In Restaurant Sales, its You and Me and the Landlord Makes Three

img_broken_handshake_540x360When involved in a restaurant transaction, the parties (understandably) spend much time and effort on examining the health of the business and the terms of the deal itself. The buyer will, among other things, study the restaurant’s revenues and operating expenses, any potential liabilities, and the condition of the equipment involved. On the other side, especially if there is seller financing, seller will examine the creditworthiness and financial wherewithal of the buyer, as well as their experience in running such a business. And both sides (of course) will focus great energy on negotiating the purchase price.

Often forgotten in this exchange of information and examination of risks is the landlord. The landlord is a necessary party to almost all restaurant deals, because almost all restaurant leases contain provisions that require the landlord’s consent to the assignment of the lease from the seller to the buyer. If the landlord does not provide that consent, the deal is off – even if the seller and buyer are in complete agreement on all terms.

For this reason, if you are considering listing your restaurant for sale, you should consult with your landlord to determine (or at least get a sense of) the conditions it might place on any such assignment. Is there a restriction on a change of format (e.g. the type of food)? Will the landlord require the new tenant to meet some threshold of financial strength? Determining these factors early on can save you from wasting time with a prospective buyer that has little or no chance of being approved by the landlord. And if you are a prospective buyer, among the first things you should ask the seller is if he has had these conversations with the landlord.  That question may save you from spending time and money (i.e. lawyer’s fees) to negotiate a transaction that will be snuffed out by the landlord down the road.

So the lesson here is that, while it may take two to tango, it often takes three to finalize a restaurant deal.

The Morris Law Firm’s Founder Featured in the Washington Lawyer’s Issue on Restaurant Law

fullsizerenderDemonstrating the critical importance and growing complexity of the legal issues surrounding restaurants, the Washington Lawyer dedicated its September 2016 issue to the intersection of the restaurant business and the law.  The cover story was entitled Behind the Kitchen Door and featured interviews with local restaurateurs, including celebrity chef Mike Isabella, and our founder, Sean Morris.

Among the things Sean was asked about was what the first thing an aspiring restaurateur should do when considering opening a restaurant:

 

Sean Morris, founder of the Morris Law Firm, LLC, in Bethesda, Maryland, and an expert in restaurant law, urges aspiring restaurant entrepreneurs to talk to a real estate broker and a lawyer.  ‘Those two people can enable you to survey the legal landscape and the actual physical landscape of what the local real estate market is,’ Morris says.

Sean was also asked about upcoming changes to DC’s zoning laws as they relate to fast casual restaurants, liquor licensing issues, and the pitfalls of using social media to boost your restaurant’s profile.  The magazine also picked up on Sean’s advice to shore up the four most important legal relationships that you will encounter in your restaurant business and reprinted our blog post of the topic on the DC Bar’s website.

Finally, we were very proud to have Sean featured in the magazine’s Member Spotlight for September, which not only included a full page profile, but provided Sean with the opportunity to tell the story of why he was drawn to a practice in restaurant law:

Through college, through graduate school, throughout my pre-law school days, I always worked in restaurants. I washed dishes. I bussed tables. I waited tables. I’ve worked in kitchens. … I came back to this industry because I knew it and because I loved it. It’s an industry where there are a lot of good people working really hard who could use just a little bit of help, particularly from someone who knows their business.

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If you are interested, you can check out the full digital edition of the issue here.

 

Hooters Waves White Flag: Will Voluntarily Close Rather than Face Revocation

There are some battles that are just not worth fighting, apparently.  For the Rockville, Maryland Hooters restaurant that was charged with overserving the drunk driver who killed Montgomery County police officer Noah Leotta late last year, that would include the battle to save their liquor license.  The restaurant faced a show cause hearing before the Montgomery County Liquor Board this week over whether their license should be revoked, or some lesser penalty (a suspension and/or fines) should be levied.  Apparently seeing the handwriting on the wall, the restaurant opted to forego battle and accept terms of surrender — namely, the surrender of their license.  They will voluntary turn over their license and close their doors permanently in November.

