In light of an ongoing federal investigation, FAT Brands CEO Andy Wiederhorn told analysts Monday he’s being targeted because of his troubled past.
In late February, The Los Angeles Times reported Wiederhorn and his family were the subject of several criminal accusations, including securities and wire fraud, money laundering, and attempted tax evasion.
Search warrant records show the home of Wiederhorn’s son and daughter-in-law was raided in December. Federal authorities also requested to search Wiederhorn’s house, but it’s unclear whether that took place.
Wiederhorn, who categorically denied any wrongdoing, said the U.S. Attorney’s Office indicated FAT Brands is not currently a target of the investigation, just he and his family.
“As previously disclosed, the government is now formally seeking documents concerning these matters from the company and me,” the CEO said during the company’s Q4 and 2021 earnings call.
He claimed the investigation stems from a shareholder lawsuit filed in 2021 against FAT Brands and the company’s controlling stockholder, Fog Cutter Capital Group. The two sides decided to merge in late 2020 to provide FAT Brands with increased financial flexibility and a simpler corporate structure.
The complaint contends Fog Cutter used borrowed funds from FAT Brands to produce $27 million in cash advances. The lawsuit also alleges Fog Cutter owed FAT Brands $38.7 million and that the company forgave loans to Wiederhorn ahead of the merger.
Wiederhorn said “given his personal history,” it didn’t surprise him government officials would look into allegations also raised in the complaint from shareholders.
The personal history he’s referring to dates back to 2004 when he pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Oregon to charges of paying an illegal gratuity to an associate and to filing a false tax return. He served 15 months in federal prison in Sheridan, Oregon, and paid a $2 million fine.
Wiederhorn accused the Times of publishing numerous factual errors and conflating the different entities and his family as if they were one. He also said the government’s affidavit shouldn’t have been made public since it was part of a sealed court order.
“I categorically deny the allegations raised in the L.A. Times article and look forward to the opportunity for our legal team to demonstrate that all transactions were properly documented, reviewed, approved, and disclosed and that multiple independent professionals were involved including the boards of both Fog Cutter and FAT Brands, outside counsel, outside auditors, and my and FAT Brands' tax adviser,” Wiederhorn said.
In 2021, FAT Brands was arguably the most competitive company in the M&A space. The concept began the year by purchasing Global Franchise Group for $442.5 million, bringing in Round Table Pizza, Marble Slab Creamery, Great American Cookies, Pretzelmaker, and Hot Dog on a Stick. The company then acquired Twin Peaks for $300 million, Fazoli’s for $130 million, and Native Wings for $20 million.
Overall, FAT Brands spent almost $900 million in less than six months and grew to 17 concepts, 2,300 franchised and company-run locations globally, and systemwide sales of roughly $2.3 billion.
Wiederhorn said the company isn’t done buying restaurants, either, saying “we remain active in evaluating additional accretive acquisition candidates that augment our existing brands.”
“We're considering some presently, but our focus has to be this year on digesting what we already acquired realizing the synergies,” the CEO said.
With recently acquired brands included, FAT Brands same-store sales grew 8.5 percent against 2019 and 21.4 percent year-over-year in the fourth quarter.
Global Franchise Group's same-store sales saw a 10.6 percent increase over 2019 and a 16.1 percent lift over 2020. Twin Peaks experienced 15.8 percent growth compared to 2019 and a 30.4 percent uptick against 2020. Fazoli's comps grew 25.6 percent over two years ago and 15.7 percent year-over-year. And finally, Native Grill & Wings saw a 16.5 percent lift over 2019 and 20.7 percent over 2020.
Franchisees opened 30 new locations in Q4 and 115 in 2021. FAT Brands’ pipeline consists of about 850 restaurants, which are committed and have mostly been paid for in full. Of that pipeline, there's more than 470 units between Fatburger, Johnny Rockets, Buffalo's Express, and Elevation Burger, 157 among the concepts in Global Franchise Group, 144 for Twin Peaks, and 114 for Fazoli's.
The company believes this development will lead to 33 percent unit growth and a 50 percent increase in EBITDA in the next several years.