From fast food to fine dining – Hawkins Food Group to open new restaurants

From fast food to fine dining – Hawkins Food Group to open new restaurants – Brief Article

Angela G. King

Hawkins looks to international cuisine after losing his Burger King franchise

Forget burgers and fries. La-Van Hawkins, CEO of Hawkins Food Group (No. 12 on the BE INDUSTRIAL/SERVICE 100 list with $176 million in revenue in 1999), has his sights set on opening eateries that offer top-of-the-line international cuisine.

Hawkins, who owns and operates dozens of Pizza Hut and Perkins restaurants, as well as West Coast Videos stores, filed a $1.9 billion lawsuit against Burger King last April claiming that the Miami-based fast-food giant backed out of a deal to help him open more than 200 restaurants in urban neighborhoods.

To Hawkins’ dismay, in December, a Michigan federal court dismissed his lawsuit accusing Burger King of racial discrimination for preventing him from opening the new restaurants. A few days later, the New York State Supreme Court ruled that Hawkins had to repay $8.4 million in franchise fees for the 28 Burger King restaurants he already owned. The financial suit was later dropped, and Hawkins was required to sell all but six of his Burger King restaurants back to the Burger King Corp. He is looking for community organizations in urban areas to turn over the remaining six Burger Kings.

Hawkins won’t disclose how much cash he raked in by selling the Burger King restaurants he owned in Detroit, Chicago, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore.

Starting in June, Hawkins plans to move forward from his legal scrap with Burger King to open upscale eateries called Sweet Georgia Brown in Detroit, Chicago, and New York. He also wants to open Italian restaurants called Tucci-Milan’s in urban markets next year.

“There’s nothing harder in the restaurant industry than for someone in the fast-food business to [divert] their energies into the table-service end of the business because the skill set of your employees has to be much more customer-service oriented,” says Milford Prewitt, senior editor at Nation’s Restaurant News.

Prewitt emphasizes that this is not the best timing for Hawkins. “It’s a tough economic period to launch such a venture. It’s even tougher given there’s a labor shortage.”

Hawkins, however, says the market is ripe for five-star eateries owned by African Americans, especially in urban areas, where there’s a dearth of such places.

But according to Prewitt, in markets like Detroit, where fine dining is not as evolved as it is in markets like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, “it’s a high hurdle to go from fast food to fine dining.”

Hawkins began his fast-food career at McDonald’s at the age of 14. By 35, he was generating millions of dollars in sales operating Checkers drive-thru restaurants. Burger King executives were so impressed that they asked him to partner with the fast-food giant to open inner-city restaurants.

Hawkins joined Burger King in 1996 with grand plans, announced by then-President Robert Lowes on the steps of the White House as former President Bill Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore stood by, to open 125 restaurants with Hawkins in inner-city neighborhoods. President Clinton lauded the partnership as a national model for corporate empowerment.

This background is what makes Prewitt think Hawkins might have a chance. “It could be that he has a chef already lined up and some real estate and a viable business plan. And given his savvy … the potential for success is very high,” says Prewitt.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group