Each year in Washington D.C., the IFA joins forces with the International Bar Association’s Franchising Committee (IBA) to hold the IBA/IFA Joint Conference immediately after the IFA Legal Symposium. This was my first year attending. As our international franchise practice grows, I found it a rewarding opportunity to educate myself about the latest issues facing international franchise practitioners. The most fascinating andlively discussion was held during an interactive workshop entitled “Disruptive New Technologies and Franchising.”

48329671 – dish fast delivery flat isometric vector concept. mans hand takes a mobile phone with chef on it, that holds the dish on his hand. food delivery service.

During the workshop, the panel walked through how international brands like McDonalds allow franchisees to utilize GrubHub, Doordash and UberEats to deliver hot food to consumers at a low cost. The most technical discussion revolved around calculating the royalty fee on third party delivery services. These services impose an average charge of 20% of the menu price for delivery. Does the franchisor charge royalties on gross revenue or does it collect royalties on a different calculation taking into consideration the service charges? Franchisors looking to collect royalties on the full price argue that the service fees are just like any other expense associated with operating the franchise. However, the economic reality is that the narrow profit margins in the food industry make it difficult for franchisees to turn any profit from these sales.

While the panelists discussed many issues, the most interesting addressed delegating responsibility for data security breaches.  The form of service agreements between these delivery services and franchisees are often 5-7 pages at most. Most require the restaurant to maintain responsibility for customer personal data and indemnify the delivery service for data breaches. However, franchisees use the delivery system’s software platforms to collect customer data giving delivery service’s like GrubHub and UberEats access to the physical location, likes, dislikes, eating and spending habits. What happens when these delivery services decide to launch their own restaurant concepts in direct competition of the franchise systems? This is exactly what the delivery service, Deliveroo, did last year.

These and other concerns raise the question of whether the benefits, if any, to using these disruptive technologies, outweigh the hassle and risk exposures.

The National Restaurant Association recently released a new guide for restaurant operators looking for more information on how to increase their cybersecurity efforts.

In 2015, the National Restaurant Association released its first manual for restaurant owners called “Cybersecurity 101: A Toolkit for Restaurant Operators” [PDF] which outlined best practices on five core areas of cybersecurity planning. This past month, the National Restaurant Association built on this manual with the release of “Cybersecurity 201: The Next Step,” [PDF]  which provides restaurant-specific type guidance. The National Restaurant Association utilized the expertise of technology personnel from top multi-unit restaurant companies. The guide is a must-read for any franchise system in the food service space.

The guide takes the cybersecurity framework prepared by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and adapts it for use in the restaurant hospitality industry. Restaurant franchise systems can learn how to apply the NIST standards by reviewing the real world hypotheticals.

18538865 – thief steals credit card and money. illustration in cartoon style

For example, there is “Sam” whose restaurant experiences a data compromise of customer credit cards. After a forensic team descends on his business, Sam quickly realizes how little he understands about who has access to his computer software, which vendors service his POS Systems and how often he upgrades hardware. The result? Sam lost loyal customers and was slapped with a hefty fine from his credit card processors.

In addition to three other nicely detailed case studies, the guide shows how almost 100 different NIST categories can be applied in a restaurant setting, grades cybersecurity action items from most to least urgent and provides a glossary of cybersecurity terms.  Even the most cyber savvy restaurant systems should find the guide full of useful information.

Many franchise agreements contain a provision that restricts a franchisee from hiring or soliciting the employees of the franchisor or other franchisees. A class action lawsuit that was recently filed in the Eastern District of Texas could require removal of this type of provision in the future. Though this suit is only at the initial complaint phase, the outcome of this case could help shape the future of franchisee restrictive covenants.

In Ion v. Pizza Hut, LLC, Kristen Ion (“Ion”) filed this complaint on behalf of similarly-situated managers of Pizza Hut restaurants. Ion claims that Pizza Hut, LLC (“Pizza Hut”) has colluded with all of its franchisees to engage in anticompetitive behavior in violation of the Sherman Act. Further, Ion claims that the restrictive provision is a naked restraint on competition and a per se violation of the antitrust laws.

