It should have been a foodie’s dream come true: two new restaurants in the heart of Old Town Bluffton, opened by two of the area’s most celebrated restauranteurs.
Instead, the restaurants, located beside the Old Town Dispensary, sit unfinished and the construction loans have been spent. In a lawsuit, two of the biggest names in the local restaurant scene swap accusations about what happened to the nearly $1 million meant for The Depot and Raw Bar.
On one side of the suit: Matt Jording, owner of the popular Hilton Head Island steak and seafood eatery, The Sage Room, and his wife, Carol Jording. On the other side: Thomas Viljac, a well-known Bluffton developer and founder of The Old Town Dispensary in Old Town.
The trio — fresh off their success of turning Old Town Dispensary into one of Bluffton’s most popular watering holes — originally planned to open two neighboring restaurants in 2016.
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But the deal went sour. In a 2016 lawsuit, the Jordings accused Viljac of paying himself with money meant for construction of the eateries. Court documents later say Viljac spent money on movie tickets, meals, mortgage payments and a haircut. The Jordings also accuse Viljac of allowing creditors to rack up thousands of dollars in free food and drinks at the Old Town Dispensary as a means of payment.
In response, Viljac, a former member of Bluffton’s Planning Commission and and developer of Old Town’s Carson Cottages, claims any financial problems with the company were caused by the Jordings, specifically with the cost of buying food, which he says increased “dramatically.” The construction delays, he says, were caused by Jording frequently asking for changes to the plans.
Now, between $300,000 and $770,000 is needed to ready the structures for business, according to court documents. A stop-work order, put in place in December 2016 by Bluffton town officials remains in effect because construction strayed too far from the approved plans.
In September, Beaufort County Judge Marvin Dukes ordered Viljac to pay the Jordings nearly $200,000 for their unpaid wages and business distributions plus the couple’s attorney fees and other expenses.
But Viljac’s attorney, Marshall Horton, said both parties are trying to settle the matter on their own.
“Even though we did get a final order (from a judge), it does look like these two gentlemen are going to come to terms that will work for both of them and get the business where it needs to be,” Horton said, adding he could not share details of that settlement because it is not finalized.
A ‘business divorce’
Viljac owned the Old Town Dispensary, created the Carson Cottages in Old Town Bluffton and spent four years on Bluffton’s Planning Commission and other town committees.
He approached the Jordings in 2012 about helping with the Old Town Dispensary’s operations, according to court documents.
Jording, the entrepreneur behind Hilton Head Island’s popular restaurant, the Sage Room, created a full lunch and dinner menu along with other improvements in 2013, according to the lawsuit, while his wife kept the restaurant’s books. And The Old Town Dispensary quickly became a profitable, popular spot.
Viljac and Matt Jording decided to acquire more land and expand their purview in March 2015, the lawsuit says. The Dispensary, LLC, bought adjacent property and took out $990,000 in loans to launch two new restaurants — The Depot and Raw Bar.
The new restaurants would be connected to the Old Town Dispensary by decks, Matt Jording told The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette in 2015. The raw bar would serve “new age, modern food,” and The Depot would serve food similar to that of The Sage Room.
The restaurants, originally slated for completion in February 2016, were anticipated by the Jordings to have a monthly gross revenue between $200,000 and $250,000 per month.
When contacted last week, Carol Jording said she and her husband could not comment on the case or when the restaurants might open, as instructed by their attorney. Their attorney did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The last post by The Depot - Restaurant & Raw Bar’s Facebook page in April 2016 says the restaurants are “not far off” and they are “completing final stages.” Two commenters asked when they will open, but got no response.
More than six months later, the lawsuit was filed, in which the Jordings asked for Viljac to be dissociated from The Dispensary, LLC — or, for what one court document calls a “business divorce.”
The Jordings claimed they owned 80 percent of the company, while Viljac only owned 20 percent. Viljac, however, claimed the distribution was split 50-50.
Costs stacking up
Soon after joining The Dispensary, LLC, things apparently began to fall apart.
The Jordings found themselves and the Sage Room named as defendants in a lawsuit brought by a former construction partner of Viljac’s, seeking damages for labor, wages, services and materials supplied for the construction of the Old Town Dispensary. After two years of litigation, the Jordings settled and spent $25,265 defending themselves, court documents say.
But the costs didn’t stop there, the Jordings claim.
Viljac used house accounts at the Old Town Dispensary to pay those he owed in his personal life without discussing it with them, the couple allege in court documents. For example, Viljac paid a law firm with an open tab at the restaurant that was used multiple times a day and racked up $42,615. Another such account totaled $6,687, according to the suit.
In court documents, Viljac said the Jordings were aware of The Dispensary’s liabilities and denied their other claims.
Judge Dukes sided with the Jordings, ordering Viljac to pay back a portion of the house accounts.
Viljac made claims of his own, alleging the Jordings were enriching themselves and The Sage Room through a “scheme” that involved manipulating food procurement and staff salaries, both of which increased “dramatically” after the Jordings took over, he claims. The Jordings denied this, and Judge Dukes dismissed the claims in his final order.
The Jordings say they stopped paying themselves to increase cash flow to The Dispensary, LLC.
Meanwhile, Viljac was in charge of the new restaurants’ construction, but was not to be paid for the work — a condition of the loans, according to the Jordings. Yet they claim Viljac paid himself and his construction company for the project, according to court documents. Viljac claims they were aware of the construction fee he was charging, and he did not violate the terms of the loans.
Judge Dukes’ final order say it only later became apparent Viljac could not be paid, and until that point, he paid himself from loan proceeds totaling $54,201.95. With some of those funds, Viljac paid for personal mortgage payments, meals, movies and a haircut.
Records for the construction were spotty, incomplete and sometimes appeared to be reconstructed after the fact, court documents say. By November 2016, all construction loans were drained and the project left incomplete.
And what was complete didn’t conform to building plans and in some cases building codes.
“ADA handicap access requirements have not been met, and numerous other changes or completion to mechanical components, electrical, plumbing, parking and floor plans will need to be made before a certificate of occupancy will be issued by the Town of Bluffton,” the suit said.
According to Heather Colin, Bluffton’s director of growth management, no work has been done to The Depot and Raw Bar since the stop-work order was issued.
“They got so far out from the approved plan we said, ‘OK, you need to get the plans revised or make physical corrections,’” Colin said. “There was no action, so we had to put a stop-work order.”
Two experts testified during the trial as to how much it would cost to finish The Depot and Raw Bar. One estimated more than $767,000 if the original plans were adhered to, while the other said only $300,000 if the plans approved by the town were modified.
Horton, Viljac’s attorney, said once litigation is over, the plan is to finish construction as soon as possible.
“Unfortunately, when you have a business dispute it really takes precedence over everything,” Horton said. “If this could be resolved and finalized, I would say fairly quickly someone could get a timeline or a proposed timeline (for The Depot and Raw Bar opening).”
Judge Dukes — who said he could not comment on pending litigation — sided with the Jordings in his final order, dismissed Viljac’s claims and dissociated Viljac from The Dispensary. He found Viljac only owned 20 percent of the company, and ordered him to pay back the Jordings based on that amount. He also ordered Viljac not to enter any Dispensary properties or to contact any staff.
Despite the allegations in the litigation, Horton said Viljac and the Jordings, while fighting in court, aren’t “hostile” on a “personal level.”
“These cases are tough,” he said. “Both my client and the other client’s primary concern is just how to get this business open and running.”