Many may wonder why the restaurant wouldn’t at least try to defend themselves — after all, there is no stronger penalty the liquor board can levy than revocation, and this result is tantamount to that very outcome.  Moreover, in our experience, it is notoriously difficult to make the case that an individual became intoxicated at a particular establishment, and as a result of drinks served to him at that establishment.  This was, however, a very high profile case and Hooters — a nationally recognized brand — may have had strong business reasons to not engage in what seem like an exercise of shirking responsibility.  The individuals who held the license for this establishment may have also had a strong interest to avoid a hearing and not tinker with the possibility of revocation — had their license been revoked they would have been permanently banned from ever holding a license again.  By voluntarily surrendering their license, they avoided that fate.

Considering the business and legal implications, and the fact that the liquor board is not a court of law but an administrative body that has broad discretion to make decisions that it thinks are in the best interests of the community, this voluntary surrender and closure appears to be the proper result for all concerned.  Finally, considering that the establishment cannot face any civil liability under state law (because Maryland is one of only a handful of states that does not permit so-called “dram shop liability”), this should close the matter (and a sad chapter) for the restaurant and its licensees.

 

 

The Four Relationships that Can Make or Break Your Restaurant Business

restaurant kitchenThe restaurant business, like almost all businesses, is about relationships. And, of course, the most important one you will have is with your customers. If you don’t preserve that relationship, you won’t have a business for very long. But there are other relationships that must be protected just as jealously, because if any of them sour, they can bring down your business just as quickly as if customers stop coming in the door.

In our experience, these are those four relationships:

1.      With Your Partners (and Investors).

If you go into business with anyone else, that person has control over the success or failure of your business – regardless of whether they have any involvement in its day-to-day operations. If your restaurant is struggling, will your partners and investors have the patience to allow the plan to work, or will they want to bail out at the first sign of trouble? And, if they do bail out, can they pull their money out and leave you with all the responsibilities and liabilities? Alternatively, if the business is doing well, will they insist that the profits be paid out in distributions to the partners, or will you have the ability to put that money back into the business to enable it to grow and thrive? And, regardless of whether you are succeeding or failing, how will decisions be made about how the restaurant is managed? What if there is a deadlock – can a decision be made at all?

These are all questions that must be answered well before you open your doors – and well before the first sign of discord. That is why we advocate that preparing a written operating agreement should be among the very first things you do when you embark on your restaurant business. If you are in agreement on all these things – great, finalizing the agreement should be easy. But if you’re not, it’s better to find out sooner rather than later.

2.      With Your Landlord.

Perhaps no single person (or entity) has more control over the future of your restaurant business than your landlord. A tough-nosed landlord can stick you in default over the slightest deviation from the strict terms of your lease, whereas a more lenient and accommodating landlord can work with you through rough patches and allow your restaurant the time it needs to get up and running and the room it needs to prosper. So while you need to understand the terms of your lease, you also need to understand who your landlord is – and how they operate – before you sign your lease.

But even a lease with a well-meaning landlord needs to be reviewed thoroughly and completely – every word – because landlords can change, and what today is a small local landlord with a reputation for working with their tenants can tomorrow be an out-of-state investment trust that does not care that you’ve had a few tough months and it always picks up in the Spring. In those cases, your only protection will be your lease. Indeed, the lease you enter into with your landlord is probably the document that will have the greatest impact on the success of your restaurant. For all too many restaurants, whether they succeed or fail is predetermined at the moment the lease is signed. Make sure you not only sign a lease with a good landlord, but that that lease itself is top notch too.

3.      With Your Employees.

As with any service business, a restaurant’s employees are its lifeblood. They are its face to the world and, without them, the food doesn’t get prepped, cooked, plated, or served. Without good employees, even a perfectly formulated restaurant concept will assuredly fail. But taking care of your employees means more than just showing them gratitude, paying them well, and giving them appropriate time off. It also means complying with the letter of the law when it comes to wage and hour and other employment laws.

Federal and state lawmakers, for good reason, have made it a priority to ensure that unscrupulous employers do not take advantage of low wage workers, and the restaurant industry’s heavy reliance on tipped employees makes them a target for government regulation as well as lawsuits from disgruntled employees who may not have been properly paid. To protect themselves, restaurants must keep impeccable employment records and strictly adhere to all employment and wage laws. Take a lesson from those who haven’t, and have paid dearly.

