HORRY COUNTY, S.C. (WBTW) — The owners of Painter’s Homemade Ice Cream are suing their Garden City franchisee over alleged violations of the franchise agreement — including wanting to sell unapproved products, deleting information about the second location from social media, causing confusion among customers and planning to start a competing business, according to court documents.
Haley King, who is the franchisee of the location on Waccamaw Drive in Garden City, is being sued by Ann and Steve Fairchild, who own the brand and operate the location on Highway 17 in Murrells Inlet. The Fairchilds accuse King of violating a franchise agreement signed in 2019.
The lawsuit was filed March 10. Since then, the Painter’s Garden City location has been torn down to make room for parking. News13 has reached out to the Fairchilds’ attorney to learn what that means for the lawsuit moving forward and is awaiting a response.
In a March 25 Facebook post, the Garden City location said it is exploring options for re-location. The post was edited on March 26 to clarify that the owners of that location are separate from those at the Highway 17 location.
King was a long-time employee for Painter’s and has worked at both locations, according to court documents. The Fairchilds operated both locations for about 20 years.
While King was an employee she was asked to create a website for the company and manage social media accounts, according to documents. Those were used for information about both locations.
While employed by the Fairchilds, King approached them and asked to become a franchisee of the Garden City location. In 2019, the two parties agreed on a franchise agreement, according to the documents. As part of the agreement, King agreed that the Fairchilds would keep ownership of the brand and would have full control over the Garden City location’s product, design and general operations.
In February 2019, the Fairchilds and King agreed to a contract and King paid $260,000 for the rights to the brand’s assets at the Garden City location, according to documents.
As part of the agreement, King is only allowed to sell products approved by the Fairchilds and must buy all ice cream products from them, according to documents. The lawsuit states that King followed the agreement and only purchased product from the Fairchilds until last summer.
The Fairchilds also accuse King of not allowing them in the building, which is another condition of the franchise agreement.
During the off-season after summer 2021, King is accused of acting “in ways that indicated [King] intended not to comply with the terms of the Franchise Agreement moving forward,” according to the lawsuit.
King is accused of telling the Fairchilds she intended to make her own ice cream to sell at the location and would prepare and store the ice cream at Stella’s Homemade Ice Cream — a competing business the Fairchilds said King intends to open. According to documents, that location is expected to open along Highway 17 in Murrells Inlet, not far from Painter’s.
The Stella’s Homemade Ice Cream website says “Coming Spring 2022.”
King also allegedly removed all references of the Highway 17 location from the brand’s website and social media accounts to “make it appear Painter’s Garden City Pier is now the only existing location of Painter’s Homemade Ice Cream,” according to documents.
The Fairchilds accuse King of making misleading posts on the brand’s social media accounts, causing confusion among customers on whether or not the business was open. King has since refused to turn over the login and password information to the Fairchilds, according to documents.
The Fairchilds claim they had to create new social media accounts “to attempt to mitigate the situation,” but said as soon as they’d post something, King would post something contradictory on the other page, according to the lawsuit.
On Feb. 21, Painter’s posted on its new Facebook page that it was open for the 2022 season. Two days later, King allegedly posted on the original Facebook page that Painter’s Homemade Ice Cream was still closed for the season, but later clarified in a reply to a comment that the Garden City location was closed, according to documents.
One person commented “Hwy 17 is open, right? So confusing…” on the post, according to documents.
On March 1, the Fairchilds posted on its new Facebook page that Painter’s Highway 17 location was open for business, and two minutes later, King posted on the original account that it would not open until April 2022, according to documents.
A user commented on King’s post: “So I’m confused. One post says you’re closed in Garden City then another says you’re open in Garden City. Could you clarify?” No one has responded to that comment, according to documents.
The Fairchilds claim King is causing confusion and harming the brand’s reputation, offering up several emails they’ve received as evidence.
In one email, a customer pointed out that the information for the Highway 17 location had been removed from the website. The email noted that website said the business was no longer offering cakes.
“Now, we are reasonably sure these postings are not valid,” the email reads. “We’ve been making these purchases from you and your wife for the last five (5) years we’ve lived in Murrells Inlet.”
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According to the lawsuit, King used photos of Painter’s products on her own website for Stella’s Homemade Ice Cream and made a similarly-designed website.
King’s actions “created a significant amount of confusion with [Painter’s] customers and/or potential customers and…have caused [Painter’s] to lose business at its Painter’s Highway 17 location,” according to the lawsuit.
The Fairchilds are seeking an injunction that would force King to comply with all of the terms of the franchise agreement, immediately turn over access to the social media accounts and website, ban King from using said accounts and also ban King from using photos of Painter’s products to promote another business.
“Every day that Defendants are allowed to continue in the aforementioned actions and violations of the Franchise Agreement, Plaintiff will continue to lose customers and be denied potential customers, resulting in a significant obstruction to Plaintiff’s ability to conduct business,” the lawsuit reads.
The lawsuit states that none of the requested injunctions would stop King from doing business, but would “preserve the status quo under the parties’ contracts while this case is pending.”
As of Wednesday afternoon, an official response from King has not been filed in court. No attorney is listed for King in court documents.