The donuts in the details

frying_doughnutsThe Chicago Tribune‘s coverage of what appears to be a minor news story about a contract dispute between a national franchise (Dunkin’ Donuts) and a local franchisee deserves a mention of praise for its accuracy and relative depth on the tricky religious and legal angles. For starters, the reporter portrays the article’s primary subject precisely and in a way that conveys the information readers need to know:

An Arab-American owner of a Chicago-area Dunkin’ Donuts store has to give up his franchise after he lost his long-running legal battle with the restaurant chain over his religious objections to selling pork products.

A lawyer for Walid Elkhatib said Tuesday that his client is in the process of removing Dunkin’ Donuts signs from his Westchester outlet, but apparently not fast enough for the company.

Combined with the article’s lede, the headline use of the term “Muslim owner,” works well with the description of Elkhatib because there are Arabs who are not Muslim and Muslims who are not Arab. And people who are not Muslim and people who are not Arab object to the consumption of pork products as we shall see later on in the article.

The article accurately reports the legal angle regarding the difference between an employee and a franchisee, but also gets into the precise nature of Elkhatib’s dispute with Dunkin’ Donuts and the religious issues that are at the heart of it all:

The company’s lawsuit came two weeks after a federal jury found that the chain did not discriminate against Elkhatib for refusing to renew his franchise agreement because he declined to sell breakfast sandwiches with bacon, ham or sausage.

The dietary restrictions of Elkhatib’s Muslim faith forbid him from eating or handling pork. When he decided to go into the restaurant business, his faith was one of the reasons why he invested in Dunkin’ Donuts in 1979. The chain did not introduce breakfast sandwiches until 1984.

The religious issues are more of the sidebar in this case, which is probably OK because the restriction is not all that complicated. The article does note Elkhatib’s claim was rejected earlier in the process because the judge determined that it was a religious discrimination claim, rather than a racial discrimination claim. For these reasons it’s important for journalists to be precise in their use of language: whether or not Elkhatib’s objection were based on his faith or his race could determine whether or not his lawsuit was successful and journalists should never take sides in news articles.

While brevity is important these days, it would be good to know exactly why that was significant to the trial court in rejecting the claim. It may not seem that significant, because two years later, an appeals court reversed the decision and set the case for trial because of inconsistencies in the doughnut chain’s practices on this issue of pork-filled breakfast sandwiches (which Elkhatib lost on March 13, 2009), but it’d be good to inform readers of the reasoning. The inconsistent practices were the fact that Elkhatib’s lawyers found another Chicago-area franchise permitted by the chain to refuse to sell the sandwiches because of the store’s Jewish customer base.

The only other aspect missing from the article is a bit of the history and theology behind the beliefs against consuming products with pork. Do all Arab Muslims object to handling products with pork, or are there some that believe the restriction just relates to their own personal consumption? I also wonder whether this is becoming a more significant issue nationwide from a legal perspective. Determining that would require some legal research as opposed to religious research, but that would be an interesting perspective to have.

Image of doughnuts being deep fried used under a Wikimedia Commons license.

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  • C. Wingate

    Interestingly, there are a number of glatt kosher Subway shops.

  • Dale


    This article is a good example of the challenges of covering legal issues as well as religion. You’re right about the competing values of brevity and clarity.

    it would be good to know exactly why that was significant to the trial court in rejecting the claim.

    At least the story could have referred to appellate case, to enable readers to do their own research, if they were so inclined. Even better are the web-based stories that link to a pdf of the appellate decision.

    I haven’t read the case, but experience tells me that the trial judge probably dismissed the case on a motion for summary disposition– in lay terms, a motion by the defendant to dismiss the lawsuit because it fails to state sufficient facts or law to make a claim. The trial judge couldn’t decide whether discrimination occurred–that’s an issue of fact for the jury– only that the plaintiff hadn’t presented enough evidence to create an issue of fact for the jury to decide, and/or failed to state any law under which he was entitled to damages.