4.      With the Government.

As businesses that prepare food for public consumption, and often serve alcoholic beverages to go along with that food, restaurants are among the most highly regulated small businesses in the country. From food safety permits to liquor licenses, there is almost nothing that restaurants do that does not require government approval or subject it to government oversight. The IRS is also notorious for making restaurants among its favorite audit targets. As with the employment issues highlighted above (which is another area of government oversight and regulation) strong compliance programs are essential. No one is ever going to be perfect, but if you are found to have violated a law, it is better to be able to show it was in spite of your best efforts at compliance, not because of a lack of such efforts.

 

Client Alert: Minimum Wage Increases in Maryland and DC

This post is to remind all clients or interested business people reading this that, effective this past Friday, July 1, 2016, the hourly minimum wage in Maryland and the District of Columbia has increased as follows: 

Maryland:

Statewide.  The minimum wage for regular hourly employees is now $8.75 per hour.  It had been $8.25 and is set to increase annually again in 2017 and 2018, to an ultimate level of $10.10 an hour.  For employees that earn a substantial portion of their income from tips, however, the tipped minimum wage will remain at $3.63 an hour.

Local Laws.  Note that some Maryland jurisdictions have a higher minimum wage and that in Montgomery County  the minimum wage was raised to $10.75 as of July 1, 2016, and will go to the same level in Prince George’s County on October 1, 2016.  Both counties’ minimum will go to $11.50 as of July 1 and October 1, 2017, respectively.  The tipped minimum wage in both jurisdictions is unchanged at $4.00 per hour.

District of Columbia:  

The minimum hourly rate for regular hourly employees is now $11.50 per hour, while the tipped minimum wage will stay at $2.77 an hour.

If you have any questions about how these new rates effect your business, or if you are unsure if you are properly using the tipped minimum wage, please feel free to contact us.

Don’t Even Think About Buying a Restaurant Without Answering These Four Questions.

menu-restaurant-vintage-tableFor generations, owning and operating a restaurant has been a common dream for would-be entrepreneurs. Unlike many other businesses, most of us think we understand how restaurants operate (we all eat at restaurants, don’t we?), and there is a certain charm and allure to the idea of welcoming our friends and neighbors to a place all our own. Beyond that, while individual failures are plentiful, the restaurant industry as a whole has been remarkably resilient, even in tough economic times.

Still, we all have heard the legendary statistics regarding new restaurants’ failure rates, and wonder if there is a way to mitigate that risk and still pursue the dream of restaurant ownership. For many, the answer is to purchase an existing restaurant, which may have a reliable customer base, an established location, a proven concept, and a well-known name. If you decide to pursue that route, however, we encourage you to ask yourself (or your lawyer) a few questions early on in the process:

1.     What, exactly, am I buying?

Yes, you’re buying a restaurant. We know that. But it’s really not that simple. In most cases, if you are buying a single restaurant, you will do so through what’s called an asset purchase agreement (APA). In such a case, you will buy all the assets of the restaurant business, including both tangible (tables, chairs, kitchen equipment, point-of-sale system, etc.) and intangible (trade name, intellectual property, good will, etc.). When restaurant deals are accomplished this way, the buyer takes over all the operational aspects of the restaurant, but does not (generally speaking) assume the debts and liabilities of the prior owner, as the buyer would if they simply bought the company that owned the restaurant outright. Moreover, regardless of the structure of the deal, all buyers should conduct their due diligence such that they assure themselves they are not “buying” anything they didn’t bargain for, such as long term payment obligations, liabilities to employees or vendors, or pending regulatory violations and associated fines,

2.     Do I need a new lease?

Often, when a buyer purchases a restaurant, they simply take over the existing lease of the prior owner through a process called an assignment. An assignment, however is not always possible or advisable. In most instances, for example, a landlord will have the right to approve any proposed assignment and may not wish to engage with the new owner on the same terms as the prior one. In that case, the landlord may insist on a new lease with more terms more favorable to the landlord than those of the existing lease. Conversely, the buyer may object to certain terms in the existing lease – a demolition clause, or the lack of renewal options, or simply that there is not enough time remaining on it – and request a new lease as a condition of proceeding with the sale. Whatever you case may be, any agreement to purchase a restaurant should include a contingency that the buyer be afforded time to secure either an assignment of the existing lease or a new lease altogether.

