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.”