Restaurant Chain Franchises Face Scrutiny From the FTC

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Making It Work

Troubles astatine the edifice concatenation Burgerim item concerns astir whether franchisees request much extortion successful their contracts with franchisers.

A bicyclist rides past   2  franchise restaurants, Wendy’s and Taco Bell, successful  Manhattan.
Franchises are ubiquitous successful the American concern scenery but interest is rising astir the mediocre disclosure of concern risks. Credit...Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

Michael Corkery

May 26, 2023, 5:01 a.m. ET

“Making It Work” is simply a bid is astir small-business owners striving to endure hard times.

When Kenneth Laskin flew to California to conscionable with executives astatine Burgerim, a start-up concatenation of restaurants, helium was made to consciousness not conscionable similar different prospective franchisee, but similar portion of a family.

The company’s executives, helium said, made a constituent 1 evening of highlighting their communal Jewish religion by praying with him successful Hebrew.

At the time, successful 2017, Mr. Laskin believed helium was being offered a plum deal. He paid $50,000 for the close to unfastened up arsenic galore Burgerim franchised restaurants arsenic helium wanted successful Oregon. “I got an full state,” Mr. Laskin recalled.

Today, Burgerim has tally into trouble, leaving a way of fiscal problems, a lawsuit by the Federal Trade Commission and broader regulatory scrutiny of whether protections for franchisees similar Mr. Laskin are adequate.

The challenges highlighted by Burgerim travel arsenic franchising continues to turn arsenic a mode that radical are choosing to commencement tiny businesses.

There has been rising interest astir whether franchisees request much extortion successful their contracts with franchisers. That interest has recovered a sympathetic receptor successful the Biden medication and successful respective authorities legislatures, and has resulted successful aggregate projected limits connected franchisers’ powers.

In the end, Mr. Laskin opened lone 1 Burgerim restaurant, successful Eugene, Ore., which closed successful 2020 during the pandemic. Since then, Mr. Laskin has been depleting his savings to wage the bills.

Burgerim, which boasted of having inventive high-quality burgers, has been criticized by erstwhile franchisees for making expansive promises and mediocre disclosure astir concern risks. Of the much than 1,500 franchises Burgerim sold, astir ne'er opened, the committee said successful a suit that the bureau filed past year against the institution and its laminitis successful U.S. District Court successful California.

Peter Bronstein, a lawyer for Oren Loni, who was the company’s main enforcement successful the United States, said that Burgerim made immoderate concern mistakes but that it was often trying to assistance its franchisees succeed. The 2 sides person been successful mediation, according to the tribunal file.


Kenneth Laskin believed helium got a plum woody to commencement arsenic galore Burgerim franchised restaurants arsenic helium wanted successful Oregon. He ended up opening lone one, which closed during the pandemic.Credit...Zack Wittman for The New York Times

Even arsenic the pandemic was inactive bearing down, the fig of franchised establishments successful the state grew 2.8 percent successful 2021 and 2 percent successful 2022. That fig is expected to summation an further 2 percent this year, bringing the full to 805,436 franchises, according to the latest information released by the International Franchise Association, an manufacture group.

As the franchising web expands, truthful does its publication to the broader economy. Franchises employed 8.4 cardinal radical past year, a 3 percent summation from 2021.

There is humanities evidence, according to the International Franchise Association, that the archetypal U.S. franchise dates backmost to Ben Franklin, who created a web of printing partnerships.


Franchising took basal successful the American concern scenery successful the decades pursuing World War II, with the maturation of franchised brands similar Howard Johnson’s hotels.Credit...Sam Falk/The New York Times

Today a cardinal symbiosis drives the concern model: Franchisees wage an upfront interest to an franchiser similar Dunkin’ Donuts oregon Applebee’s, which gets them entree to each of that brand’s suppliers, advertizing and technology. The franchisee tin thin connected these established systems to get their concern up and moving rapidly alternatively than having to commencement from scratch. And the franchiser, successful turn, receives the franchising fee, typically tens of thousands of dollars, successful summation to a regular royalty outgo from the franchisee.

“Franchising has ever been an on-ramp for the mediate people to unfastened their ain business,” said Charlie Chase, the main enforcement of FirstService Brands, a franchiser of location renovation and coating services.

Over the years, Mr. Chase, who has served connected the committee of directors of the International Franchise Association, said helium had helped hundreds of palmy franchisees get their start. “We person created a batch of millionaires,” helium said.

Still, Mr. Chase said helium was acrophobic astir however immoderate franchisees were being pushed into businesses without knowing each of the risks.

He blames aggressive net advertising for immoderate of this (Mr. Laskin learned astir Burgerim from a Facebook advertisement, for example), and also a web of third-party brokers that often propulsion prospective franchisees to bargain aggregate franchises astatine a time.

