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La-Van Hawkins Returns to Detroit

The controversial restaurateur talks about what he learned in prison, why God is on his side and his big plans in Detroit in an exclusive BLAC Detroit interview.

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La-Van Hawkins has been to the mountaintop.

The restaurateur built a multi-million dollar empire that began with cleaning toilets at McDonald’s when he was 15. Hawkins bought and sold countless restaurants, including more than 100 Pizza Huts he owned in Michigan, Burger Kings, Checkers and the upscale Sweet Georgia Brown in Detroit’s Greektown district.

By any measure, he was living the sweet life, simultaneously owning several homes, including a lavish mansion outside Atlanta, touring around town in a convertible Bentley, flying from city-to-city in a private jet and hobnobbing with friends in high places. His rags-to-riches story was featured in national magazines. And just like he took care of himself, he employed thousands of people, paid them well and advanced them into management quickly.

He was considered flamboyant with chest-pounding confidence.

By May 2005, though, it all came crashing down. Hawkins was convicted of perjury in a federal corruption case in Philadelphia, where he faced a maximum sentence of 125 years in prison and fines of more than $1.75 million. That same week, his former attorney, Norman Yatooma, broke down the door at his Harbortown condo to collect on an eight-figure debt. A half-dozen movers removed his custom-tailored suits, alligator shoes—even his black leather living room furniture.

He was sentenced to serve 33 months in prison and to pay a $25,000 fine. He actually spent 18 months in federal prison, where he says he accepted Christ and experienced a spiritual transformation. After his release in March 2010, he returned to his native Chicago.

Despite his vow to never come back to Detroit, Hawkins, now 54, is back and after a rocky start launched a new venture, Detroit’s Cheesecake Bistro.

While he says he is much more humble, his confidence remains unshaken, and he’s ready to rebuild his empire—and this time it will be even bigger. He says the bistro is the first restaurant of many he plans to open downtown, and within five years he’ll be a billionaire employing thousands of Detroiters—again.

Hawkins sat down with B.L.A.C. Detroit for an exclusive interview. Here are excerpts from the conversation.

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