The provision at issue, as seen in many franchise agreements, forbids a franchise owner from hiring or soliciting any employees of the franchisor, its units, or any other franchise. Ion claims that this restraint eliminated a franchisee’s incentive to offer competitive employment packages to management personnel and restricted the mobility of such personnel. Further, Ion argues that this restraint lowered salaries and benefits due to the limited job marketplace available to Pizza Hut personnel. Ion claims that the training she received from Pizza Hut is only transferable to other Pizza Hut units.

While Ion consistently refers to the fact that each Pizza Hut franchise is its own independent business that has the right to set its own wages for staff, in the same sentence, she argues that the franchisor and franchisees were “co-conspirators” in the endeavor to suppress those wages and mobility. Further, Ion cites to the continued practice of Pizza Hut and its franchisees to cut employee wages and hours through various policies and argues that this restriction is in furtherance of this purpose (as outlined in various news articles). Lastly, Ion claims that executive compensation and franchisee profit increased at the expense of its low-paid management personnel.

However, based on the facts in the complaint, it seems that Ion never attempted to find another job outside of the Pizza Hut franchise system to support her proposition. Further, the citations to commentary by scholars and professors on the topic logically leads one to assume that there is not yet a basis in prior case law for the requested remedy.

The outcome of this case could substantially and materially alter the scope of franchisee restrictive covenants. Any outcome in favor of Ion would trigger an immediate need for revisions to a franchise agreement that contains this restriction and it is important to keep watch of this case.

Restaurant operators and their financiers often need to predict the future. The operators, mostly from franchised brands, need to adapt to changing tastes and fashion. The financiers need to assess risk before making commitments or investments. Experts in these fields met together in November 2017 to test their assumptions.

Kevin Burke, Managing Director of Trinity Capital LLC, delivered a report which he summarized the economy for restaurants “As Good as it Gets.” The formal title was a very analytical “A Reversion to the Mean: What Happens When Industry Tailwinds End?” Burke’s basic conclusion is that things are great now, but the analytics show eventually the metrics will return to baseline, and this reversion to the mean predicts a slowdown of business and a tightening of credit.

You should in no way conclude that the credit punch bowl will be removed soon. Bankers are still enthusiastic about restaurants, and the chains are doing well. Current valuations of multiples of cash flow for merger and acquisitions average near historical highs of 10.6, and growing franchisors have multiples of double that. Leverage is at near historical highs of 5.3. These are multiples not seen nor sustained since 2007.  Private equity investment has slowed this year, and so have exits from their investments. Everyone looks fat and happy.

While there is still room for growth, current market conditions cannot last forever, and changes are coming via changing demographics. The discretionary spenders driving the restaurant renaissance are now the millennials. Millennials constitute the majority of the U.S. population. Their student loan debt is at all time highs. Less than half of the millennials make as much or more than their parents at the same age. The maturity cycle of millennials will have profound effects on the economy.

Millennials dine-in on delivery, according to Andrew Charles, Senior Analyst, Cowen & Co. Millennials are driving 30% of restaurant industry sales growth based on their delivery predilections. The largest demographic with the most demand for delivery is the 18-34 year-old, living in a major metropolitan area earning in excess of $100,000.00. Demand for delivery is less frequent in the suburbs and mid-size metro areas among 35-44 year-olds earning over $50,000 a year. Demand for delivery is lowest among those in small metro areas or small cities over the age of 45 years old earning less than $50,000.00 per year. Delivery users clearly prioritize convenience and time over the specific restaurant’s food. Based on the data, Charles predicts that the better a restaurant can meet the delivery demands of its customers, the more delivery will drive sales.

Looking at the data alone, this would suggest that restaurants have a great opportunity to expand their business by catering to millennials and providing delivery. However, the world is not that simple. When looking at the buying habits of millennials, they are now saving for houses and having children. For the past two years their restaurant spending as a group has trended down, and is predicted to fall as they invest in housing and their families. This will put a cap on growth and an emphasis on catering more to the millennial lifestyle of automation, convenience, delivery, healthful choices, as well as “foodie” choices.

