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‘Things have changed’ at McDonald’s as 50-year operator fights rebuild rule


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Beth Ewen

Illustration by Jonathan Hankin

Like other McDonald’s franchisees, Sebastian Lentini is required to upgrade his six stores in New Jersey to the new “Experience of the Future” model rolled out a few years ago. At one store in Passaic County, for example, he was asked to raze a store to the ground and rebuild it for more than $3.6 million, according to a lawsuit.

Unlike some other franchisees, the return on investment looks dicey. That’s because Lentini turned 81 years old in August.

“Mr. Lentini is being forced to spend $4 million to remodel a perfectly fine restaurant that’s going to take 40 years” to get the money back, says his attorney, Justin Klein of Marks & Klein. “McDonald’s own documentation shows that notwithstanding the rebuilding of the restaurant it does not necessarily mean more profits or sales.”

Moreover, Lentini claims in the lawsuit, McDonald’s demands are stemming from age discrimination, part of a pattern, according to Klein, who says there’s a “pretty large number of seasoned operators throughout the system,” many of whom have “already left the system, been terminated, or had their stores re-purchased by McDonald’s for severe discounts.”

 “Mr. Lentini is the one who has stood up and tried to put a stop to the practice, or at least get McDonald’s attention,” Klein says, on behalf of other older operators.

“Many of them are sitting on the sidelines waiting to see what happens with the Lentini litigation, because they are petrified of retaliation.”

‘Kids with an iPad’

The lawsuit names three McDonald’s executives as defendants, including Mathew Ajayi and Mwaffak Kanjee, along with the corporation itself.  In a meeting in December 2016, the lawsuit says, the two employees advised Lentini that McDonald’s wanted Lentini to surrender his P1 status as a primary franchisee of his network “due to his advanced age.” At this same meeting, the suit says, Kanjee expressly stated that Lentini “is an old man, that “he should step aside and pass along his P1 status.”

Klein scoffs at such employees. “When you have a 30-year-old kid with an iPad and a job it’s hard for them to appreciate the people who built the system,” he says.

And so an 81-year-old man is now embroiled in a bitter fight with the franchisor that’s been his partner for nearly five decades. His son, Darren Lentini, put it this way. “My father’s been in the McDonald’s system for 50 years,” he said. “He’s done so much for the system and the system has done so much for us. But things have changed.”

A denial of all claims

Through an outside attorney, Aaron Von Nostrand of Greenberg Traurig, McDonald’s declined a request for an interview but sent a statement that read: “McDonald’s believes that each of those allegations made by the Lentinis in the complaint and otherwise in the case is false and unfounded, and McDonald’s will vigorously defend itself in this matter.”

In a counterclaim filed in August, McDonald’s repeats it “denies the allegations contained” in paragraph after paragraph of the complaint more than 36 times. It says the Lentinis’ restaurant in Bayonne, New Jersey, in particular is “desperately” in need of a rebuild and modernization and has not been updated for 40 years. The counterclaim blasts the Lentinis’ “most recent delay tactic” to forestall the renovation as one “in a string of many...despite that plaintiffs have known the Bayonne location was subject to a rebuild requirement for eight years.”

The counterclaim alleges the plaintiffs have failed to comply with their obligations to renovate their McDonald’s restaurants in Jersey City and Paterson, New Jersey.

There is also another lawsuit pending against Sebastian and Darren Lentini, in Passaic County, alleging they and others used unlawful means to block the development of a parcel of land in Passaic that was to include a McDonald’s restaurant because it would be in the vicinity of one of the Lentinis’ McDonald’s restaurants.

Partial dismissal

In March, a New Jersey state judge denied in part McDonald’s motion to dismiss the Lentini v. McDonald’s case, allowing the claims to proceed for age discrimination, unlawful constructive termination of a franchise network and breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing.

The court denied the plaintiffs’ motion to stop the rebuild of their McDonald’s restaurant in Bayonne, finding that plaintiffs were not likely to succeed in their claim against McDonald’s under the New Jersey Franchise Practices Act.

At the time of the partial dismissal, McDonald’s said the lawsuit is “a largely vague and conclusory hodgepodge of factual allegations.”

‘The love is there’

Darren Lentini said his father wanted to talk with Franchise Times for this article, but was concerned that something he said would be used in retaliation against him, and ultimately declined.

“He never misses a day” at the restaurants, Darren Lentini says, calling Sebastian “the mother of all franchisees” and saying “he’s got the organs of a 40-year-old man,” even though these days he is taxed with caring for Darren’s mother.

Klein says the Lentinis tried but failed to get a better result, believing that McDonald’s, which typically owns the real estate on which its stores stand, had corporate goals that were unaligned with franchisees’.

“Trying to navigate through so that both parties can win, that’s what Mr. Lentini tried to do. It was months and months of trying to work something out to say, listen, this doesn’t make sense, and ultimately he was left with no choice but to file the lawsuit,” Klein said, but breaking up with a longtime partner is hard to do.

“When you’re married to somebody for five decades it’s hard not to have love. The love is there,” declares Klein. “At this point the love has become bitter because of how he’s been treated.”

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 bewen@franchisetimes.com.

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