Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Off with The King's head?

There’s probably no truth to the rumor that Burger King headquarters is planning a new line of kids-meal action figures called Butthead Franchisees (“Collect all the dolts--and their lawyers, too!!”) But the home office clearly isn’t friending some of its licensees on Facebook these days, and vice-versa. Though that’s sort of like saying Batman and the Joker had their inter-relational challenges. We’re probably only a snipe away from seeing The King in combat fatigues and camouflage face paint.

The flashpoint is the $1 Double Cheeseburger that the chain decided to promote systemwide despite a forceful don’t-you-dare from franchisees. In a gambit that drew more media coverage than Michael Jackson’s funeral, a group claiming to represent three-fourths of BK’s licensees filed a lawsuit to halt the promotion, arguing that the franchisor was fixing prices. The National Franchise Association said at the time of the filing that a franchisee stands to lose a dime on every double that’s sold.

By franchising standards, that sort of gripe is the equivalent of asking Mike Tyson if he prefers women’s clothing. But the association took the further step of sending a letter to each director of Burger King’s parent company, asking that they intervene to reverse management’s decision and set the home office on a more intelligent strategy. The elevated middle finger was leaving CEO John Chidsey, the director who crafted the current plan, on the mailing list.

That’s when things started getting really ugly.

Yesterday, someone leaked an e-mail to the Associated Press that had been sent to Franchise Association members over the weekend by Chuck Fallon, the Chidsey direct report who oversees BK’s North American division. It cautioned the dissidents that they could be limiting their growth opportunities with all the public grumbling.

“Bankers, landlords, suppliers and potential new franchisees are watching and listening,” the A.P. quoted Fallon as warning. The upshot, he said, could be less lending and less attractive terms—or a lower price should the malcontents look to sell their businesses.

A return volley has yet to be fired by the franchisees, or at least it’s not yet come to the attention of the media. But give it time.

Not that they’re the only franchisees who are ready to string up their franchisors during these trying times. NPC, Pizza Hut’s largest franchisee, told its shareholders in an earnings statement last week that the pizza brand and its marketing need to be handled differently, a veiled criticism of franchisor Yum! Brands. Making that observation in a financial statement is like telling a soccer mom that her kid couldn’t hit a barn with three free kicks.

And Quiznos franchisees probably have a rule that you have to pay a dollar everytime you mention the franchisor or otherwise cuss.

Because of its sheer size, BK is going to be the fracas in the spotlight. It’s just a matter of time until the feud starts snagging covered on CNN.

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