Expect new entries in the artisan breads, foods and pizza categories. The “better pizza” will follow the “better burger” trend, with state of the art menu, delivery and payment systems. Expect menu changes in the casual dining sector to accommodate millennial tastes and the tastes of their children. Look for brands to tout their autonomous car, drone and other novel promises of delivery. Look for slumps in steak houses and casual dining as these brands need to adjust. Because of these trends, we are seeing a lot of activity in the mergers and acquisitions by strategic buyers ready to upgrade the brands to millennial friendly.

The millennials are the future, and the rest of us are merely tenants.

 

Menu and chef
Copyright: yarruta / 123RF Stock Photo

The Trump administration is moving forward with an Obama-era initiative requiring certain food establishments to list calorie information on menus and menu boards, including food on display and self-service food. The FDA recently released new draft recommendations to help affected businesses comply with the menu labeling rule.

The rule implements the nutrition labeling provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, which are intended to give consumers direct, point-of-purchase access to nutritional information, including the calorie content of foods. When the rule was originally published, we blogged about its impact on restaurants and followed up with a report on the Small Entity Compliance Guide, which explains the rule’s requirements in a question/answer format.

The rule has met stiff opposition and enforcement has been delayed multiple times. Most recently, just four days shy of implementation, the deadline for compliance was extended to May 7, 2018. The extension was intended to give the FDA time to consider how to reduce the rule’s regulatory burden and increase flexibility, while providing consumers with nutritional information.

The FDA’s recent guidance is non-binding and addresses stakeholder concerns regarding implementation of the rule, including:

  • Clarifying calorie disclosure requirements for self-service food, including buffets and grab-and-go food;
  • Addressing the need for flexible methods to provide calorie disclosure information;
  • Explaining the criteria for distinguishing between menus and marketing materials;
  • Addressing how the FDA will assist covered establishments to comply with the rule, and how it will enforce compliance;
  • Expanding upon the “reasonable basis” standard that covered establishments must meet when disclosing nutritional information; and
  • Explaining the criteria for determining whether establishments (including franchises) and menu items are subject to the rule.

The FDA invites public comment on the draft guidelines through January 8, 2018.  We will continue to monitor developments and the rule’s effect on franchise systems.

The intersection of franchise law and general corporate law is extensive. A recent decision in the Michigan Court of Appeals (Court) highlights the importance of thoroughly understanding and considering the ramifications of transactions involving both spheres of law.

In Retail Works Funding LLC v. Tubby’s Sub Shops Inc. and JB Development LLC, the plaintiff (Plaintiff) brought suit against each defendant (Tubby’s and JBD or collectively, the Defendants) after JBD purchased the rights and goodwill to the service mark JUST BAKED (Mark) from Just Baked Shop LLC (JBS). Prior to that, Plaintiff obtained a judgment against JBS for over $184,000.

In this suit, Plaintiff claims that JBD should be liable for Plaintiff’s judgment under a successor liability theory because JBD is a mere continuation of the Just Baked system by carrying Just Baked products in its stores and offering franchises. Further, Plaintiff argued that JBD held itself out to the public in news articles as having merged with JBS. Defendants argued that JBD only purchased the rights to one asset of the Just Baked business, the Mark, and did not agree to take on any its liabilities as supported by the language of the Service Mark Purchase Agreement.

As was the case here, when assets of a business are purchased with cash and not stock, the successor is generally not liable for the predecessor’s liabilities unless an exception to the rule applies. In holding for the Defendants, the Court determined that none of the three exceptions to successor liability argued by Plaintiff applied to the case at hand. First, the instant case did not constitute a “de facto merger” because JBD purchased the Mark for cash. Second, JBD was not a “mere continuation” of the former Just Baked business because Plaintiff failed to provide any evidence of common ownership between the entities or that JBD acquired substantially all of the assets of JBS. Lastly, the “continuity of enterprise” exception did not apply because judgment creditors cannot rely upon it. As such, the Court held that the Defendants were not liable for the judgment against JBS.

If the deal to purchase the Mark had been structured in a different way, there is a chance that the Defendants would have been held liable for the Plaintiff’s judgment against JBS. As such, a franchisor (and its counsel) must evaluate how a transaction will effect multiple areas of law and ensure adequate protection from adverse consequences in each area.

A recent decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (Court) in Marsh v. J. Alexander’s throws a wrench into the equation with respect to the guidance on the tip-credit provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) promulgated by the Department of Labor (DOL).

