7-Eleven warns Chicago franchisee who criticized company

April 23, 2014

 

7-Eleven Inc. is coming down on a Chicago franchisee who criticized the Dallas-based company on WBEZ.

Hashim Syed, who has run a 7-Eleven in the city’s Rogers Park neighborhood since 1990, invited two WBEZ reporters to his store for an interview. He told them how the world’s largest convenience-store chain has tightened rules for its franchisees over the years.

Syed said the company, a subsidiary of the Japanese conglomerate Seven & I Holdings Co., had dumped its employment responsibilities on franchisees.

“We are nothing more than a glorified manager,” Syed said in the WBEZ report, broadcast April 8. “I take the heat from the customer if anything goes wrong. I take the heat from the workers if something goes wrong.”

One week after the broadcast, 7-Eleven officials inspected his store. Syed said the inspection took place without notice. He identified the officials as Bill Engen and Ena Williams, both senior vice presidents based at the Dallas headquarters.

The next day, a 7-Eleven “letter of notification” accused Syed of violating his franchise agreement because some products were out of stock and because he allegedly was not using one of his hot-dog grills as required. The letter was accompanied by 17 photos showing spots on Syed’s shelves where products were sold out. The letter did not mention his statements to WBEZ.

Warning letters from franchisors are not uncommon. The franchisees usually have a chance to fix the problems. But a letter could also lead to trouble, even a 7-Eleven takeover of the store.

“This is nothing but retaliation,” said Jas Dhillon, a 7-Eleven franchisee in Los Angeles and vice chair of the National Coalition of Associations of 7-Eleven Franchisees. “We carry over 2,500 items in our store, from soda pops to candies to hot dogs to magazines to lottery tickets. Being out of stock of 17 — that’s less than 1 percent. Any given day, not just at 7-Eleven, at any of the other stores, you’re going to have items that we run out of, especially when you just had a hot weekend.”

Dhillon said 7-Eleven was trying to silence Syed and pointed out that the Chicago franchisee once won a national award from the company because, Dhillon said, “he ran the best store in the country.”

Engen and Williams did not respond to WBEZ requests for comment on Syed’s case. Neither did the Chicago-area 7-Eleven official who issued Syed the warning letter.

Company spokeswoman Margaret Chabris sent a written statement that said her company “does not discuss publicly matters concerning our relationships with individual 7-Eleven franchisees.” Asked whether the 7-Eleven letter to Syed came in response to his WBEZ interview, Chabris did not answer.

The interview was not the first time Syed had criticized 7-Eleven. He publishes a newsletter for Chicago-area 7-Eleven franchisees that questions how the company treats them.

In the WBEZ report, Syed blamed 7-Eleven policies and the franchise model for his store’s low wages. “That worker who is working also thinks — and I know it for a fact — that I am just greedy and I want to keep all the money in my pocket instead of giving him fair wages,” he said.

The report included competing claims by economists about how franchising affects wages and jobs.

In the report, Chabris and another 7-Eleven official said workplace conditions were the responsibility of franchisees.

Chabris added that Syed had a right to speak out. “It’s freedom of speech,” she said. “That’s fine.”

Syed, meanwhile, is planning to board a Thursday flight from Chicago to Japan, where he will meet with other 7-Eleven franchisees. He said he is working to strengthen ties between 7-Eleven franchisees around the world so they have more power to stand up to the company.

Chip Mitchell is WBEZ’s West Side bureau reporter. Follow him on Twitter @ChipMitchell1 and @WBEZoutloud, and connect with him through Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn.