Brody Sweeney, the Irish entrepreneur who turned O'Briens sandwich bars into a global franchise

"It's like a lobster pot – very easy to get into, but hard to get out of". That's how solicitor Bill Holohan described the food outlet franchise model.

His description is proving true for many of those involved with the O'Briens Sandwich Bar franchise, which went into liquidation in the middle of last week.

Holohan represented several franchisees in court in recent years, and he has also been involved with the Irish Franchise Association for over 20 years.

Now the liquidator to O'Briens hopes to sell the business as a going concern, but will there be a buyer?

On the face of it, it's a bargain – €3m was the asking price before the liquidation order. Between €15m and €20m was the estimated value in better times.

"The value of it diminishes by the day," said kebab mogul Graeme Beere of Abrakebabra Investments (AI), which had been poised to buy the business if it could get the right terms. "We still want to buy, but not at previous levels," he said.

"Franchisees are having a punt at buying it themselves, and fair play to them," said Beere, referring to the group of 30 or so who are considering such a move. "I can respect that."

What deterred AI from buying O'Briens out of examinership last week was the High Court's rejection of the company's petition to repudiate the head leases it holds on outlets.

The liquidator Paul McCann of Grant Thornton and Beere both blame the head leases liability for dragging the company down. There are 16 vacant outlets that went out of business and some franchisees from the 40 or so other stores where O'Briens holds head leases which stopped paying rent and royalty fees months ago.

"The company did nothing wrong," said McCann, "except get stuck with the burden of head leases with long lease periods."

But were there other reasons for O'Briens to fail and the empire established by Brody Sweeney to come crashing down?

Some O'Briens franchisees speculate that money ploughed into getting the UK business up and running left the Irish business badly exposed when the recession hit. In Ireland, business fell back by as much as 40% for some franchises.

The head lease model is actually a common one for this type of franchise business – it's the one that applies to Abrakebabra itself for example.

"We do have head leases but I own the fitouts," said Beere. (O'Briens franchisees pay their own fit-out costs to the tune of aproximately €200,000)."

"We have good relationships with our franchisees and we want to see them survive. We've let some franchisees out where there have been problems and run the outlets ourselves. Our plan is to help and support them."

Beere said he agrees with McCann that the O'Briens brand is a valuable asset. "It's a very strong brand and I've admired it for years."

That former Celtic Tiger brand icon can roar again in McCann's view. "I think the brand itself will be bought. Good brands get bought and stay alive and O'Briens is a very good brand."

So what happens now? "Someone like me is its best chance of survival," Beere said, setting out his stall.

But the bulk of franchisees are so far having none of it. "We're not prepared to deal with any buyer found by the liquidator. We want to be free of the franchises," said Kathleen Ryan who has two stores in Ennis, Co Clare and ran one in Limerick for a decade until recently.

"We want the freedom to have our own businesses and be free of the franchise. There are 30 of us representing 80% of the outlets," she claimed.

O'Briens had been trying for months to have franchisees take over the head leases on their outlets, but the franchisees have been markedly resistant to the prospect of committing themselves to a 10- or 15-year lease obligation during the most catastrophic property market in the history of the state.

Even if the franchisees had played ball, some landlords didn't want this repudiation of the leases to happen either, because it wouldn't be a clean repudiation that would see the premises come back to them. Instead, what was being sought was the transfer of leases to each individual franchisee.

The sandwich empire franchisees paid royalty fees of up to 9% of turnover, or €90 in every €1,000 of turnover to the O'Brien's group, regardless of whether they are making a profit. Some also paid 12% of turnover in rent on top of the basic sublet rental.

"If you're paying 9% of your turnover on €10,000 you're losing money," said Holohan.

"It was a premium quality product and people were willing to pay a premium price for it," he continued. "Slowly but surely revenues diminished as discretionary spend reduced and costs increased. It's a common woe of franchisees."

It's been an epic drama over the past year, and an unpleasant one at times as franchisee/franchisor relations deteriorated. At the start of the summer there were attempts by the company to re-enter some premises – a move provided for in sublease contracts when there were rent arrears – and some franchisees even took to sleeping in their stores to fend off any night-time swoop by head office.

At present the O'Briens outlets are trading as usual and McCann has permission to keep the business trading for a week, which can be extended.

Some well-known Irish company names have come back from near death experiences lately, including Buy and Sell, the Spice Burger inventor firm Walsh Family Foods, Cappoquin Chickens and several league of Ireland football clubs.

No one in this line of business is having an easy time of it. "It's a matter of if you can survive for the duration of the recession, whether that's six more months or 12 months," said Beere, who has weathered three recessions.

He sees things improving by summer of next year. "I would advise hanging on to the brand. Whatever chance you have of surviving it is by hanging on to it."

O'Briens has about €3m of debts, mostly to Bank of Ireland. Landlords are also owed large sums.

Meanwhile, on the more upscale dining end of the food retail trade there's suffering too. "After a fairly decent summer our business has come to a standstill," said Derry Clarke of top Dublin restaurant L'Ecrivain.