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.
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.
Why do you care so much about the people of Detroit?
They’re resilient, they’re tough, they’re sharp. They’ve got the get-up-and-go; they’re aggressive. Nothing detours them. Yeah, they might get sidetracked along the way, but at the end of the day, they’ve been victorious in everything that they’ve done. That’s the reason why me, and the people of Detroit, we have a love affair that’s going on-one that’s going to last forever.
Is that why you came back to Detroit?
Well, I didn’t come back to Detroit. God ordered my footsteps back to Detroit. When I left Detroit, I swore I was never coming back to this city. But God says that ‘Young man, what I want you to do is learn to climb the mountain at night, so when everybody wakes up in the morning, you at the top of the mountain and nobody can pull you down.’ So the reason why I’m back in Detroit is because God has me on assignment.
What is the assignment?
This is the beginning of the revitalization of this city. If you look at it, downtown, yeah there’s a lot of things that’s been going on, but African-Americans haven’t had anything that’s been going on downtown. Yeah, there have been places springing up all around the place, but now what God has done is said, ‘Listen, I’m going to build something that’s going to be second to none. That nobody in the state can compete with.’ And so that was the beginning of doing the Cheesecake Bistro.
As we all know, you’ve had some trouble with the law.
What have you learned from that experience?
Well, you know what? The 18 months is probably the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me in my life, because what it did was it allowed God to humble me. See, the transformation and the change that God needs to do on the inside of you can’t take place until he puts you through something. … So in my process of becoming gold, God had to refine me. And those 18 months were the refinement that he told me what it was that he wanted me to do. He told me the assignment that he has me on.
He told me that ‘I will set you at the table in the presence of your enemies. I will anoint your head with oil; they will not be able to touch you. They will not even be able to look at you, but you’re going to be amongst your enemies.’ So the 18 months was about the purification process and me going through it. And at the end of the day, God said to me, ‘A job well done, my son. Now, the prodigal son has come home.’ And he said, ‘Pull out his robes, pull out his jewelry, go out and kill the biggest cows and get ready to allow my son to have a feast.’ So the feast is taking place.
Who are your enemies?
Well, you know you got the haters, but I wear the gators for the haters. They hate me, and they hate you because we’re out here trying to make things happen.
What is the feast?
The feast is being able to empower the people. The feast is being able to teach economic development and economic empowerment. This store (Detroit’s Cheesecake Bistro) will employ anywhere from 150 to 200 people. Just imagine it-200 jobs being brought downtown in the city of Detroit. We’ve got another 10 restaurants that we will build over the period of the next year, so we’re going to be in the position to hire anywhere between 1,500 and 2,000 people.
What is the Cheesecake Bistro and why should we come and eat here?
Well, one, you should come and eat here you know because La-Van Hawkins is synonymous for excellence. Listen, the food is second to none, the service is my pleasure; we’re ladies and gentleman serving ladies and gentleman. There’s nothing-no place like it in Chicago, in New York, in California and especially in Michigan. Nothing can compete with it because it has the anointing of the Lord Jesus Christ on it.
So, you’re going to open 10 restaurants in the downtown area?
We are. The next one is going to be Soul Daddy’s, which is going to be a white tablecloth soul food restaurant. After that is going to be a steakhouse that we’re going to do …
What’s the name of it?
It’s going to be called the Michael Jordan Steakhouse.
He’s your partner?
He’s not a partner. What we’re doing is franchising his brand from him. Then the next restaurant that we’re going to be doing is called Tucci Milan, which is an Italian concept. Then the next concept that we will be doing is called Lou Malnati.
Where did that name come from?
It’s a concept of a guy who already has pizza restaurants in Chicago.
What else can we look forward to?
You can look forward to us doing our own seafood concept. You can look forward to us doing our own Chinese/Japanese with an infusion of flavors. You can look forward to lots of other concepts.
You have been through a tremendous amount of legal issues going back to 2003 and 2004. From then until now, you said you’ve been refined. What is it like going through a process like that? How do you stay inspired and motivated to keep going?
My motivation and my inspiration is the Lord Jesus Christ. And it’s a part of when God is getting ready to take you through to the next level, as we talked about earlier. The natural is what the common eye can see; the supernatural is the spiritual realm. So God, right now, has me in the supernatural. He has me in process, getting prepared to become a billionaire. And so, because that’s not easy, you have to go through trials and tribulations.
You have to go through things ordinary people wouldn’t go through. When you’re an exceptional individual, and when you are focused on the Lord, there’s always going to be a tax that’s going to come. But what they do is they make you better. What makes “the great” great? The ability to get knocked down, and the ability to get back up.
What has your reception back to Detroit been like?
Fantastic. People have welcomed me back to the city with open arms and said to me, ‘If there’s anything that I can do to help you, let me know. I’ll be more than happy to do it.’ The people were very, very supportive while I was away. I got thousands and thousands of pieces of mail from the people in Detroit. Wishing me well. Wishing me a speedy recovery. Wishing me to come back to this great city.
What did that mean to you?
