LAURINBURG — A veteran of the food service industry who most recently spent two years developing a family restaurant in a one-blinking-light town has brought to Laurinburg his philosophy of keeping food fresh, people local and prices low.
With Ridge Runners, previously the Ladybug Restaurant and Mac’s Breakfast Anytime, Mike Ward hopes to test himself on a scale larger than the Parkton Grill’s 20 seats and its menu of pizza, hamburgers and chicken sandwiches — and he says he’s here to stay.
“I think everybody hopes that we’ll make it, but with two failed operators here before, and I’m the third, they’re just wondering how long it will be before I go,” he said. “But I don’t quit. It’s just a matter of weathering the storm.”
Ward grew Parkton’s only restaurant into a hub for truckers and early-morning travelers, and a boon for those in the 400-person town who never before were able to order food and have it arrive on their doorstep. In Laurinburg, he is taking a more upscale approach, but it’s more of what the restaurateur is used to — he was trained under a chef before spending several years in corporate restaurant management.
As he did in Parkton, Ward hired local people for his staff, keeping as many employees of the restaurant the building previously housed as possible. One new addition is his son, 18-year-old Mike Ward Jr., whom he addresses as “Mr.Ward” when issuing directions through the kitchen’s window.
Ward also kept part of the restaurant’s menu — the steak. Ridge Runners serves sirloin, ribeye, filet mignon and prime rib as well as fried Southern staples all at a price he calls “blue collar.”
“This place has been a steakhouse for a long time, so it just makes sense to do that,” he said.”… We’re going to give you a really good product, at a really good price, and that’s whats going to drive business. If I can eat a steak and save $5 but get the service I’d expect at a restaurant that charges $30 per plate, then that’s whats going to keep me coming back.”
The Laurinburg location is the first in a three-prong plan which will also land Ward with similar restaurants in Belmont and in Gaffney, S.C., all of which will bear the same name, one borrowed with permission from a fellow chef and former co-worker. The Belmont location will be featured on The Food Network in a show called “Restaurant Wanted,” something he hopes will propel his business to a new level.
“Execution of food at every different level to me, honestly, is more about looking at piloting a concept,” he said. “Parkton was a good concept and it worked very well for me and it still works very well for me, but it was a one-man show. This is a place I can streamline, I can industrialize and I can change the menu based on the local demographic.”
In the meantime, Ward is keeping with his traditions, including hanging photos of a Laurinburg of days long past on the restaurant’s formerly bare walls, paying homage to the city as he did in the town of Parkton. But deep down, he knows its all about the grub.
“I’m a foodie,” he said. “I just love food.”