA) found in receipt paper and bottled water.

Sugar is also on the chemical hit list, though not considered a Prop 65 chemical. California lawmakers introduced Senate Bill 300, the Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Health Warning Act, which could require anyone selling closed container beverages to add warnings to their containers, and any business with vending or beverage dispensing machines to add signage to those machines.

The warning as written now, would read:  STATE OF CALIFORNIA SAFETY WARNING: Drinking beverages with added sugar(s) contributes to obesity, type 2 diabetes, and tooth decay.

Some franchisors have already stated an intention to remove food dyes from the ingredients of their menu items, Dunkin' Donuts and Baskin Robins among them. But California has a bill targeting products with these chemicals too.

Senate Bill 504 would amend the state's Health and Safety Code to direct the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) to review literature regarding the potential risks to children who may be consuming these chemicals.

A report from the OEHHA would be due in 2019. Chances are good the chemicals in food dyes will make their way to the hundreds of chemicals already flagged on California's Prop 65 list of potentially toxic agents.

Prop 65 Compliance

So what should restaurant owners know about Prop 65, and more importantly, what should they do?

1. Size Matters: Understand that the law affects businesses employing 10 or more people. Small café and food truck owners are probably safe if they employ a skeleton staff. In fact, that was another argument Dunkin' Brands Inc. attempted when it tried to get out of the coffee labeling suit.

2. The List is Long: There are about 900 chemicals cited as dangerous on the OEHHA list as of January (there are 1,000 rows on the Excel sheet – some of the data contains delisted chemicals, some are header information rows, etc.). Chances are good every business in California with 10 or more employees should be posting a warning of some sort.

3. Prop 65 Has Evolved: The rules regarding this law changed recently. Warning labels and signs gave general warnings in the past, now businesses must name the specific chemical present on the premises or in the product. That could get rather daunting, e.g. "This establishment sells products for consumption that may contain acrylamide, BPA, benzidene (found in food dyes), ethanol (found in alcoholic beverages), etc. The new rules will be enforced as of August 30, 2018.

4. Violation Penalties: Up to $2,500 per day, per violation.

5. Some Good News: Businesses could argue that the levels of the chemicals present in food or other products are so low, there is little risk of harm. This type of defense requires expert, scientific testimony however, and may be financially out of reach for many businesses.

Franchisors and franchisees should beware and be diligent. 

History tells us that when a contingency fee attorney finds one unit in a franchise system in potential violation of these types of consumer-protection laws, litigation on the claims spreads through the franchise system and company-owned units like wildfire. Since the franchisor generally establishes operating standards, specifications and procedures with which the franchisees must follow, both are at risk if they fail to comply with these measures once they become law.

 

Steve Holzer is the Chair of our Environmental Practice Group. Barry Kurtz is the Chair of our Franchise and Distribution Practice Group.

Disclaimer:
This Blog/Web Site is made available by the lawyer or law firm publisher for educational purposes only, to provide general information and a general understanding of the law, not to provide specific legal advice. By using this blog site you understand there is no attorney client relationship between you and the Blog/Web Site publisher. The Blog/Web Site should not be used as a substitute for obtaining legal advice from a licensed professional attorney in your state.

Monday
Jun052017

Franchisors, Got Claims? Don't Let Them Spoil Like Bad Cheese

Franchise LawyerChair, Franchise & Distribution Practice Group

by Barry Kurtz

818-907-3006

 

This is the tale of two restaurants, each facing trademark infringement claims under the Lanham Act brought by two, separate franchisors. The franchisees’ restaurants had three things in common: First, cheese is a key ingredient in their respective menus (which detail is only critical to cheese-lovers, but we like lists of three). Second and more importantly, time was a key ingredient in their respective defenses.

The third common element is that both defendants won. Here's why:

Both restaurateurs employed a laches defense. The Laches Doctrine is an old but often used defense employed when an unreasonable amount of time has passed between a supposed transgression by the defendant and a legal complaint is made by the plaintiff. Here are the details:

Delays May Cause Grouchy-ness

In Groucho's Franchise Systems, LLC v. Grouchy's Deli, Inc. (d/b/a  Grouchy's New York Deli and Bagels and referred to as "Deli" to avoid confusion), an 11th Circuit Court of Appeal upheld the trial court's ruling that the franchisor's (Groucho's) claim was barred by laches.