25151637 – tip jar with british currency and label saying thank you

The nine consolidated cases at issue were brought by servers/bartenders against their former employers. Each employee claimed that his respective employer violated the tip-credit provision of the FLSA. The applicable provision of the FLSA provides, in part, that an employer may claim a credit towards minimum wage where that employee is in an occupation where he customarily and regularly receives more than $30 a month in tips. Further, if an employee is employed in dual jobs, the employer can only claim the tip credit for the employee’s hours of employment in his tipped position.  However, even if an employee is performing additional duties related to the tipped occupation, the completion of these tasks alone does not mean the employee has dual jobs.

Confusion around this regulation stems from establishing a threshold of when a server completing multiple related tasks while still serving becomes employed in dual jobs. In response, the DOL issued its guidance on this regulation in the Field Operations Handbook (FOH). Specifically, this guidance states that the employer cannot use the tip-credit provision where the employee spends more than twenty percent of his time performing any “related duties” or where the employee is completing tasks that are unrelated to the tipped occupation.

Each employee argued that his respective employer improperly applied the tip-credit provision of the FLSA because the employer forced each to complete either too many “related duties” or tasks unrelated to the tipped occupation. These duties included brewing tea and coffee, stocking lemons and limes, cleaning soft drink dispensers, stocking ice and cleaning tables.

In its decision, the Court held that the DOL’s guidance outlined in the FOH did not deserve controlling deference. This interpretation was an attempt to create a de facto regulation and was inconsistent with the language of the FLSA. The Court noted that the guidance in the FOH tried to parse out three separate categories of duties within a single occupation. Further, the DOL should, in the Court’s mind, focus on the circumstances when an employee was employed in two occupations as is expressly contemplated by the FLSA.

In effect, the Court concluded, the guidance in the FOH created an alternative regulatory approach with new substantive rules. The Court held that an employee cannot rely on the aggregate amount of time he performed “related duties” intermittently with the duties directly related to the tipped occupation to argue that he held dual jobs. This decision is in direct conflict with the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, which gave deference to the guidance in the FOH. As such, the Court remanded the case to allow the employees to amend their pleadings in light of its decision. As similar cases arise in various circuits across the United States, the DOL’s response to the decision will likely be guided by whether other circuits give deference to such guidance. Further, it is important for business owners to keep apprised of whether the FOH guidance is the law of their land as the case law further develops.

Copyright: bluedarkat / 123RF Stock Photo
Copyright: bluedarkat / 123RF Stock Photo

Just four days shy of the enforcement deadline, the FDA extended the date for restaurants and similar retail food establishments to comply with its menu labeling rule. The rule was originally published on December 1, 2014 and requires certain food establishments to list calorie information on menus and menu boards, including food on display and self-service food (the “Rule”). Enforcement was delayed multiple times, and the Rule was slated to go into effect on May 5, 2017. On May 1, 2017, the FDA extended the compliance deadline to May 7, 2018.

The Rule implements the nutrition labeling provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, which is intended to give consumers direct, point-of-purchase access to nutritional information, including the calorie content of foods. When the Rule was published, we blogged about the Rule’s impact on restaurants and vending machines. We’ve also reported on topics covered in the FDA’s Small Entity Compliance Guide, which restates the Rule’s requirements in plain language in a helpful question/answer format.

Intense lobbying in the final days before the compliance deadline prompted the FDA to again extend the Rule’s implementation. In the meantime, the FDA will consider how to reduce the Rule’s regulatory burden or increase flexibility, while continuing to provide consumers with sufficient nutrition information to make informed choices. The FDA has requested comment over the next 60 days, specifically inviting feedback with respect to:

  1. Calorie disclosure for signage for self-service foods, including buffets and grab-and-go foods;
  2. Methods for providing calorie disclosure information other than on the menu itself, including how different kinds of retailers might use different methods; and
  3. Criteria for distinguishing between menus and other information presented to the consumer.

We will continue to monitor the Rule’s progress and its potential effect on franchisors and franchisees.

