Supermarket ingredients, bounced checks: Employees describe issues at MB Wahlburgers

Mandy Locklear said she nearly lost her car and is currently weeks behind in her rent.

And now she has no immediate income in sight.

The Myrtle Beach resident is one of several employees who say they struggled while having multiple paychecks from Wahlburgers at Broadway at the Beach bounce in the months leading up to a temporary closure that began Jan. 6.

“This is really tough,” Locklear said. “Just thinking about the stress and stuff it’s put me under — it breaks my heart.”

Wahlburgers corporate announced Jan. 6 that the Broadway at the Beach location was closing for the offseason “while it refreshes for the spring.”

However, employees have painted a more dire picture that includes allegations of months of bounced checks and a narrative of a restaurant that was using grocery store-bought ingredients while it couldn’t afford to get its usual food trucks.

Wahlburgers corporate told The Sun News via email it “worked in tandem with the independent operator … and made the decision” to close for the offseason.

“It’s our intention to re-open this location in 2019 after a refresh and under new management, though those details have not yet been finalized,” the statement read. “It’s imperative that our independent franchise operators adhere to our company’s core brand values and standards.”

Corporate did not respond to a follow-up question regarding whether opening “under new management” meant franchisee Greg Pranzo had given up control of the restaurant. Pranzo said Friday that he could not comment on the nature of his status as a franchisee.

Pranzo did say he recently learned of some bounced checks and that they have been “taken care of,” but he said he was unaware as to when the failed transactions took place. He said final payroll was processed Friday and that everyone will be fully compensated by the end of the day Monday at the latest.

“Anyone ever owed money or anything like that, no matter at what point, is always compensated, no matter what the case may be,” he said.

Burroughs & Chapin, which owns Broadway at the Beach, declined to comment when reached through its public relations firm.

Wahlburgers at Broadway at the Beach in Myrtle Beach, SC. Josh Bell jbell@thesunnews.com

Claims of bounced checks

A handful of employees, including a former supervisor, said that paychecks began bouncing in September and the situation progressively worsened.

Raleigh McMillian, an 18-year-old bus boy and senior at Socastee High, said that managers were making up for bounced checks by paying him out of the register. Toward the end, as business slowed, there wasn’t enough money to cover checks that way, he said.

“Everybody’s a little disturbed by it. I mean, they feel the person to blame isn’t the manager that we have there, because the managers, they’re doing as much as they can to keep the place running like it’s supposed to,” McMillian said hours before the closure announcement. “The way everybody there sees it is that it’s coming from the top down, where it’s mismanagement up there instead of in the actual store.”

Locklear moved to South Carolina from North Carolina in August and began working at Wahlburgers. She said prior to running into problems there, she’d never had a paycheck bounce nor had she ever been late on any bills. With paycheck after paycheck bouncing, she said, she quickly fell into a deep hole.

“They closed my checking account,” Locklear said. “They were on the verge of repossessing my car, and finally one of the managers was able to give me some money where I could put it towards my car so they wouldn’t come and get it. They were a day away from coming. I literally had to come to the bank and beg them to not take my car.

“I’m still trying to figure out how in the world I can catch my rent up.”

Logan Hewell was serving as a supervisor — a position in the restaurant that is one rung below a manager — at the time checks were said to have begun bouncing. Many of the employees were directing questions toward him and he didn’t know what to tell them, he said.

“It would be two or three employees a week; it was nothing that couldn’t really get handled,” he said of the beginning of the problems. “Then it just progressively got worse and worse and I was getting phone calls constantly from some of the kids’ parents yelling at me about paychecks. And there was nothing I could do about it; I was just the supervisor.”

Fielding questions from employees made for uncomfortable situations, Hewell said.

“It was very stressful. It’s not something I’d want to go through again,” he said. “I was straightforward with them. I told them, you know, I don’t really know. I can’t give you an answer for it until I get answers for it myself.

“I felt like I wasn’t told much. I was just left with a bunch of pissed-off employees.”

Hewell said that during the final week of October he fell victim to a bounced check. He said he told leadership at the store that if the issue wasn’t corrected and he got another bounced check that he’d be putting in his two-weeks notice.

Hewell’s last day was Nov. 9, he said, and he now works as a host at nearby Hard Rock Cafe.