3.     Am I able to transfer the liquor license?

For many restaurant sales, the transfer of the existing liquor license is essential, especially in jurisdictions where the issuance of new licenses is limited in some way. In such instances, buyers must take appropriate measures to ensure there is nothing that could prevent the restaurant’s liquor license from being transferred from the seller. Such things could be a poor compliance record that could cause the transfer to be protested, a pending violation that could lead to revocation, or some other factor related to the buyer himself that might cause local authorities to deny the transfer. Investigation into such matters should be part of any buyer’s due diligence, and appropriate contingencies should always be included in any agreement.

4.     Will I have full rights to the restaurant’s trade name?

Here we have the very simple matter of ensuring that, if you are buying “McFinley’s Tap House,” you can still call it “McFinley’s Tap House” after you take over. As stated above, most asset purchase agreements will include the restaurant’s trade name and other intellectual property as being among the intangible assets of the business.   In some cases, however, a third party may have granted the seller the rights to use a restaurant’s name, and may still be entitled to assert some control over who uses that name. Any seller should therefore be required to demonstrate that he has the right to transfer the trade name to you, and that no third party licensor has any ability to prevent you from using it.

Three Common Mistakes to Avoid When Starting your Business

slip-up-danger-careless-slipperyLet’s get one thing out of the way:  when you are starting a business you are going to make mistakes — a million of them.  That’s okay.  It’s how we learn and grow, and it also keeps things interesting.  But what’s not okay is when we make mistakes that are easily avoidable, and which can have serious repercussions for the future of our businesses, whether they succeed, and what happens to us if they don’t.

These are three such mistakes (I hope you’ll avoid them all):

1.    Delay in setting up your LLC or Corporation

No matter what anyone tells you, establishing a corporate entity for your business is not difficult, and should not be expensive. But it is one of the most important things you can do to protect yourself from personal liability for the debts and obligations of the business. If you delay in setting up your LLC or corporation and sign (even a few) contracts in your individual capacity, you can be exposing your personal assets, and those of your family, to risk in the event any of those contracts goes bad. The same would be true if you engage in a business where someone could be hurt while visiting your business or while working for you. If any of those losses occurs before you’ve property established your entity, you are probably going to be on the hook personally. It is therefore imperative that you set up your entity – and know how to use it properly — such that any person harmed (either physically or economically) by your business can only sue the business, not you personally

2.    DIY Your Lease Negotiation

I see this way too often in my practice, especially my restaurant practice: someone signs a lease without having it reviewed by an attorney, trying to avoid another upfront expense. I get it. You’re spending a ton to get your business off the ground and this seems like one you can avoid. After all, the lease is pretty standard, right? Wrong. Most often, the lease was prepared by the landlord’s lawyer and has many clauses in it that skew strongly to the landlord’s benefit. Why wouldn’t it, after all? If you were preparing the lease, wouldn’t you do the same thing? Here’s the thing, though: many of these terms are negotiable, especially for a landlord looking to make a deal. For the worst provisions, I will simply request that they be removed entirely. But if you try to do this yourself, will you know where those bad terms are? Will you know how hard you can push back? Doing it yourself may cost you your best (and last) opportunity to ensure the lease is as fair as possible, and that you have the best chance to succeed in your business.

In many cases, your lease will commit you to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars over the next 5, 10, or 15 years. Your lease has the power to make or break you, especially in the restaurant business, and a bad lease can doom even the best operators. That is why going it alone on your lease is one of the most penny-wise and pound-foolish things you can do. You owe it to yourself to do all you can to ensure you understand what you are signing, and that you have achieved the best terms possible.

3.    Don’t Put Your Operational Agreements in Writing 

            When you start a business with other people, there are only two possibilities: that you see everything exactly the same way as to how to manage the business, or that you don’t. Very often, however, people think they are in the first category, but they are really in the second. The best way to find out is to put everything down in writing. There is really no excuse. And, as I often tell my clients, if you don’t. the worst thing that can happen to you may be that the business is successful. Then there will actually be something to fight about. Don’t put yourself in that situation. Put it all in writing (and make sure you understand it all before you sign).

What are Your Options? Negotiable or “Market Rate” Lease Renewal Provisions

timetorenewIn a changing real estate market, especially one with rising commercial property values and rental rates, whether you have a renewal option in your commercial lease and the terms of any such option can be critical. It is highly preferable to have an option provision that specifies the rate of any renewal, e.g. some set percentage over the last year of the initial term. It is not uncommon for a lease to say the renewal will be at “market rate” or something similar, then it will be subject to negotiation and agreement between the Tenant and Landlord, leaving the renewal subject to negotiation and agreement between the Tenant and Landlord.  Of course, when this is the case, it largely turns the renewal “option” into simply an exclusive right to negotiate and takes significant control away from the tenant.

