Rebecca Ingram and Mary Frances Ingram, the owners of Becky's and Mary's Restaurant, have been serving down-home soul food in High Point, North Carolina for more than 40 years, cooking the kind of fried chicken and collard greens that you wish your grandmother had the kitchen skills to make. Unfortunately, for at least 18 months, the sisters were also engaged in serious welfare fraud, stocking the acclaimed restaurant's fridges with food they bought using other people's EBT cards.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, from January 2015 through October 2016, the Ingrams cashed in more than 180 Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards, using them to stock up on food and supplies for Becky's and Mary's. When federal agents raided the restaurant, they found 21 EBT cards and exactly zero of them belonged to either Ingram. To pull off the scam, the women paid the actual EBT recipients "a reduced amount in cash" in exchange for the use of their cards.
"A lot of people come here for their lunch and breakfast," longtime customer Corvin Davis told FOX 8. "I hope they can give them something like community service, no jail time."
That is probably not going to happen. On Wednesday, the Ingrams pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud the U.S. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program during an appearance in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina. Their sentencing has been scheduled for August 22; both women are facing up to $250,000 in fines and up to five years in prison.
"USDA [Office of the Inspector General] is dedicated to working with its federal, state and local partners to investigate schemes that are devised by criminals to defraud our programs and the American taxpayer," Karen Citizen-Wilcox, Special Agent-in-Charge for USDA-OIG, told WXII. "The prosecution of these sisters should serve as a strong message that fraud in USDA programs will not be tolerated."
Before the EBT scam was exposed, Becky's and Mary's was known only as the best place for soul food in central North Carolina, a reputation that was further enhanced by a flattering profile in Our State magazine. It's understated in everything but its serving sizes: the only sign on the entire building is a small printout in the window that says "Becky's & Mary's Soul Food Resturant! [sic] Best food in town! Service with a Smile!!!" The undecorated interior is equally sparse. But the food—served on styrofoam plates, natch—is what keeps its countless regulars coming back.
"Hands down the BEST chicken of my life. (Sorry Colonel Sanders)," a typical Yelp review reads. "But the Banana Pudding, oh my god! God showed up because at the first taste, I seen angels."
Becky's and Mary's was closed on Wednesday when the sisters were in court, but had reopened by the time MUNCHIES called on Friday morning. The Ingrams have been a constant presence at the restaurant since it opened its doors in 1973, and the man who answered the phone would not confirm whether they would continue to work until their sentencing. "I'm not going to answer any more questions," he said. "We're open. We ain't gonna close."