It may have seemed too good to be true – millions of dollars lined up to start expanding Chicken & Waffles restaurants across the Midwest.

And maybe it was, as the million-dollar investor, who recently got out of jail, has a long-running history of questionable business practices. The husband-and-wife owners of Chicago’s Home of Chicken & Waffles – with locations in both Oak Park and Bronzeville – have sued businessman La-Van Hawkins, seeking approximately $21 million. The suit was filed last month.

Hawkins reportedly courted Darnell and Tonya Johnson with grand visions of building 20 new locations in several states in the near future, and he claimed to have millions in the bank to back it up. But things soured when Hawkins asked the Johnsons for their secret recipe to use at another restaurant, in addition to using the company name, as well as printing their signature on his business cards without their knowledge.

The couple is also seeking an injunction to stop Hawkins from opening any soul food restaurants under their banner.

“Your recipes are your pride and joy, so you want to protect them,” Tonya Johnson said told Austin Weekly News. “They’re special to you, and you don’t feel comfortable when someone says casually, ‘Hey, I want your recipe.'”

Hawkins has been a successful restaurateur but with a notably checkered past spanning a decade. And he’s received media attention from the likes of Ebony magazine to the Detroit Free Press.

A high school dropout, one-time gang leader and former coke addict, Hawkins later built a restaurant empire, owning and operating a number of Pizza Hut, Burger King and Checkers franchises. The Chicago native grew up in Cabrini Green on the South side and currently resides in the city.

But his business came crashing down in 2004 when he was indicted, and later convicted, on charges of wire fraud and perjury in Philadelphia, which earned him a 33-month prison sentence. He was among a dozen people snared in a “pay-to-play” case in Philadelphia, according to news reports.

He was convicted again in 2009 while in Detroit, this time for dodging federal taxes. For that, he was forced to pay $5.7 million in restitution and given a 10-month prison sentence, according to Crain’s Detroit Business.

Through a spokesperson, Hawkins declined to comment on the lawsuit.

“He and his partners adamantly deny the allegations, but that would be the extent of what I can say,” said Deidre Malone.

According to his website, lavanhawkins.org, he was sent to prison in 2008 and released in 2010, serving only 18 months of 33-month due to good behavior. His website states that after exiting prison, Hawkins immediately started “rebuilding his empire,” and is planning to launch a “mega-deal that includes 350 fast food restaurants.”

“He’s back in terms of looking at new business opportunities and ready to get back to work,” Malone said. “If you know anything about him, he was and continues to be a successful entrepreneur.”

Meeting the Johnsons

It was during April 2011 that Darnell Johnson bumped into Hawkins at a Chicago restaurant.

Months later, Hawkins phoned Johnson, saying he was interested in partnering to expand their Chicken & Waffles business, according to a lawsuit filed on Nov. 14 in the Circuit Court of Cook County.

Hawkins allegedly showed that he had a $150 million letter of intent, which included $15 million to fund the startup of 15 locations. Those grand plans included opening 25 more spots in the second year, and another 20 per year for the next three years. But the couple grew concerned after Hawkins' request for the family receipt to use at a restaurant in Detroit. Another alarm bell was the use of their chicken-in-a-suit logo on his business cards.

When they started asking Hawkins about the start-up money for locations in Evanston and Homewood, he allegedly refused to pay. The Johnsons also believe Hawkins has, behind their backs, continued to negotiate for prime space on 87th Street. Darnell Johnson adds that several stores and restaurants will be in business near that piece of land, which he doesn't want to lose.

"All the big players are right there, and it's a heavily-influential black area," he said. "It looks like a super-prime location, and this is something that I've been dreaming about since I opened the first location in Bronzeville."

They're asking a judge to award them the $20 million allegedly promised to open the first 20 restaurants, along with $1 million for their tarnished reputation.

The Johnsons – who live in the west suburbs, and opened their Oak Park location last year – said they hoped Hawkins had put his troubled past behind him. But after the bumps in their business relationship, the couple just wants the money and to never see him again.

"We don't want him as a partner; we're not comfortable, we do not trust him, and we don't want any part of anything that might be illegal or fraudulent," Darnell Johnson said. "All we want to do is protect ourselves and move forward where they can't take any of our trade secrets or open any of our style of restaurants."