The Federal Trade Commission, nether the enactment of Lina Khan, is looking broadly astatine manufacture practices including disclosure and issues specified arsenic franchisers’ unilaterally changing the presumption of an statement with a franchisee.

“Franchising tin beryllium a bully concern model, but it tin besides pb to a batch of harm,” Elizabeth Wilkins, the manager of the commission’s Office of Policy and Planning, said. “We are acrophobic astir instances wherever the committedness does not lucifer with reality. We judge determination is simply a important spread that is worthy our investigation.”

In the lawsuit against Burgerim,  federal officials said that the institution executives told franchisees they would refund their franchise fees if their concern did not open, but that many radical ne'er got their wealth back. Mr. Bronstein, the lawyer for Mr. Loni, said offering refunds “was not the champion mode to tally a business.”

In the years since the 2008 fiscal situation and owe meltdown, regulators person bolstered protections for consumers by improving disclosure by banks and banning definite fees they tin charge. But tiny businesses, including franchisees, person not benefited from the aforesaid extended regulatory scrutiny.

“There is simply a presumption successful the user extortion satellite that tiny businesses bash not get the aforesaid level of protections arsenic different consumers,” Samuel Levine, the manager of the F.T.C.’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said. “Yet, consumers and tiny businesses, including franchisees, look galore of the aforesaid challenges. That is thing we are trying to address.”

As portion of that effort, the Federal Trade Commission is looking astatine however to use laws similar the Robinson-Patman Act, an antitrust instrumentality that prevents ample corporations from utilizing discriminatory pricing to instrumentality vantage of tiny businesses. The bureau besides has projected a regularisation banning noncompete clauses successful employment contracts and whitethorn see limiting the usage of noncompete clauses successful franchise agreements.

When Mr. Laskin bought a franchise, helium was not looking to go a millionaire, but alternatively to physique a unchangeable middle-class life.

He opened his sole Burgerim store successful Oregon successful September 2019.

But the problems started soon aft his expansive opening, Mr. Laskin said. Burgerim had not established a reliable nutrient organisation strategy successful Oregon, helium said, forcing Mr. Laskin to fend for himself to proviso his restaurant. In trying to assistance caller locations get disconnected the ground, the institution ne'er collected royalties from the franchisees, which constricted its quality to enactment its edifice web implicit the agelong term, Mr. Bronstein said. Still, helium added, determination are galore Burgerim restaurants that operated successfully.

Mr. Laskin kept the concern going during the pandemic by offering instrumentality out. But helium couldn’t find radical to enactment during the lockdowns, which meant helium and his wife ran the full cognition themselves.

Mr. Laskin, who has terrible backmost symptom from years of edifice work, hoped a franchise would connection him the accidental to delegate enactment to employees and spare his back.

But immoderate days, Mr. Laskin would instrumentality from the burger edifice astatine nighttime incapable to locomotion the last fewer yards up his driveway due to the fact that of the symptom from lasting connected his feet each day.

The Burgerim leadership, Mr. Laskin said, provided nary enactment during the pandemic.


A Burgerim edifice successful Walnut Creek, Calif., past year.Credit...Gado/Getty Images

He closed his edifice successful May 2020 and moved to Florida. Mr. Laskin, 57, said that his backmost problems constricted the benignant of enactment helium tin bash and that it had been hard uncovering enactment aft his burger concern closed.

The struggles of the erstwhile Burgerim franchisees were brought to light in 2020 by the work Restaurant Business, which focuses connected the nutrient work industry, in a bid of articles.

Some franchisees accidental improving disclosure oregon expanding regulations connected interest structures volition not beryllium a panacea successful rooting retired the industry’s troubled actors.

“Transparency is simply a large thing, but I americium not definite much disclosure is going to alteration immoderate outcomes,” said Greg Flynn, the laminitis and main enforcement of Flynn Restaurant Group, the largest franchisee successful the state with 2,400 locations and 73,000 employees, operating brands similar Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and Panera.

“There are a batch of stories of franchisees buying into a strategy and past it goes severely for them,” helium added. “I would conscionable suggest that they mightiness person had a akin acquisition extracurricular of a franchise system.”

Mr. Laskin says it is not conscionable atrocious timing oregon circumstances that were to blame. “The strategy is fundamentally crippled,’’ helium said. “There is excessively overmuch secrecy. It shouldn’t beryllium this difficult.”

Michael Corkery is simply a concern newsman who writes astir low-wage workers, the system and industry. Before joining The Times successful 2014, helium reported for The Wall Street Journal and The Providence Journal. @mcorkery5

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