The Oak Park location of Chicago's Home of Chicken & Waffles II near East Avenue on Madison Street.File 2010

It may have seemed too good to be true — millions of dollars lined up to start expanding a Chicken & Waffles chain across the Midwest. And maybe it was, as the million-dollar investor, who recently got out of jail, has a long-running history of questionable business practices.

The husband-and-wife team that owns Chicago’s Home of Chicken & Waffles — with locations in both Oak Park and Bronzeville — sued businessman La-Van Hawkins last month, seeking approximately $21 million. Hawkins reportedly courted 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 to back it up.

But things started to turn sour when Hawkins asked the Johnsons for their secret recipe to use at another restaurant. Plus he was pretty free with the company name, printing the signature chicken-in-a-suit logo on his business cards.

Along with the hefty sum, the couple wants an injunction stopping Hawkins from opening any soul food restaurants.

“Your recipes are your pride and joy, so you want to protect them,” Tonya Johnson said in a recent phone interview. “They’re special to you, and you don’t feel comfortable when someone says casually, ‘Hey, I want your recipe.'”

Hawkins is a restaurateur with a notably checkered past, spanning back a decade. And he’s gotten media attention everywhere — from Ebony magazine to the Detroit Free Press.

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. A Chicago native, he grew up in Chicago’s Cabrini Green and is now back living in the city. But his dining empire came crashing down 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. He was one of more than a dozen snared in a pay-to-play case in Philadelphia, according to news reports.

In Detroit, he was convicted again in 2009, 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 spokeswoman, Hawkins declined to comment on the lawsuit last week.

“He and his partners adamantly deny the allegations, but that would be the extent of what I can say,” said spokeswoman Deidre Malone.

According to his website, lavanhawkins.org, he was sent to prison in 2008 and released in 2010, serving only 18 months out of 33 because of good behavior. His website says that after exiting prison, he immediately started rebuilding his empire, and is planning to launch “a mega-deal that includes 350 fast food restaurants.”

“He’s back in terms of looking at new business opportunities and ready to get back to work,” Malone said. “If you know anything about him, he was and continues to be a successful entrepreneur.”

It was around 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 Chicago’s House of Chicken & Waffles, according to the lawsuit, filed Nov. 14 in the Circuit Court of Cook County.

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

But things started to sour when the Johnsons found that Hawkins was allegedly using their logo on his business card and that he wanted their signature recipe to use at another restaurant in Detroit.

When they started asking Hawkins for money to start up locations in Evanston and Homewood, he allegedly refused to pay. The Johnsons also believe Hawkins has continued to negotiate for space at a signature site at 87th Street and the Dan Ryan behind their backs. Darnell Johnson said several stores and restaurants will be in business by that piece of land, and he is loathe to lose it.

“All the big players are right there, and it’s a heavily influential black area,” Darnell Johnson said. “It looks like a super-prime location, and this is something that I’ve been dreaming about since I opened the first location in Bronzeville.”

They’re asking a judge to award them the $20 million allegedly promised to open the first 20 restaurants, along with $1 million for their tarnished reputation.

The Johnsons — who live in the west suburbs, and opened their Oak Park location last year — said they hoped Hawkins had put his storied past behind him. But after the bumps in their business relationship, the couple just wants the money and to never see him again.

“We don’t want him as a partner, we’re not comfortable, we do not trust him, and we don’t want any part of anything that might be illegal or fraudulent,” Darnell Johnson said. “All we want to do is protect ourselves and move forward where they can’t take any of our trade secrets or open any of our style of restaurants.”

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