Financing

Inside the chaotic world of the owner of Boston Market

Jay Pandya has long portrayed himself as a “business tycoon,” with restaurant and real estate holdings along the East Coast, before he bought Boston Market and Corner Bakery. But that history is filled with lawsuits and unpaid bills.
Jay Pandya restaurant operator
Jay Pandya had a long and controversial history before he bought Boston Market and Corner Bakery. | Image by Nico Heins

This is the first in a three-part series exploring the owner of Boston Market and his long, complex track record of legal filings and unpaid bills.

Today: Inside the chaotic world of the owner of Boston Market.

Tuesday:Corner Bakery employees thought they had a savior. They got something else.

Wednesday:For Boston Market, another ugly chapter in a long and infamous history.

 

Jay Pandya came out of nowhere to become a multiconcept restaurant chain owner in 2020. His company, Rohan Group, was the surprise buyer that year of Boston Market. The chain was already struggling in 2019 before the pandemic hit and had been sold on the cheap by the private equity firm Sun Capital, which had debt to pay and just wanted to get rid of it.

Pandya then beat out other buyers for another struggling fast-casual chain, Corner Bakery, which he bought from Roark Capital. He then talked a big game about returning the brands to relevance. Within months, Pandya boasted that he’d signed 30 leases for Boston Market. The next year, he bragged that the chain was opening two locations per week.

Yet far from bringing the brands back to prominence, Pandya has done the opposite: He demanded severe cost cuts, requiring employees to stop paying bills without steep discounts as high as 70%. If the bills were paid at all, that is. His operation’s finances were routed through a single employee using QuickBooks.  

The company was locked out of Corner Bakery’s Dallas headquarters and temporarily lost Boston Market’s Golden, Colo., corporate offices. Unpaid bills also left dozens of empty restaurants in both brands from Massachusetts to downtown Chicago to suburban Los Angeles, most of which were shuttered with no notice.

More than 200 lawsuits have been filed against the two chains in the three years under Pandya’s management, mostly over unpaid bills. Corner Bakery filed for bankruptcy earlier this year and has been sold. But Boston Market seems to be in a death spiral, with a canceled food distribution contract, unpaid restaurant workers and restaurants that appear to be closing by the day.

Along the way, there have been allegations of improper assets transfers or payments of exorbitant management fees. Corner Bakery’s lender accused Pandya of using that chain as a “piggy bank.”

But Pandya had a controversial history well before he took ownership of those two chains. His career as a franchisee of multiple brands is littered with lawsuits from lenders and landlords over unpaid bills. He was terminated by multiple franchisors over a variety of issues, including poor performance, unpaid franchise fees, broken covenants and once for defrauding investors. At least one investor has accused Pandya of pocketing $1 million earmarked as an investment in some of his restaurant ventures.

This series is based on numerous interviews with employees of both chains, attorneys and others, along with a review of hundreds of pages of legal documents from scores of lawsuits filed in both state and federal courts. We also conducted four hours’ worth of interviews with Pandya himself.  

“Our bid was greater than our competitor. But our competitor is very politically connected. They were awarded the rights for a fraction of the price.” —Jay Pandya, on his failed bid to run a professional cricket league in the U.S.

The would-be cricket tycoon

Jignesh “Jay” Pandya was born in Vadodara, a city of about 4 million in western India. His family moved to the U.S. when he was a teenager, and he now lives in and does business from suburban Philadelphia. A cricket player, he apparently owns a professional team in St. Lucia.

Or he did. The Caribbean Premier League apparently terminated its agreement with Pandya’s Royal Sports Club, according to the Times of India. The reason? Not paying franchise players. Pandya in an interview referred questions on the team to his business partner.

In blog posts, Pandya describes himself as a “business tycoon” and a “dedicated philanthropist.” In person, people who know him describe Pandya as disarming and charismatic, often complimentary. But he was also unpredictable, frequently traveling and sometimes calling employees at odd hours of the night to talk business.

He has a big family, much of it in India, and lives in an opulent house, where he keeps a collection of expensive cars, such as a Bentley and a Lamborghini. Pandya talks often about his wealth and has a penchant for exaggeration. “He is the most hyperbolic person I’ve ever met,” one person said.

Throughout his career, according to those who know him, Pandya was able to write off the problems and move onto his next venture, convincing lenders to give him a chance. “He has the financial skills to get control of a business,” one person who has worked with him said, “but he doesn’t know how to run a restaurant concept.”

Pandya is an investor in commercial real estate and owns properties throughout the Philadelphia area as well as a construction firm. Many of his other ventures have garnered considerable attention, only to fall by the wayside. Perhaps none was bigger than his cricket idea.