Vikki McMillian, Raleigh McMillian’s mother, was one of the concerned parents and contacted The Sun News last weekend, looking for help.

“When he came home from work last night and said those things, I was like ‘This is ridiculous.’ He said, ‘Well, mom, they just don’t have any money.’ I said ‘Well, somebody’s got some somewhere,’” she said. “Have you been busy? Yes. OK, somebody’s got money somewhere.”

Toward the end of Hewell’s run at the restaurant, employees stopped showing up because they weren’t getting paid, leaving him and others to pick up the pieces, he said.

Locklear was one of those who kept coming in, saying she was holding out hope as managers reiterated that the situation would improve, she said.

“It was hard because some of my co-workers wouldn’t even show up for work. There was a couple of times we couldn’t even have night service because nobody would work,” she said. “I don’t blame them for it, but at the same time I kinda felt obligated because it was my job and I was believing what the managers said.”

Wahlburgers 01
Wahlburgers at Broadway at the Beach in Myrtle Beach, S.C. Josh Bell jbell@thesunnews.com

What’s on the menu?

Employees told The Sun News that in recent months when food trucks weren’t showing up, the restaurant began serving some food that came from local grocery stores. They also said sanitary items were running out fast.

There were tweets from customers during December that referred to a “limited menu” and being served “a backyard BBQ bun.”

“There was a couple times before I left that we weren’t getting a food truck,” Hewell said. “So, if we ran out of something, we wouldn’t get it for two or three weeks.”

Locklear said the restaurant wasn’t offering the popular, plant-based Impossible Burger “for a long time” and ran out of other items, such as sweet potato tots, onions and other items.

“Sometimes we had like burgers that we patted out because they bought the hamburger meat from the grocery store,” she said.

Then there were the cleaning supplies, Locklear said.

“We were like on the verge of closing,” she said. “We had no aprons for like four or five days. We were using rags that we had to soak in bleach water because they didn’t have the money to get the people to come back out there to bring us rags and aprons.

“… At some point in time we didn’t have gloves. It was just crazy. We didn’t have grill cleaner to clean the grills. They were pretty much throwing ice on the grills to try to shock it to get some of the stuff to come off it. We didn’t even have clean rags. We literally had to soak our rags overnight. Last month we started running out of everything and nobody would buy anything else.”

Pranzo’s other Wahlburgers location in Raleigh, North Carolina, was shut down in December by the Wake County Department of Environmental Services because of multiple failed health inspections after just seven months of being open.

Department of Health and Environmental Control records show the Myrtle Beach location with all “A” grades since opening in October 2016. Its last listed inspection came in late October.

What’s next?

Corporate on Friday reiterated plans to move forward with its reopening in the spring and Pranzo said it was his belief that the employees would all be retained.

However, neither of the current employees who spoke to The Sun News were committal about whether they’d return.

Soon after the closure, McMillian said his manager notified him that a check was at the restaurant there waiting for him, and he said he’s no longer owed any money by the company. Locklear, meanwhile, said she’s still waiting to see if other checks will clear.

“Let’s put it this way: No one is owed money,” Pranzo said Friday.

Locklear said a manager from nearby Dave & Buster’s recently came into Wahlburgers and encouraged employees who would be out of work to apply. She got the job, she said.

Nonetheless, she said the turmoil at Wahlburgers has set her life back. She said she and others are contemplating legal counsel.

“I feel like this really: The damage is done. My credit’s ruined, my checking account is closed [and] now I’ve got to come up with almost $2,500 because I can’t even make payments on my loan payment that they closed because my paychecks kept coming back,” Locklear said. “So how was I supposed to pay when my paychecks kept bouncing and I was depositing them in my bank?”

Some of the employees and those responding to the initial closing story on social media have questioned whether the restaurant is done for good or if it will reopen in the spring as corporate has insisted.

McMillian said he was still deciding whether he would return as an employee of the burger and restaurant chain backed by celebrity brothers Mark and Donnie Wahlburg, while Locklear said she’s likely flipped her last burger for Wahlburgers.

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David Wetzel serves in both editor and reporter roles for The Sun News. An award-winning journalist, he has reported on all types of news, sports and features stories in over a decade as a member of the staff. Wetzel has won awards for sports column, feature and headline writing.