Menu and chef
Copyright: yarruta / 123RF Stock Photo

Over two years ago, on December 1, 2014, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) published a food labeling rule requiring “chain” restaurants and similar retail food establishments to list calorie information on menus and menu boards, including food on display and self-service food (the “Rule”). On May 5, 2017, the FDA will begin enforcing the Rule. Businesses covered by the Rule must be in compliance by May 5, 2017.

The Rule implements the nutrition labeling provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, which is intended to give consumers direct, point-of-purchase access to nutritional information, including the calorie content of foods. When the Rule was published, we blogged about the Rule’s impact on restaurants and vending machines.

Who does the Rule apply to?

The Rule applies to any chain and franchised food business which meets the following criteria:

  1. It is part of a system with 20 or more locations;
  2. All of the restaurants or food establishments in the chain do business under the same name; and
  3. All of the restaurants in the chain offer for sale substantially the same restaurant-type food menu items.

What must covered businesses do?

Covered businesses are required to determine and disclose to consumers the nutritional content of the food they serve, including by:

  1. Disclosing calorie information on menus and menu boards for standard menu items;
  2. Posting a succinct statement concerning suggested daily caloric intake on menus and menu boards; and
  3. Posting on menus and menu boards a statement that written nutrition information is available upon request.

The Rule was originally slated to come online on December 1, 2015. In response to multiple requests from stakeholders to give businesses more time to comply, the FDA extended the compliance deadline until December 1, 2016. However, per applicable law, the Rule could not be enforced until one year after the FDA published a Level 1 guidance with respect to nutrition labeling of standard menu items. The FDA did so on May 5, 2016, extending the enforcement deadline until May 5, 2017. Recently, the FDA made clear that May 5, 2017 was the deadline for both compliance and enforcement 017.

In addition to the Rule itself, food establishments affected by the Rule should review the FDA’s Small Entity Compliance Guide, which restates the Rule’s requirements in plain language. The Guide is organized in a question/answer format. We’ve previously blogged in detail on the Guide, which includes information on multiple topics, including:

  • What establishments the Rule does and does not cover;
  • What types of food the Rule does and does not cover;
  • How to label menus and other displays with nutritional information; and
  • How to determine nutritional content of foods, including how to substantiate menu labels to the FDA.

Additional industry guidance is also available at the FDA’s website.

The Rule is highly detailed and includes requirements for restaurants to substantiate their nutritional information claims and clarifies how the Rule will be enforced. Experienced counsel can help businesses understand whether they are affected and, if so, how best to satisfy the new standards.

Copyright: zavgsg / 123RF Stock Photo
Copyright: zavgsg / 123RF Stock Photo

This month Wendy’s revealed that the security breach it disclosed earlier this year was much larger than it initially reported. As most people know by now, Wendy’s originally announced that customer credit card data was stolen from approximately 300 Wendy’s locations.  Wendy’s blamed a third-party point-of-sale (POS) provider used by some of its franchisees for the breach.  It reported that hackers stole the credentials of personnel employed by a third-party vendor and used the credentials to gain access to certain franchisees’ POS systems.  The hackers then installed malware that read the magnetic strip on credit and debit cards and sold the information to criminals.  A class action lawsuit was filed by customers affected by the data breach against Wendy’s in February.

According to reports, hacking third-party providers is a very common way for criminals to gain access to a system. The question for a franchisor then becomes, “what can we do to prevent data breaches at the third-party provider level  Unfortunately, when franchisees are left to choose their own POS vendor, they often do not have the resources to properly vet a provider.  A franchisee may compare providers based on price and not have security as a top priority.

Many franchise systems are responding to this issue by moving to a single point of sale system.   Wendy’s is migrating to a single system and the data breach did not affect locations in that system. Subway does not allow franchisees to shop for POS systems.  Popeyes and Pizza Hut are  also moving towards a single system.  Pizza Hut’s CEO stated in April that they were moving from 9 POS systems down to one.  Advocates for a single POS system structure argue that it is actually easier to protect one entry point for a good well-designed POS system vs. using many different POS systems.  There are certainly other security improvements that will help in preventing data breaches, such as installing card readers that can handle transactions from more secure chip-based cards, which are far more expensive for thieves to clone.  However, this may be the time for franchise systems to start considering the benefits of a single point of sale system if they have not done so already.