To sum up, Groucho's has been doing business in South Carolina since 1941, opened 20 additional locations over time, and finally registered its trade name in 1997. The Deli opened its restaurant in 2000 in Georgia.

In 2004, Groucho's sent the Deli a letter alleging the Deli was infringing on the franchisor’s registered mark. The letter further stated the franchisor planned to open a location in Atlanta sometime in the future, and that upon that occasion, would take legal action to stop the Deli's infringement. The Deli registered its own mark in 2005 and opened a second location. Thereafter, both concepts expanded their operations.

In 2013, Groucho's sent the Deli another letter, asking the Deli to change its name because of the risk of confusion between Groucho's and Grouchy's.  The Deli did not respond, and Groucho's franchisor followed up with a warning about a lawsuit. This time the Deli replied that there was no likelihood of confusion. Groucho's finally filed a lawsuit in 2014.

Among other allegations, Groucho's claimed trademark and service mark infringement in violation of the Lanham Act, unfair competition, unjust enrichment, and that the Deli's name would cause market confusion. The district court granted summary judgment for the Deli.

The 11th Circuit Court stated that a laches defense requires proof of three elements:

1. There must be a delay in asserting a claim;

2. The delay must not be excusable; and

3. The delay must cause the defendant undue prejudice.

The Court further opined that during the decade in which Groucho's waited to challenge the Deli's service mark; the Deli built business value around its own mark; registered its mark without opposition; and opened another restaurant which it later sold, licensing the buyer at the time to use the Deli's recipes and proprietary property. In short, the Deli "rel[ied] to its detriment" on Groucho's silence. The Court also characterized Groucho's behavior as "tortoise-like", and upheld the district court's decision.

If Groucho's wanted a successful shot at protecting its name, the franchisor should have taken legal action in 2004.

Franchisor Cheesed Off…Eventually

In Noble Roman's Inc. v. Hattenhauer Distributing Company, time plays a role again.

Noble Roman's of Indiana franchises pizza outlets and submarine sandwiches. Hattenhauer owns convenience stores and gas stations in Washington and Oregon. In 2006, the parties entered into franchise agreements to sell pizza and sandwiches at Hattenhauer locations – Hattenhauer agreed to only use ingredients that conform to the franchisor's specifications.

During an audit in 2014, Noble Roman's discovered Hattenhauer underreported sales. The franchisee disputed the claims and refused to pay royalty fees. Noble Roman's also claimed the franchisee was using inferior cheese rather than the franchisor's proprietary cheese, since 2011. In its 2014 lawsuit, Noble Roman's added unfair competition and breach of contract to its other claims.

Let's allow the cheese claim to stand alone:

Noble Roman's alleged the franchisee's use of subpar cheese violated the Lanham Act "because it deceived customers into paying full price" for a product that was not, in essence, a Noble Roman's product. The franchisor also claimed injury because it lost control of products sold under its trademark.

Hattenhauer on the other hand, claimed the franchisor knew about the cheese switch since 2010, because the franchisor received monthly reports from the approved supply distributor indicating that Hattenhauer was not buying its cheese.

In considering the facts, the court determined that the harm was not to customers who ate bad cheese, but to the franchisor, who may have been perceived by those customers to be serving bad cheese, which the court characterized as a claim for injury to personal property.

That being the case, the court then pointed out that the statute of limitations for personal property was two years in Indiana and found that Noble Roman's four year delay on its cheese claim was unreasonable, and that Hattenhauer was prejudiced by this delay. The court granted summary judgment for Hattenhauer regarding the trademark infringement claim.

Both cases reveal the harm caused to a plaintiff by sitting on its claims.

Barry Kurtz is a State Bar of California Certified Specialist in Franchise & Distribution Law.

Disclaimer:
This Blog/Web Site is made available by the lawyer or law firm publisher for educational purposes only, to provide general information and a general understanding of the law, not to provide specific legal advice. By using this blog site you understand there is no attorney client relationship between you and the Blog/Web Site publisher. The Blog/Web Site should not be used as a substitute for obtaining legal advice from a licensed professional attorney in your state.

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