It meant a lot to me, especially with what I was going through. It is impossible for you to go through what I’ve been through and not say that I went through a difficult time, because I have. I’ve been through a time that most people aren’t able to come back from. When you’ve been to the top of the mountain, and you’ve looked over the mountain, and you’ve been a part of the mountain and then you get put in the situation to where the rug is literally pulled from up under your feet, that takes a balancing act. That takes the help of the Lord Jesus Christ.
That takes very, very significant people being in your corner to help you get through it because it’s a difficult time. It’s that time where you either have faith, or you don’t. Either I’m going to make it through, or I’m not. Well, there was never any doubt in my mind that I was coming out, and not only was I coming out, but I was coming out back on top.
How would you describe, if you don’t mind me asking, your net worth at that time?
Probably about $80-90 million.
Was that the pinnacle for you? Was that being at the mountaintop?
Yeah. I think it was being at the mountaintop at that time.
And you owned a bunch of Pizza Huts and Burger Kings. Was that your dream come true?
That was my dream come true.
What happened to your dream?
Well, my dream, nothing happened to it. My dreams were just put on hold. It wasn’t like I left broke-because I didn’t. I was very, very smart with my money. I’ve never been a person who believed that you put everything that you get in the bank. Only fools do that. I was taught a long time ago, watching my grandmother and my mother and my uncles and aunties putting money under mattresses, putting it in the backyard. I come from that generation of understanding how you tuck money away. But what’s more important than all that is the fall that you take in being out of good grace.
How would you describe the fall out of good grace?
You’re looking at a guy that had the ninth largest African-American company in the United States of America. That was doing almost $400 million with Pizza Hut, with Burger King, with Blockbuster Video, with Sweet Georgia Brown. I sold Pizza Hut because we were in the process of purchasing a $2 billion company when the indictment came down. So obviously, when I got indicted, the people who I was buying the company from backed away. That was a very difficult time for me.
But it was even more difficult when they came back and said that, ‘You are being found guilty.’ You know, I was found guilty of having the mayor of Philadelphia, the mayor of Detroit, Kwame Kilpatrick, the governor of Illinois and the governor of Pennsylvania on my jet and taking them to the Super Bowl, putting them up. That’s what I went to jail for. It’s called honest service fraud. In other words, I was doing an honest service, but what they said is that I was controlling the mayors and the governors, and that I could have requested favors, and they would’ve been obligated to do them.
What I said to them was that I was never doing business with the city. And what I said to them (was), ‘Explain to me how in the (expletive) it is that Joe Kennedy flew people all around the country in his jet. Explain to me how it is that Ford, General Motors, they fly presidents and everybody else on their jets. So explain to me how it is that they didn’t have to charge anybody for an airplane ticket, but I did.’
Why do you think that happened to you?
Well I think it happened to me for two reasons: One, I think it happened to me because of arrogance on my part. I think it happened to me because God wanted to save my life. I was living the life of a multi-millionaire. I was very, very successful here on earth, but there was no doubt that when I died that I was going to hell, because I was not doing the things that God wanted me to do. So I consider myself to be blessed. God loved me so much that he allowed me to go through a pruning to be able to save my life; for me to be able to be in the kingdom of heaven.
What was your life like?
My life was like every day walking around in $4,000, $5,000 suits. Five houses; I had a house in Paris, I had a house in New York, I had a house in Atlanta, I had a condo, here, in Detroit, and I had a place in Baltimore. I had nine cars-all of them were Rolls Royces and Bentleys and Lamborghinis. So every day I drove a Rolls Royce or a Bentley. That was my everyday car. So now, what’s acceptable is the 2011 BMW 750, because that’s the white boy car.
So, did I fall from grace? I fell from grace on earth. But I became rewarded because now, I’m going to be rewarded in the kingdom of heaven for the rest of my life walking around where the streets are paved in gold, the gates are paved in gold. I’m going to a place where there’s nothing but singing, nothing but rejoicing, nothing but food, nothing but music, nothing but people having a great time.
So, did I fall from grace? No. What I did is that it was put on a temporary hold until God allowed me to really be able to look at my life. See, life is short. Heaven is eternal. Forever. So me going through something for 18 months to get me ready for something that’s going to allow me to be able to have a great time and have all the things I want forever? No, that wasn’t a fall; it was a setup for a comeback.
You sound like Kwame Kilpatrick.
I can’t talk about Kwame, because I’ve been low-key. Kwame has not been low profile, so he hasn’t learned anything. You’ve got to learn to become humble. When they let you out of there, it doesn’t matter. Once you get in there, the deal with them is either they break you or you learn from it. I learned from it. So I broke myself.
What does your life look like now? You said you were wearing $4,000 suits …
And I’m wearing $4,000 suits now. Don’t I look good?
You do. So what’s the difference? Is it that you’re not arrogant anymore?
I don’t think that I’m arrogant. I think that what I’ve done is that I’ve settled down. That I know now that I don’t need five houses.
How many do you need?
One is sufficient. And certainly, you know, I have a condo in Chicago that’s on the water, and I’m getting ready to get me a place here, so that’s more than sufficient. So, nothing’s really changed except the perception.