La-Van Hawkins, the Detroit entrepreneur who built a multimillion-dollar empire, has passed away.
A big personality, at 6’2”, 285 pounds, Hawkins was known for his custom suits and Bentley cars. However, he was notorious for buying and selling numerous restaurants, including Burger King, Checkers, the upscale Sweet Georgia Brown in Detroit’s Greektown district and over 100 Pizza Hut restaurants.
Born in 1960 in Chicago, Illinois Hawkins was raised in the Cabrini-Green housing project. Forced to drop out of high school and provide for his mother when his father died, La-Van’s career in the restaurant business began in 1971 when he was just 11 years old. He scrubbed toilets at one of the McDonald’s restaurants owned by his uncle. By the time he left McDonald’s in 1979, Hawkins had risen to the position of director of operations.
His next stop was the Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) restaurant chain where he worked for eight years – first as an area manager and then as a district manager. In 1981, La-Van began his real ascent in the fast-food business when he successfully led the company’s special inner-city marketing project.
By 1995, Hawkins founded Inner City Foods Corporation and was running the most successful African-American franchise restaurant company in the United States, Checkers. Under his direction, the company concentrated Checkers franchises in urban minority neighborhoods. His goal was to employ young minority workers and provide them with opportunities for financial independence via increased opportunities for management-level positions and restaurant ownership. La-Van owned 47 Checkers restaurants, which brought in approximately $65 million a year.
As chairman and chief executive officer of Urban City Foods Management Inc. (UCF) from 1995-1998, he spearheaded the development and operation of unique Burger King Express Way franchises. This development provided job opportunities for minorities in federally-funded areas.
In the early 2000s, his company, Hawkins Food Group L.L.C., had recorded sales topping $200 million and was earning national attention.
Hawkins would soon set his eyes on Detroit, Michigan, where he opened Sweet Georgia Brown, a southern-themed restaurant that opened in the city’s Greektown area. Sweet Georgia Brown made $8.5 million in business during its first year.
He also invested in Pizza Hut franchises in Detroit and its surrounding areas owning nearly 100 franchises. As with his Checkers and Burger King restaurants, Hawkins invested heavily in promoting Pizza Hut locations in urban areas.
At the height of his career, he employed 30,000 employees, but it eventually all came crashing down.
In 2009, Hawkins pleaded guilty to one count of a nine-count indictment. Investigators claimed that from 2001 to 2003, $5.3 million was deducted from employees’ checks for Social Security and Medicare, but the funds were not given to the government. He was ordered by a federal judge to pay $5.7 million in restitution.
Hawkins was also sentenced to ten months in prison concurrent with his 33-month federal sentence from a 2007 conviction of wire fraud. He was released on March 19, 2010.
He returned to Detroit in 2012 to open the Detroit Cheesecake Bistro, which folded the following year.
Hawkins was married to his ex-wife, Wendy, from 1994-2004.
The funeral services for Hawkins will be Monday, April 15 at 11 a.m. at Great Faith Ministries (10735 Grand River). The family will hold a viewing at James H. Cole Funeral Home April 14 from 5-7 p.m.