The husband-and-wife owners of Chicago’s Home of Chicken & Waffles have sued a former business partner seeking approximately $21 million.

As reported two weeks ago, the suit was filed against businessman and Chicago native La-Van Hawkins last month.

Hawkins reportedly courted owners 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. Hawkins allegedly showed that he had a $150-million letter of intent, which included $15 million to fund the startup of 15 locations. Those plans included opening 25 more spots in the second year, and another 20 per year for the next three years.

It was in 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. The couple has locations in both Oak Park and Bronzeville.

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. When they started asking Hawkins about the start-up money for locations in Evanston and Homewood, he allegedly refused to pay. The couple is seeking a judgment for the $20 million allegedly promised them, along with $1 million for their tarnished reputation.

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 told Austin Weekly News.

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.

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 crashed 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. Hawkins 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 recent lawsuit, but the spokesperson said Hawkins “adamantly” denies the allegations.

According to his website,, Hawkins served prison from 2008 to 2010, serving only 18 months of 33-month due to good behavior. In addition, upon his release, Hawkins immediately started “rebuilding his empire,” and planned to launch a “mega-deal that includes 350 fast food restaurants,” according to the site.