    After interpreting the evidence in favor of the plaintiff (that is, assuming that any disputed facts were resolved in favor of the plaintiff), the trial judge determined that, assuming Dunkin’ Donuts discriminated against the plaintiff, the facts presented by the plaintiff involved religious discrimination rather than racial discrimination. That’s a fairly easy call. Race is legally defined as an immutable characteristic, so dietary observances don’t qualify. There’s nothing immutably Arabic that requires a person to avoid non-halal foods. Once the trial judge made that determination, the plaintiff’s claim had no legal foundation–there was no federal law protecting him as a franchisee from religious discrimination by a private business.

    I can also take a good guess as to the substance of the appellate court decision. If the plaintiff could present evidence that Dunkin’ Donuts inconsistently enforced its franchise rights, plaintiff could then raise an issue of fact–that the franchise rights were enforced more rigorously against him because he was an Arab. This means that there was an issue of fact on which a jury could find that Dunkin’ Donuts engaged in racial discrimination, and plaintiff was entitled to a jury trial.

    The jury probably found that Dunkin’ Donuts inconsistent treatment of franchisees was not motivated by racial discrimination, so the plaintiff wasn’t entitled to damages.

    I can figure all this out (and I imagine you can too) because I’m an attorney; but for a lay audience, this article is too sketchy to be understood. I think delving into the issue of Islamic dietary observances would do more harm than good. A lay reader would be too easily led into believing that the plaintiff claimed religious discrimination. He couldn’t and didn’t– he could only make a claim for racial discrimination.

    I’d also disagree with you about the headline. The heart of the story is that the plaintiff couldn’t bring a claim as a Muslim for religious discrimination; he could only bring a claim as an Arab for racial discrimination. The headline starts the reader off in the wrong direction.

  • dpulliam

    Thanks Dale for your informed commentary. I had similar guesses, but as only a 2L, I didn’t want to venture too off into an area in which I have little experience.

    I initially objected to the headline, and you’re right that it leads the writer in the wrong objection, but that’s a fact that needs to be there somewhere so I didn’t complain. But I can see how putting that fact in the headline would be misleading. I also imagine that the headline was copy editor-written.

  • dalea

    What I find puzzling in the story is just why Dunkin Doughnuts does not have alternative products for specialized markets. It is fairly common for national chains to tailor offerings to regional, local and niche markets. Why they don’t have a Muslim oriented set of products is strange. Offering the breakfast sandwiches with lamb or soy would be one way, plus the soy would appeal to vegetarians. It seems strange Elkhatib had to go into court to get their attention. But glad that the owner of a small business got to keep it and do things his way.

  • Tyson K

    I would imagine that Dunkin’ Donuts hasn’t yet had a need for “Muslim oriented” products because they haven’t yet tapped into a market where Muslims are a significant enough customer base. Perhaps this case will cause them to reconsider that need, especially in light of the fact that they clearly have stores oriented to Jewish dietary preferences. It surprises me that they forced Mr. Elkhatib to leave the franchise rather than benefit from what is presumably his Muslim customer basis. I’d be interested in hearing if there’s any action like that in the future.

  • Dale

    dalea wrote:

    What I find puzzling in the story is just why Dunkin Doughnuts does not have alternative products for specialized markets.

    I’m sure they do. After all, they do business in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, etc.. What concerns DD, obviously, is how best to make a profit. For example, DD’s pricing strategy in the U.S. may place a disproportional weight on the breakfast sandwiches. An American franchisee who refuses to sell them may defeat the strategy and reduce DD’s income from that store.

    In Saudi Arabia, DD will have a different strategy, one that doesn’t involve pork products; but that strategy won’t apply to one Muslim franchisee in a predominantly non-Muslim American neighborhood.

  • Mollie

    Mmmmm. Donuts.

  • Dale

    Mollie wrote:

    Mmmmm. Donuts.

    Or as they say in Arabic:

    ? ? ? ? ?????

  • deb in MA

    LOL, Mollie!

    Thanks for your comments, Dale. I had wondered if there was a back story to this because the whole lawsuit thing didn’t seem to make much sense. I thouht there might be other unreported issues with the franchise.

  • Franklin Jennings

    An important point, much more important than any religious question: Dunkin Donuts doesn’t fry their doughnuts, which is a chief reason their donuts suck.

    God eats Krispy Kreme glazed!!!