If your lease has a market rate or negotiable option provision, here are a couple of things to keep in mind:

  • First, see if there is any provision in your lease that requires the landlord to give you notice of its proposed renewal terms in advance of the date by which you have to give notice of your intention to renew. If there isn’t any such requirement, still go ahead and request that the landlord let you know as much in advance as possible what renewal rate it will be requesting. That will give you a little more time to negotiate with the landlord, or will give you a heads up that the landlord may be looking for much more than you are willing to spend. If you will need to move at the end of your lease, having that bit of extra time may be invaluable.
  • Second, understand that you really have two deadlines: the actual end of the lease, and the date after which it will be impossible for you to find new space and have it ready to move into if you can’t work out a deal with the landlord on your renewal. Is that 6 months before the end of the lease? 9 months? More? You need to have a good sense of this, because if you let that deadline pass, you may be stuck taking whatever deal the landlord is offering because you don’t have anyplace else to go. With restaurant leases this timing factor is critically important because the permitting and buildout requirements of new restaurant space will require much more lead time before any move.
  • Finally, pay close attention to your lease’s holdover provisions. Almost all commercial leases I see in my practice contain drastic rent increase provisions if you stay in the space beyond the end of your lease, with it being common for rent for any holdover period to be 200% the last year of the initial term.  If that is the case in your lease, you must make sure, if you cannot negotiate the renewal term, that you are ready to move when the initial term of the lease is up.

Of course, many of these terms are subject to negotiation at the time you sign your lease and that is the best time to address them. But if you must deal with them later, you should work with your real estate lawyer to ensure you are able to renew your lease on favorable terms or, failing that, have as much time as possible to find a new space.

How a Glitch in Local Liquor License Laws is Hurting Fast Casual Restaurants

beer tapsI’ve written here before about how one of the distinguishing and appealing elements of fast casual restaurants is that, unlike more traditional “fast food” outlets, they often serve alcohol. Most often, however, these restaurants do not have a full bar and only want to serve beer and wine. That more limited offering can make things easier for the restaurant owner because they can simply obtain a beer and wine license, and not have to bear the heightened scrutiny and oftentimes greater regulatory burdens that come with the right to sell hard liquor.

Here in Montgomery County Maryland, where I do a significant amount of work, it doesn’t quite work that way due to a glitch in the local liquor laws. That glitch is this: an individual can hold up to ten full liquor licenses – i.e. those for beer, wine, and liquor – but are restricted to only one beer and wine license. Of course, very often fast casual restaurants have more than one location in a given jurisdiction, and several of my clients have more than one here in Montgomery County. If they want liquor licenses for all of their stores, the law requires them to apply for and obtain full liquor licenses, even if they only want to sell beer and wine. And while that full liquor license gives those restaurants the option to sell drinks containing spirits if they’d like, it also comes with it a much higher licensing fee and more burdensome administrative and regulatory requirements.  While many proceed anyway, and take these burdens on, others decide it is not worth it, and forego alcohol altogether.

Why this inconsistency in the law exists is difficult to say, but it appears it may simply have been an oversight as the laws were amended over the years. Indeed, for years full liquor licenses were by far the most desirable to restaurant owners and very few were interested in selling only beer and wine. Thus, when lobbying efforts were made to expand the number of licenses an individual could hold, the focus was on full beer, wine, and liquor licenses, and no changes were made to the laws regarding the more limited beer and wine licenses. As fast casual continues to boom, however, it would seem that greater attention needs to be given to this inconsistency, and that the right to hold beer and wine licenses be expanded in the next legislative session to meet the demands of this growing trend in the restaurant industry.

Listen: Founder Sean Morris Featured on the Law Entrepreneur Podcast

Our founder and principal attorney, Sean Morris, was recently interviewed by Neil Tyra for his popular new podcast, The Law Entrepreneur.  Take a listen here as Sean speaks to Neil about, among other things, why he decided to build a practice focused on the needs of restaurant owners — or, as Neil puts it, how he became the Restaurant Lawyer.

You can find the iTunes link, as well as the archives to Neil’s excellent podcast here.  Check it out.