La-Van Hawkins Biography - Rose from the Projects, Promoted Minority Employment, Bucked Burger King Tradition, Building a New Restaurant Empire
Few people have risen so far—or fallen so fast—as businessman and restaurant owner La-Van Hawkins. In 2003, Hawkins was on top of the world: born in the ghettos of Chicago, he had become the owner of more than 100 Pizza Hut franchises in Michigan and the owner-operator of one of Detroit's swankiest new eateries, Sweet Georgia Brown, and the sales of his company made his the twelfth largest black-owned business in the United States; he owned several homes, including a lavish mansion outside Atlanta, and was recognized throughout Detroit when he drove around in his convertible Bentley; and he was courted by local and national politicians. In an adoring profile published in Ebony magazine in April of 2003, Hawkins crowed about his success, proclaiming "I'm proof that you can do anything. I've succeeded against all odds because I refused to be denied."
Barely one year later, Hawkins (along with ten others) was announced as the target of a federal investigation into charges of corruption in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Hawkins was charged with funneling bribes to the city treasurer in exchange for supporting Hawkins' business ventures in that city, and with lying to the federal grand jury investigating the case. In May of 2005, Hawkins was convicted on two of the less serious charges, and in October of the same year he was sentenced to serve 33 months in prison and to pay a $25,000 fine. The ongoing case against Hawkins damaged his business interests and revealed that the fast-food mogul had earned many enemies over the years. Former business associates and creditors piled on, suing Hawkins for past damages and overdue payments. His flamboyant lifestyle had apparently been built on credit, and now his creditors wanted their money. According a statement to the Detroit Free Press, Hawkins planned to appeal his sentence and to recover from his setbacks, saying "At the end of the day, we will be victorious."
Rose from the Projects
La-Van Hawkins was born in 1960 and raised in Chicago's Cabrini-Green housing project, known for its poverty, crime, and drug problems. His childhood consisted, among other things, in running with a gang and suffering through a $2000-a-day drug addiction. He told Ebony that his father was a failure at providing for his family, but that he had "street smarts and a street knowledge" that his son inherited. When Hawkins was in the tenth grade, his father died and he was forced to drop out of the private high school he attended to care for his sickly mother. It was at this time that he began working full-time at one of the two McDonalds that his uncle owned. He started out scrubbing toilets, but within a very short amount of time he had become general manager of the busy Water Tower unit in downtown Chicago. By the time Hawkins left McDonalds, he had risen to the position of director of operations. Hawkins left McDonalds in the late 1970s to join the Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) chain where he worked for eight years, first as an area manager and then as a district manager. In 1981 Hawkins began his real ascent in the fast-food business when he led the KFC chain on a special project marketing to inner-city patrons.
In 1986 Hawkins left KFC as a regional vice president to become a partner in an investment group with Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens and several others. They worked to acquire the rights to construct Bojangles units in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., resulting in 15 new stores. After the stores were completed, the group sold them to the company, yielding profits that Hawkins invested in Checkers franchise units. Top-notch customer service practices, including serving orders within 30 seconds and personal service by Hawkins himself at certain locations, assured the phenomenal success of Hawkins-run Checkers sites, which became instrumental in cleaning up surrounding neighborhoods. Featuring menu items such as honey chicken, chili dogs, Cajun burgers, and fish sandwiches, Hawkins opened one of his first Checkers franchises in 1990 in Evergreen Park near Chicago, the first franchise unit to be certified as an official training store for Checkers employees. By 1995, five years into his Checkers venture, Hawkins, as owner of Inner City Foods Corporation, was running the most successful African-American franchise restaurant company in the United States. He owned 47 Checkers restaurants that brought in close to $65 million a year.
Inner City Foods Corporation, under Hawkins' direction, concentrated Checkers franchises in urban minority neighborhoods, including sites in Harlem and Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant. Hawkins conducted his business with civic-minded aspirations to employ young minority workers, providing them with opportunities for financial independence through increased management and ownership opportunities. "I'm in the unique position to take people off welfare, give them job training, and educate and motivate them," Hawkins said, according to Nation's Restaurant News. "And I'm going to show that all the stereotypes about the inner city have been a farce." Specifically, Hawkins boasted that Checkers employees making $25,000 to $35,000 per year had earned less than $5 per hour a few years prior. Hawkins maintained a focus on economic empowerment in communities where he established franchises. Hawkins added, "My No. 1 goal is to use Checkers brand to provide economic empowerment in the black community and to make as many black millionaires, regional vice presidents, and managers as I can."
Promoted Minority Employment
Providing employees with accelerated opportunities to rise through franchise ranks, Hawkins permitted the attainment of financial rewards sooner than in other fast-food chains. For example, two directors of Hawkins-owned Checkers, who began as assistant managers, were earning $75,000 per year each within two years. Hawkins also provided salary increases of two to three dollars per hour for minimum wage earners 90 days into employment, marking the first of five job promotions toward general management positions.
Hawkins fulfilled his objective at Checkers to facilitate economic development and empowerment in black communities through his motto of "teach, reach, and motivate." Hawkins encouraged black Americans to buy from black business owners, duplicating similar efforts by former black activists. These activists successfully established opportunities for African Americans while simultaneously boycotting businesses that engaged in unfair employment practices toward blacks. (His detractors groused that Hawkins followed his own policies only when they insured that he made a profit.) Despite the success of his Checkers restaurants, and the fact that he was the largest franchise owner in the Checkers chain, Hawkins soon decided, according to Restaurant Business magazine, that he "wanted something bigger."
