LAURINBURG — All day on Tuesday, hungry people knocking on the door of Ridge Runners Restaurant were turned away by the building’s owner and restaurant personnel, who say the owner of the restaurant racked up countless unpaid bills, bounced checks and failed to pay his 40-person staff.
Jeff Hurwitz, who owns the building at 1229 S. Main St. that has housed Lady Bug Family Restaurant, Mac’s Breakfast Anytime and most recently Ridge Runners, has filed a complaint with the Laurinburg Police Department against Mike Ward for allegedly writing worthless checks.
Assistant Police Chief Cliff Sessoms said he could not give any details because the case is pending investigation, but did say “there may be some money missing into a business venture they were entering into.”
When reached by phone, Ward denied any wrongdoing.
Ward, who opened Ridge Runners in November, told this newspaper that his goal was to offer high-quality food at a low price, and stay true to the business’ local roots — as he did when operating The Parkton Grill in Parkton, a restaurant he leased for two years in 2012.
But the owner of the building that housed The Parkton Grill, Ray Bullock, and his fiance Cathleen Bryant, who started Parkton Grill LLC in 2012 before turning the operations of the grill over to Ward, say the deal began to go south about six months after Ward took over.
A post on the Facebook page for The Parkton Grill — dated Sept. 18 and signed “Mike and Mikey Ward” — says that “the grill is headed in a new direction.”
“Although I am not at liberty to discuss the circumstances, I was taken by surprise and therefore will not be associated with the grill in its current direction,” the post continues.
Bullock said that he, Bryant and Ward are currently embroiled in a legal battle over the operations of the restaurant, but did not want to comment on specific details.
Ward said that he is not involved in a legal dispute with Bullock, and that Bullock sold him a building he did not legally own and then tried to take the business from him while he was out of the country on vacation.
He also said that Hurwitz’s claims are false and that he “had no idea any of this stuff was coming.”
“That is absolutely untrue,” he said of the worthless check claims, saying that he and Hurwitz had a joint account and Hurwitz wrote all the checks.
Ward said that Hurwitz had told him not to report to work, but that’s all he had heard. He alleged that the owners of restaurants previously housed in that building were “blindsided” in the same manner.
Ward also said that all employees had been paid and directed calls to Barbara Chavis, who handled company payroll, to confirm his claim.
But Chavis said the restaurant’s staff had only been paid through mid-January.
“There’s no money to pay those accounts,” she said. “Yeah, they got paid through the 14th of January, but what are we to do through Feb. 3 when we’ve closed the doors?” she said.
Ward also said he had no knowledge of the complaint filed against him on Tuesday.
It is not the first accusation brought against Ward for writing worthless checks. According to the Hope Mills Police Department, Ward was charged on May 21 with writing a worthless check for an amount that constituted a felony, $2,819.11.
Ward says the charge is the result of his dispute with Bullock, and was unfounded.
According to records at the Cumberland County jail, Ward also faces charges in Hope Mills of driving while license revoked, driving with no registration and possession of pyrotechnics, all misdemeanors.
Arrest records in Burke County show that Ward was charged three times with writing worthless checks when he was a co-owner of a restaurant, also named Ridge Runners, at 2101 Sterling St. in Morganton. On Nov. 13, 2003, Ward was charged with misdemeanor writing worthless checks to Smith Mountain Farms. He faced the same charge on Nov. 28, filed by complainant Rick Cline in Drexel; and again on Nov. 18, filed by IFH in Hickory. According to the North Carolina Department of Corrections, Ward was convicted of writing two worthless checks and attempting to write another on Dec. 31, 2003, and received a suspended sentance and probation.
Online records show that Ridge Runners in Morganton is no longer in operation.
On July 22, 2003, Ward was arrested by the Catawba County Sheriff’s Office for drug charges — felony trafficking by possession and felony trafficking by transport. According to an arrest report, Ward was arrested at the Super 8 motel in Claremont, N.C. with 41.8 grams of cocaine in his possession. The arrest report listed his occupation at that time as the manager of Buffalo Wild Wings in Charlotte. According to the North Carolina Department of Corrections, Ward was convicted of posessing schedule II drugs on Oct. 5, 2005, and was given a suspended sentence and probation time.
Ward denies all charges, saying he was working in Florida in 2003 and it couldn’t have been him that was charged. But based on the records received from law enforcement, which included photos, the Laurinburg Exchange believes that Ward was indeed the one who was charged.
Bullock on Tuesday said he feels that he was taken advantage of.
“I should have done my homework, the same as Jeff,” he said. “If Jeff would have done his homework, he wouldn’t be in this situation. If I had done my homework, I wouldn’t have been in this situation.”
Reviews of Ridge Runners in Laurinburg list the food as being served in large portions but the quality as “mediocre at best.” Reviews laud the staff’s hospitality, but a comment left on Jan. 10 implores Ward to pay his employees.
“… Mike, pay your employees!,” the comment states. “It’s the right thing to do.”
This week would have been Chris Walling’s third at the restaurant, and marked the first paycheck that he would have received. Walling was being groomed to be Ward’s partner in the business, he said, and ran the restaurant when Mike was absent.
Having worked in large restaurant chains, Walling said he was enticed by the prospect of coming on as a partner when Ward told him the Laurinburg location would be first in what he hoped would be a small chain, and wanted Walling’s creative input in the process.
By his second day on the job, Walling said he realized something wasn’t quite right.
“We were going to the grocery store instead of purchasing food from a vendor,” he said.
But Walling stayed on, hoping things would even out.
“It was chaos,” he said. “I enjoyed working here and there were great people who worked here, it was just mismanaged.”
Walling and others were working Tuesday to tally payroll due to Ward’s employees.
“It’s a deep web,” he said.
Harry Patel, who owns Rob’s Convenience at 130 S. Caledonia Road, said several employees had tried to cash their checks there and at Community Mart on Andrew Jackson Highway. The checks never cleared, he said, and the account came back as having “insufficient funds.”
“I said, let me come down here and talk to the owner, because sometimes things happen. I talked to this guy,” he said, gesturing to a computer printout of Ward’s photo, “and he said I would have to talk to Jeff. I come to Jeff and find out Mike’s the owner.”
A sign on the restaurant’s door on Tuesday told potential customers that the kitchen was undergoing remodeling and the doors would reopen in two weeks. Inside, men who once worked as the restaurant’s chefs were working to scrub down kitchen equipment.
Hurwitz said he hopes a new operator will be able to open a business in the building, but that no plans have been made.
Scott Miller, who worked at the restaurant for two months as an assistant manager, said he would like to see the business reopen with a management team who would have long-term success.
“Folks worked very hard there and did a good job and the assumption was that things were taken care of in the back as well,” he said.
“It’s a great place, it really is. Folks like to eat there and it’s a good place to meet.”
Abbi Overfelt can be reached at 910-272-2311, ext. 12. Follow her on Twitter at aoinscotco.