In 2016 and 2017, Pandya received attention for a plan to bring cricket, the world’s second most popular sport, to the U.S. He vowed to spend $2.4 billion to build 26,000-seat stadiums across the country, including in New York, California, Florida, Texas and Illinois. And his cricket company would then bring professional cricket to the U.S.

But that never happened. Cricket governing councils USA Cricket and the International Cricket Council chose a different group to bring the sport to the U.S. Pandya’s American Cricket Premier League sued them in 2019, but the lawsuit was dismissed.

Pandya to this day believes he had a better proposal. “Our bid was greater than our competitor,” he said. “But our competitor is very politically connected. They were awarded the rights for a fraction of the price.”

The investor

Jagdish Patel met Jay Pandya at a party in New Jersey in 2010. Pandya boasted about having a net worth of more than $100 million, with commercial properties in the U.S. and India, according to legal filings. The two became friends. Pandya brought Patel to his lavish home and they dined at fancy restaurants.

Patel’s late wife had left his family money, and he wanted to invest those funds for his son. Pandya gave him an option: Invest in the acquisition of nine Pizza Hut restaurants in Connecticut, which included a development deal for 20 restaurants. Pay in cash, and there would not be any financing charges. Patel ultimately sent him $350,000.

Pandya later asked for $135,000 to help pay for liquor licenses and attorney’s fees. Patel later sent another $480,000 to help fund an acquisition of Pizza Hut locations in New Jersey. In that arrangement, Patel was supposed to manage the restaurants.

Yet in a lawsuit Patel filed against Pandya in 2015, he argues that Pandya pocketed the funds and never used any of it to fund the acquisitions.

Pandya funded the $1.4 million purchase of the Connecticut restaurants himself and never provided Patel with the promised 25% stake. And, the lawsuit says, the restaurants fell into disrepair and struggled. The lawsuit also notes that the Connecticut Pizza Huts hired Pandya’s management company for $650,000 per year. The original purchase price also included liquor licenses, meaning there was never a need for those funds.

The New Jersey deal, meanwhile, never took place.

When Patel confronted Pandya, according to the lawsuit, Pandya produced copies of the purchase documents altered to inflate the purchase price of the Connecticut restaurants and reflect that they did not include the liquor license. Patel later discovered the real documents.

Patel filed his lawsuit in 2015. Pandya denied the allegations. The action was delayed multiple times as Pandya shuffled through attorneys. Patel eventually settled the suit, with Pandya agreeing to repay Patel the funds owed, interest free, with $110,000 annual payments. The first payment was made in 2022. Pandya missed the payment this year, however.

Pandya explained that Patel only invested in the Connecticut restaurants, acquiring a 25% stake in that business. And those restaurants lost money and were ultimately closed and everybody lost money. “He would not understand,” Pandya said. “He filed the lawsuit.”

Pandya said he settled that case because he felt it would be better than paying for attorney’s fees. When asked why he didn’t make the second payment, he said that “it is going to be taken care of in about two weeks or so.” As of press time, that payment has not been made, according to the attorney for Patel. But a judge last week did award Patel $1.3 million plus interest and attorneys' fees. 

This wasn’t the only allegation that Pandya pocketed funds from investors.

A controversial franchisee career

Pandya has been involved in the restaurant business for more than two decades. At one point, he was one of the nation’s largest franchisees, with more than 100 restaurants, spanning from Connecticut to Alabama, in four chains: Dunkin’, Checkers, Popeyes and Pizza Hut.

Pandya’s companies are organized under dozens of different names, and sometimes listed with different owners, notably his son Ronak—who was the legal owner of Corner Bakery. Rohan Group of Companies, named for another son, oversees all of it.

That tangle makes it difficult to keep pace with the organization, and often allows the company to transfer assets from one company to the other.

But three of his four brands terminated his restaurants and filed a lawsuit against Pandya and his companies.

Dunkin’ moved to terminate the restaurants he operated in Pennsylvania and New Jersey in 2011, arguing that Pandya had bilked a trio of investors out of a total of $860,000. Pandya denied the lawsuit and filed a counterclaim accusing Dunkin’ of allowing restaurants to open too close to his units. The two sides settled the case four months after it was filed.

Pandya sold his last Dunkin’ restaurants in 2020, just before he bought Corner Bakery, he said to avoid any potential conflict. He also sold his Popeyes restaurants in 2011.

But his career as a Checkers and a Pizza Hut operator started to collapse in 2019 in a flurry of terminations, lawsuits and financial maneuvers. And much like Pandya’s organization, the story behind them is complicated.

“Throughout this process you were honest and forthright in your dealings with First Franchise that allowed us to get to a deal that makes sense for everyone. You were determined and never gave up despite the odds. Some people, as we saw during this process, chose a much less scrupulous path versus one that is fair for everyone.” —Richard Dennen, CEO of First Franchise, in an email to Jay Pandya

The Checkers sale

Pandya explained that his 45 Checkers restaurants were all sold out from under him in 2020. For that, he blames Pizza Hut.

