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Former franchise owners’ lawsuit accuses Culver’s of racial bias

Michelle Alexander speaking UniLeague Club. Friday May 3 2013 | Brian Jacks~Sun-Times

Michelle Alexander speaking at the Union League Club. Friday, May 3, 2013 | Brian Jackson ~Sun-Times

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Updated: June 6, 2013 7:07AM

Whenever my sister and I drive up to Milwaukee to see my mother, we stop at the Culver’s located right off the highway.

Every time I stop, the same thought crosses my mind: Why are there no Culver’s restaurants in my neck of the woods?

In a federal lawsuit filed last week, the first black franchisees in the Culver’s system claimed to have an answer to that nagging question.

Two former African-American franchise owners accuse Culver’s of refusing to expand its brand into black communities because of racial bias.

Michael L. Jones and Michael G. Wilbern allege that they were thwarted in their efforts to open franchises in predominantly black neighborhoods in Chicago and Indiana.

The lawsuit alleges that Wilbern tried to open restaurants at 95th and Stony Island; 83rd and Stewart, and 119th & Marshfield on the far South Side. All three locations were turned down, even though Wilbern claims he notified Culver’s there was the potential to obtain tax-increment financing.”

In an emailed statement, Culver Franchising System, Inc. denied the discrimination charges.

“CFSI embraces diversity in race, religion, age and sexual orientation as it relates to team members, franchise partners, supplier partners and our valued guests. CFSI looks forward to responding to these charges and is confident the organization will be exonerated,” according to the statement.

But Ald. Carrie Austin (34th) questions why Culver’s wouldn’t let the black franchisee open a restaurant in her ward.

“It wasn’t Michael. He was gung-ho. He was a franchisee and he wanted to be there. But [Culver’s] turned it down. They said no, then they turned around and built one on 159th Street,” she said.

Wilbern and Jones had envisioned opening several restaurants in underserved areas in Chicago and Indiana.

But in 2006, Culver’s recommended that Wilbern open a franchise in Franklin Park, according to the lawsuit. That decision proved disastrous after Wilbern was hit with an “unusually” large tax bill from the Village of Franklin Park and found that his leasing costs were above average for Culver’s, according to the lawsuit.

Meanwhile, Jones alleges his plan to partner with former major league baseball player Dorian Boyland to open franchises in Florida was turned down even though Culver’s was “expanding its brand from coast to coast.”

“Our dreams are shattered and my economic future was ruined,” Jones, 58, said an email.

The father of six and grandfather of eight said he thought, as a business owner, he was “establishing a legacy for his family.

“I strongly feel that there was an ugly racism in this company. We brought this case to take a stand so our grand kids won’t have to go through this,” he said.

Culver’s headquarters is in the Village of Prairie du Sac, Wis. The Culver Franchising System has sold more than 400 franchises since 1990. The lawsuit maintains that the company is “owned and managed entirely by white citizens,” and the “overwhelming majority” of Culver’s restaurants are located in areas where African Americans are in the minority.

“Why are these franchises not in certain communities?” asked Linda Chatman, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs.

“I believe that is the way they do business. They can get close enough where they can draw this money, but they don’t have to operate over there,” she said.

Not mentioned in the lawsuit was a site in West Englewood at 66th and Ashland that Wilbern apparently also pitched, according to the alderman representing that community.

“The amazing part is that was a lot the city was willing to give Michael Wilbern for $1,” noted Ald. Toni Foulkes (15th).

“We started working on this in 2008. I just kept it quiet. We were going to be the first Culver’s in Chicago,” she said.

Foulkes said she met with the bank, the city’s Housing and Economic Department and housing department to get to get the project off the ground. At the time, she was aware that Wilbern had a tax issue with the Franklin Park restaurant, but the alderman said she was willing to work with him.

She said she is “ready for a fight on this one.”

“Enough is enough. I am 49 years old and I had just turned 4 when Martin Luther King died. I had to read about the civil rights movement. Now it is our time,” Foulkes said.

Hopefully, the lawsuit will shine some much-needed light on a situation that black people have tolerated far too long.

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