Pounded over an ounce

By Al Lewis
Dow Jones Newswires

Posted:   01/07/2009 12:30:00 AM MST

A mystery shopper hit a Quiz nos sub shop in Coop ersburg, Pa., in September 2006. He bought a Prime Rib Philly Cheesesteak, took it to some secret lair and weighed the meat.

This toasted sub was supposed to have 5 ounces of meat. But it had only 4 — or so the mystery shopper would report back to corporate.

This alleged 1-ounce meat deficit would prove the end for Richard Piotrowski, 49, and Ellen Blickman, 51, the husband-and-wife team that had owned the Coopersburg franchise.

In October 2006, the Denver- based franchiser sent them a notice terminating their franchise. The couple and Quiznos have been suing each other — over this 1 ounce of missing meat — ever since.

On Dec. 31, a Denver judge ruled in favor of Piotrowski and Blickman, awarding them $349,797, after a five-day trial in early December.

The judge also ordered Quiznos to pay the couple’s legal costs, which total $350,000, said Jeffrey Cohen, the Denver lawyer who represented Piotrowski and Blickman.

In his order, Denver District Court Judge Morris B. Hoffman called Quiznos’ meat-weighing methodology “laughably unreliable.”

In eight months of owning a Quiznos store, Piotrowski and Blickman served tens of thousands of sandwiches.

“But this was about 1 ounce, on one sandwich, on one day,” Cohen said.

Quiznos executives, however, told me they warned franchisees in advance that mystery shoppers would be coming to weigh the meat and that it was critical they get it right, because competitors were watching too.

Quiznos chief executive David Deno said he disagrees with much of what the judge said in his order but that he hasn’t decided whether to appeal or pay the judgment. He was not involved with Quiznos in 2006 and was named CEO only in September.

“We want to work together with our franchise partners to grow a great system,” he said. “Litigation is not the answer.”

The judge concluded that Quiznos took its hard line to back up its boast in national advertising that it had “more than twice the meat” of a Subway sandwich.

The chain sent mystery shoppers to most of its more than 4,500 stores, fearing Subway would do the same. Of those, 300 received default or termination notices.

Almost all Quiznos franchise owners who received default or termination notices were given a chance to cure them. But Piotrow ski and Blickman had threatened a news conference to expose how Quiznos was treating them.

This irked Quiznos’ then general counsel, Michael Daigle, who testified that he treated them differently.

Despite Quiznos’ aggressive efforts to ensure sandwich-weight compliance, Subway sued the company anyway, and that suit is still pending.

“This was a bullying tactic,” Piotrowski said. “The message was, ‘We can put you out of business. We can just destroy you on a whim.’ ”

Meanwhile, when you consider Quiznos’ own legal costs and the 24 percent interest it’s been ordered to pay on the judgment, the tab on this 1 ounce of missing meat has got to be topping $1 million.

How’s that for a toasted sub?

Al Lewis: 201-938-5266 or al.lewis@dowjones.com

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