He said the Pizza Hut locations in Connecticut were struggling and he wanted to close them, ultimately choosing to do so. That “freaked out” his lender, First Franchise Capital Corp., which filed a lawsuit against him in 2019 and placed his operation under receivership. He owed $18 million to First Franchise, and both his Pizza Hut locations and Checkers units were collateral.

That receiver, he said, sold the Checkers restaurants within 30 days. The receiver then spent three months working to sell his Pizza Hut locations, but “Pizza Hut would not cooperate with them in every possible way,” Pandya said. “The bank got fed up.”

Pandya argued that Pizza Hut put up roadblocks that would have enabled the restaurants to be sold—multiple sources back up that contention. That frustrated the lender.

Pandya ultimately created another company, called Ronak Capital, which acquired the debt on the secondary market at a discount. Pandya then became his own technical lender and ended the receivership and kept his Pizza Hut restaurants.

“Throughout this process you were honest and forthright in your dealings with First Franchise that allowed us to get to a deal that makes sense for everyone,” Richard Dennen, CEO of First Franchise, said in an email to Pandya. “You were determined and never gave up despite the odds. Some people, as we saw during this process, chose a much less scrupulous path versus one that is fair for everyone.”

Still, the story is more complicated. First Franchise said in its lawsuit that Pandya had fallen behind on $18 million in loan payments.

The lender also said Checkers had terminated Pandya’s restaurants for unpaid franchise fees, which led the bank to put the restaurants into receivership, fearful that the restaurants would be closed. First Franchise’s lawsuit said that several of Pandya’s restaurants were closed for health and safety issues.

It also said that Pandya’s 40 Pizza Hut restaurants were in danger of closing, noting that it “has reason to believe that if a receiver is not appointed immediately to take control of” Pandya’s assets, “those restaurants may also be closed or effectively managed out of existence …”

Checkers itself sued Pandya in 2020. The drive-thru burger chain won a $1.4 million award out of arbitration the year before. Pandya made the first payment and missed the second, and Checkers asked a court to garnish his company’s bank accounts of $1.23 million. Pandya ultimately paid before the funds were garnished from those accounts, according to court documents. 

Pandya was sued earlier this year by his lender, Signature Financial, on eight of the Checkers locations, after his company apparently fell behind on some $2.8 million in loans. Each of those Checkers locations, however, are listed either as temporarily or permanently closed. Pandya is no longer a franchisee of Checkers.

Pizza Hut Philadelphia

Pandya remains in a legal battle with Pizza Hut over unpaid franchise fees. | Photo: Shutterstock

The Pizza Hut problem

While Pandya kept control of his Pizza Hut restaurants by acquiring the debt, he was still in danger of a potential Pizza Hut termination.

Pizza Hut originally terminated Pandya’s restaurants in 2018, according to court documents, over unpaid royalty and ad fund fees. The chain gave him an extension so long as he repaid past due amounts, but he apparently did not.

In 2019, Pizza Hut sued Pandya, arguing he was operating restaurants after termination. It also accused him of creating a different concept called Mozzarella Kitchen Co., with plans to open that concept in closed Pizza Hut units. Pandya also tried to convert some of them to a chicken chain he acquired called HNT. That concept went nowhere.

Pizza Hut won that lawsuit and a court awarded it $11 million last year. Some of the Pizza Hut locations closed and others were sold to a different franchisee.

“I had no option but to sell,” he said. He also noted that he’s financed that franchisee and is a landlord for some locations. “Even until two weeks ago, the current franchisee is reaching out to me for new locations,” he said.

Pizza Hut sued Pandya again earlier this year, saying he refused to work with the chain to provide financial documents as it sought to collect the judgment. Pizza Hut subpoenaed his bank records and found more than $1 million in transfers from Pandya’s accounts to those belonging to his wife or other entities he owns since 2020. Pandya himself has said he has not seen the lawsuit.

Indeed, according to a legal filing, Pizza Hut struggled to serve Pandya with the lawsuit, saying that a process server was unable to get past the family’s front gate.

Pandya remains clearly frustrated with Pizza Hut. He argued that the brand terminated him while it did not terminate other franchisees who closed restaurants. And he argues that he pushed the company to start using third-party delivery services in 2019 to help with a shortage of drivers at the time and help build struggling sales. “I was denied,” he said.

Pandya also chides the chain for spending so much energy filing lawsuits against him. “They spent over $7 million in legal fees fighting me,” he said. “Why?”

Still, by 2020, Pandya had sold or closed just about all his franchise restaurants. And then he turned to Boston Market and Corner Bakery.

Next: Corner Bakery employees thought they had a savior. They got something else.

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