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Modern-day Robin Hood finds calling in hamburgers


Driving through one of Baltimore's poorest neighborhoods in a custom $225,000 Mercedes Benz, La-Van Hawkins hardly looks like Robin Hood.

But that's how Mr. Hawkins sees himself whenever he opens a business in some of the worst neighborhoods in big cities on the East Coast, including Baltimore's East and West sides, North and West Philadelphia, New York's Harlem and the Bronx.

He says he's taking from the rich and giving to the poor -- but the booty is not cash.

It's burgers, shakes and fries.

"We are taking from white corporate America -- the rich -- and giving to the black community -- the poor -- so that we can provide opportunity for our own people," says Mr. Hawkins of competitors Burger King, McDonald's and Wendy's.

To Mr. Hawkins, 35, fast food is a ticket out of the ghetto. And in the ghetto, where Mr. Hawkins builds his Checkers Drive-In franchises, fast food has become the new cornerstone.

After Mr. Hawkins opens a Checkers in a city neighborhood, he hires only employees who live within three miles of the restaurant. In Baltimore, that includes public housing developments and low-income communities and for some employees, their first jobs.

"I had gotten into a lot of trouble selling drugs and guns," said Tristin Little Sr., a 23-year-old manager at one of Mr. Hawkins' restaurants who was jailed at age 17 in an attempted murder case.

"Mr. Hawkins helped me change my life around. He showed me there was a better life than going to jail. He asked me about my background. I told him about jail and told him I didn't want to lead that kind of life anymore and he said, 'My son, with me and my fellow employees, you have nothing but room to grow.' "

To Mr. Hawkins, a story like Tristin Little's hits home. Once a resident of Chicago's Cabrini Green public housing towers, Mr. Hawkins now lives on the 16th floor of Baltimore's luxury HarborView condominium tower.

A former altar boy, Mr. Hawkins dropped out of high school after the 10th grade and began working in fast-food restaurants to help support his widowed mother and his sister.

By age 22, he was a district manager for Kentucky Fried Chicken. At 34, he was elected to the Checkers board of directors. In 1992, he earned his first million.

His philosophy as owner of La-Van Hawkins Inner City Foods Inc., which owns 40 Checkers franchises, is to "want it, believe it and achieve it," and Mr. Hawkins says he is a constant example of success for his employees.

His expensive car and luxury waterfront condominium, he says, are inspiration for his employees who earn a base salary of $4.50 per hour flipping burgers over a hot grill.

"They see me as a very positive role model -- I made it, therefore they can make it," Mr. Hawkins said. "You don't see a lot of hope out there -- the kids don't have a lot of hope. We offer self-esteem by taking young men and women and putting them in situations where they can be productive. To show them how they can move up the career ladder and start at $4.50 per hour and within eight or nine months, move into management and make up to $50,000 per year."

Last month, Mr. Hawkins was arrested and charged with hindering a police officer after he refused to drive around an accident scene in East Baltimore. He said the arrest was racially motivated. A hearing on the charges was scheduled for today in District Court.

Mr. Hawkins said the city police officer who arrested him, 16-year veteran Allen Swearingen, cursed at him when ordering him to leave the accident scene. When he refused and then got out of his car to get the officer's badge number to file a complaint, he said, he was arrested.

An internal police investigation is under way, after a formal complaint by Mr. Hawkins.

"I believe with all my heart that the officer was having a bad day and because he was having a bad day, he made a bad decision," he said. "But I'm going to have a full-fledged investigation in internal affairs. I don't care who the person is -- even a garbage man on the street -- they deserve not to be talked to that way."

Overall, the 500-restaurant Checkers Drive-In chain, based in Clearwater, Fla., is struggling because of intense competition for cheap fast food, Checkers Chief Executive Officer James F. White told shareholders at the company's annual meeting on May 19. The company reported losses of $1.69 million in this year's first quarter, which was 11 percent more than the same period last year, reports show.

But while the company is having a hard time, Mr. Hawkins' Checkers restaurants are performing so strongly that they are a major component of the chain's sales, said analyst Harry D. Venezia, of the brokerage house Raymond James in St. Petersburg, Fla.

"The Baltimore stores are their jewel," Mr. Venezia said. "They are now their pride and joy because the average volume of their sales are very strong."

Mr. Hawkins said his company took in $46 million last year and sales are projected to nearly double this year. His goal is to offer stock in Inner City Foods in 1997 -- the same year he projects company's sales to hit $100 million.

Mr. Hawkins said he plans to move Inner City Food's headquarters to downtown Baltimore from Atlanta in January. The relocation, he said, is because of his strong admiration for Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. Baltimore has four Checkers restaurants. An additional 11 are planned for the Baltimore-Washington area.

"When I rode around in the city here, it was apparent to me that there was no opportunity for inner city kids," he said. "And Kurt was working to revitalize to bring businesses to the city and I didn't think he had an individual committed to economic empowerment with the financial wherewithal to impact the city. I saw it as an opportunity for me and Checkers to come in and impact the city."

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