Grandson of CKE’s founder pens poison letters
Jason LeVecke, the grandson of CKE Restaurants’ founder, figures he has nothing left to lose. So he sent a blistering letter in late September to “friends and colleagues,” blasting the leadership of CEO Andy Puzder and the “degrading” ads promoting Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr., the two fast food brands franchised by CKE.
“He makes us all complicit in this degradation of women,” writes LeVecke. “You and I are the ‘we’ in Andy’s quote when he says, ‘We believe in putting hot models in our commercials because ugly ones don’t sell burgers.’ ”
Franchisees have long complained about the ads at the California-based burger chains, but the latest posters displayed in Pakistan are beyond the pale in LeVecke’s view. “Open wide for the Angus Thickburgers,” one says, showing a lip-sticked mouth doing just that. “Coming soon first time in Pakistan,” it continues. Another shows an open mouth with a measuring tape set at six inches. “Big enough?” reads the copy.
“He objectifies women in some of the most dangerous parts of the world for women,” LeVecke writes in the letter titled “Enough is enough” and sent to franchisees, corporate staff and a few select in-boxes at Franchise Times. “Today, in a country like Pakistan where many women still face the very real fear of being a victim of an honor killing … he runs ads that essentially measure the value of a woman by how far she can open her mouth.”
In an interview, LeVecke says he’s hearing complaints from foreign operators, on top of the long-standing gripes by U.S. owner/operators who have been “stuck” with the ads since CKE inked a national cable deal about 18 months ago. “There are people there that are protesting them in social media and other vehicles and saying please stop this. Being an American company and a company my grandfather started, I’m ashamed of it,” he says.
Through an outside spokeswoman, Puzder at first declined my request for an interview, basically maintaining that nothing had changed since he spoke with Franchise Times’ Julie Bennett for a story about the LeVecke/CKE mess in the May 2016 issue.
In the summer of 2015, Bennett reports, a dozen investor groups filed lawsuits against CKE franchisees Jason and Carl LeVecke, claiming the brothers had defrauded them through a property-flipping scheme. The brothers are grandsons of Carl Karcher, CKE’s founder and namesake. In September that year, the LeVeckes filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection for their company, called Frontier Star, and in March they sold the 79 Hardee’s and 85 Carl’s Jr. restaurants to an investor. LeVecke told Bennett he hoped to operate the restaurants for the new investor, a prospect CKE management rejected outright.
By the end of September, a very rough week for CKE in which they heard from multiple franchisees and employees, Puzder and two other executives agreed to a conference call. “It’s absurd,” Puzder said about LeVecke’s claims. “I have to say I am a little concerned we’re giving this guy a stage.”
He said corporate ran no ads in Pakistan, because there is no ad campaign budgeted there, and the local franchisee is the one who put up the posters. “We do not tell the Pakistani franchisee what advertising to run.” The same goes for their other Middle East restaurants, which number 300.
Puzder said he’s fielding calls from franchisees offering their support to him and the management team. His PR firm forwarded two letters from the IHFA, which represents Hardee’s franchisees, and the SFA, which represents Carl’s Jr. owners, both in strong support of CKE management. “We are committed to working with the current leadership team to drive the Hardee’s brand to our goal of a $1.5 million average unit volume,” the letter to IHFA members said.
Nick Shurgot, president of IHFA, wrote another email directly to LeVecke: “Please stop sending these emails. The Hardee’s AUV has never been higher, we are making a lot of progress with operational efficiency and our commercials have never been more focused on the food,” it said.
Puzder said about LeVecke, “One of the reasons he’s reacting like this is, he came from an affluent family that was entrepreneurial and very successful. He’s got uncles and cousins that are very successful. He’s the only Carl’s Jr. franchisee ever to go bankrupt. I think he’s looking for someone to blame.”
It feels personal, too. “Carl and I were very close. He was like a second dad to me,” Puzder says, about founder Carl Karcher, who died in 2008. “It breaks my heart that Carl’s grandson is doing this.”
Free at last
LeVecke couldn’t be more reviled by CKE management right now, and they will not let him back into the brand. In his view, that means he’s finally free. “Now that I’m in the position that they can no longer threaten me, I was in the position to do it,” LeVecke says in an interview, about sending the letter.
He says “a number of franchisees, corporate employees and friends that are offended by the direction of the brand” have reached out to him. “They were looking for somebody to make the case. It’s something that I felt was too important, to take the lead and be brave enough to do.”
Beyond the content of the ads, he also claims they don’t work. “For all his chest-pounding about the effectiveness of his advertising, the numbers simply do not add up. Almost by definition effective marketing should result in more customers not fewer,” LeVecke writes.
But most of LeVecke’s letter is aimed at the content of the ads. “The brand is being boycotted by so many groups,” he says, adding many owners are embarrassed in their communities.
LeVecke concedes he’s legally cast out from the company, but “I’ll never separate myself from the brand. My father passed when I was young and I grew up very close to my grandfather. The reason I’m fighting the fight is because I think my grandfather would want me to,” he says. “Sooner or later, you run out of people to offend.”
Beth Ewen is editor-in-chief of Franchise Times, and writes the Continental Franchise Review® column in each issue. Send interesting legal and public policy cases to firstname.lastname@example.org.