Bucked Burger King Tradition
In 1995 Hawkins found what he wanted when Burger King approached him and asked him to front their newly planned program to set up franchises in urban inner cities. Representatives of Burger King and Hawkins' newest entity, Baltimore-based Urban City Foods, soon announced plans to open 125 fast food Burger King Express Ways in nine American cities by the year 2000. (Burger King Express Ways are particularly suited to the inner city environment, and rely heavily on drive-thru traffic.) The partnership, the largest of its kind in the fast food industry, benefited from the creation of Empowerment Zones and Enterprise Communities. Such areas became part of a major federal initiative in 1995 to boost urban economies, giving tax breaks as an encouragement for business growth. As chairman and CEO of Urban City Foods (UCF), Hawkins spearheaded the development and operation of unique Burger King Express Way franchises to provide job opportunities for minorities in these federally funded areas.
The first group of the proposed 125 Burger King sites included 25 restaurants specifically designed for their appeal to urban African Americans. These sites were constructed between March of 1996 and September of 1997 in Washington, D.C., Chicago, and Detroit. Most construction was concentrated in Chicago's inner city, at a cost of $175 million. The Chicago locations had African-American owners and employed approximately 2,500 people from surrounding neighborhoods. Similar plans were made for sites in Washington, D.C., St. Louis, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Oakland, San Diego, Detroit, and Prince George's County, Maryland. Despite initial skepticism from the corporate office, from 1996-1997 Hawkins boasted average sales of $1.9 million per unit, almost twice that of traditional Burger King outlets.
By 2001, however, Hawkins' relationship with Burger King began to sour. He personally owned 28 franchises, but he charged that Burger King was jealous of his success and trying to keep him from owning and operating more restaurants. After hiring noted attorney Johnnie Cochran, Hawkins sued Burger King Corporation for $1.9 billion. After months of legal haggling, the litigants settled out of court. Reports had Hawkins walking away from the dispute with anywhere from $30 to $100 million, in addition to the income earned from selling all his Burger King stores. Hawkins had enjoyed generally positive press coverage prior to the lawsuit, but the publicity attendant on the suit brought out allegations from those within the industry who claimed that he was self-motivated and unwilling to acknowledge efforts by other franchisees. Hawkins' supporters—and they were numerous—pointed out his half-million dollar donations to local churches and school programs in neighborhoods boasting his Burger Kings.
Building a New Restaurant Empire
Following his break with Burger King, Hawkins invested heavily in Pizza Hut franchises in Detroit and surrounding areas. Eventually, he owned nearly 100 such franchises. As with his Burger Kings, Hawkins invested heavily in promoting his Pizza Hut restaurants in urban areas. He placed large posters of himself in restaurants, and customers and employees came to know his striking physical presence. The 6-foot, 2-inch, 285 pound Hawkins visited his stores frequently. Pulling up in his beige Bentley and dressed impeccably, Hawkins motivated his employees and encouraged his customers to feel at home. By the early 2000s, his company, Hawkins Food Group L.L.C., had recorded sales topping $200 million and was earning national attention.
Hawkins sensed that it was time to open his own, high-end restaurant, and he hired some top restaurant personnel to help him create Sweet Georgia Brown, a southern-themed restaurant that opened in Detroit's revitalized downtown. The restaurant opened in 2002 and did $8.5 million in business in its first year. Hawkins announced plans to franchise the concept, further expanding his empire. The opening of Sweet Georgia Brown was part of Hawkins' larger plan to take his image upscale, away from the fast-food business that had made him wealthy. Hawkins' personal wealth had become apparent—he owned homes in Detroit and Atlanta, and was a prominent backer of black political candidates—and he hoped to use the prestige of a high-end restaurant chain as leverage to rise higher in the world of business and politics.
Then, the floor fell out from under the flamboyant entrepreneur. In 2002 Hawkins' had been fined an undisclosed but allegedly substantial amount for failing to pay taxes owed by several of his restaurants. Hawkins' sold his Pizza Hut franchises in early 2003 for $95 million, in part to help him pay the fines. Then, in June of 2004, Hawkins was indicted on three charges in the Philadelphia city government corruption scandal, including conspiracy to commit fraud, fraud, and perjury. The indictment brought to light a number of outstanding claims against Hawkins. According to the Detroit News, Hawkins owed more than $70,000 to a Georgia attorney, $393,000 to a Detroit design firm, $82,000 to a Detroit radio station, and $49,000 to a phone service provider. In addition to these financial woes, Hawkins' wife of ten years, Wendy, divorced him and demanded expensive alimony payments.
When the criminal case concluded in 2005 with a sentence of just 33 months in jail and $25,000 in fines, Hawkins seemed to have gotten off lightly. However, the combined damages from the criminal charges, his personal misfortune, and his business failure—Sweet Georgia Brown was briefly closed in 2005 for failure to pay taxes—appeared to put the once-successful entrepreneur in danger of declaring bankruptcy. It remains to be seen in late 2005 whether the man Ebony once hailed for his ambition and drive to succeed could overcome these obstacles.
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Baltimore Sun, January 26, 1996, p. C1.
Black Enterprise, September 2004.
Chicago Sun Times, February 23, 1996, p. 43.
Crain's Detroit Business, April 29, 2002; July 5, 2004; May 16, 2005.
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Detroit News, July 8, 2004.
Ebony, April 2003, p. 42.
Jet, March 11, 1996, p. 13.
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Tampa Bay Business Journal, January 21-27, 1994, p. 1.
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Catherine Victoria Donaldson, and