by The People’s Minister of Information JR
Home of Chicken and Waffles has been in Oakland’s Jack London Square for over a decade, serving up hearty meals family style. Derrick Johnson, the native West Oaklander who owns the establishment, also takes pride in hiring local people who have felonies.
This beautiful mix of good business and community service has had the restaurant going strong in the rapidly changing demographics of the city of Oakland, where many of its competitors in the Square had to hang it up. Check out Derrick Johnson, in his own words …
M.O.I. JR: Yesterday, my daughter and I came into your restaurant and ate. Her thoughts were that the food was good after finishing her Princess Jordan. She also noticed how everyone was smiling. How did this come to be? What is it that you try to create in terms of environment?
Derrick Johnson: Our goal is to try to create the environment that your daughter described. We want for you to feel like you are at home. Our food is comfort food, so while you are eating and enjoying it, we want for you to feel like you are in the comfort of your own home, feeling like every day is a Thanksgiving or Christmas meal. We do a pretty good job of accomplishing that, and we are very consistent with the quality of our food – and with making the atmosphere light, pleasant and fun for everybody.
M.O.I. JR: How did you become the owner of Home of Chicken and Waffles?
Derrick Johnson: I actually got involved from the onset. It was a family venture and we had a Rasco’s franchise in the early ‘90s. I didn’t participate in the operation at that time, but when we moved to this location in 2004, I took over operations and have been heading operations ever since.
Home of Chicken and Waffles has been in Oakland’s Jack London Square for over a decade, serving up hearty meals family style.
M.O.I. JR: So how has business been in the Jack London Square area? How has business been through the Mayor Jerry Brown and Mayor Quan years and now the Schaaf years? What’s going on in terms of business and Oakland’s changing demographics?
Derrick Johnson: I think that with our two past mayors – and I am always trying to be positive – their goal was the best interests of the city, trying to move it forward and getting out of the darkness of its reputation. Being a native of Oakland myself, I know the beauty of the city and the natural vibe of it.
When we first opened in 2004, there was a lot of other restaurant businesses in Jack London Square and the Barnes and Noble book store. Through the recession, things changed. Barnes and Noble closed and a lot of the restaurants closed, which created a ghost town down here for a while, but we kind of made it through it.
And now the revitalization is definitely coming back. There’s a bowling alley that just opened up across the street. New restaurants are coming in, and the Ellis Partners who run Jack London Square are trying to revitalize and make it the destination spot.
I am glad that our new mayor is a native Oaklander. She’s very refreshing to look at; she has a very pleasant demeanor about herself. I’m hopeful and going to support her and know that she will do a very good job.
M.O.I. JR: Well let’s talk a little more about the history of downtown. The Spaghetti Factory, TGIF – all of that was here when you moved your business here, but it has left, and now there is Plank. What is the difference in clientele?
Derrick Johnson: Well, the clientele has definitely changed. We had a more urban African American and Hispanic population in the Square from 2004-2007. I believe it was under another group before the Ellis Partners stepped in and took over Jack London Square and closed down a lot of the businesses and didn’t renew their leases. I don’t know what the particulars were around that.
I do believe they were trying to make it more high-end type of business down here, to appeal to a more high-end demographic. However, one thing that I can say that is positive, is once they saw that that direction didn’t work, they’re now opening the doors for businesses to come back down here that reach all different demographics. So it’s a good feel. There’s a mixture. It is what Oakland is today.
I think Oakland is probably one of the most diverse cities in the nation as far as cultural and ethnic makeup. And you see that in Jack London with the Farmer’s Market on Sunday and the new businesses that have opened up. We do have some high-end restaurants down here now, which is good for the Bay Area. However they do not draw mass general market consumers.
And Plank is bringing a lot of those consumers back down here to at least hang out. And the more people we have down here, the more all of us can prosper. I think that the direction is positive, and it looks like Jack London is finally going to take off.
M.O.I. JR: Let’s now talk about another angle that you have created with your business; you hire felons. Can you talk a little bit about how that came to be? How did you grow up? And why do you give people a second chance with your business?
Derrick Johnson: Oh, nice question. Yes, I do hire felons (laughing). That can be challenging at times but we’ve become very successful at it. I’m a native of Oakland, like I said. I was born and raised in West Oakland, in the Acorns, one of the toughest neighborhoods in the city.
When I was growing up in the ‘70s, even though it was a tough area, it was predominantly, 99.9 percent African American. There were African-American-owned businesses and liquor stores, and African-American professionals. Our dentist and our doctor – all of them lived in our community.
So even though I grew up in what was considered the projects, we saw professional people as young boys and girls, so we had something to aspire to, which I think over the years has diminished. Our African-American professionals have moved out into the hills and to the suburbs. Young people in those neighborhoods now don’t see role models, and they are not that accessible to them as it was in my day.
Derrick Johnson, the native West Oaklander who owns the establishment, also takes pride in hiring local people who have felonies.
So from that, I always had a commitment that when I was able – and I’ve been very blessed to be very successful in business and throughout life and have a strong family and guidance – I’ve made it a mission to give back and make sure that I hired specifically from my community.
Now I’m a little one-sided because I have a lot of West Oakland employees (laughing), but I hire from the East and everywhere else too. And 100 percent of my staff lives in Oakland. I believe that about 70 percent of them are from Oakland.
Right now about 25 percent of them are on parole or probation or have a felony on their record. And for me, the joy of watching someone change and transition into a normal lifestyle and have confidence that they can hold a job and live a legitimate lifestyle has been very rewarding.
M.O.I. JR: You are doing something that the government has not been able or has refused to do on a mass level. What is the trick?
Derrick Johnson: I don’t know if it is really a trick. In the beginning, I was doing a lot. I gave people a lot of second, third, fourth and fifth chances. So when someone didn’t show up to work, when someone was late, I took the extra effort to call them to find out why they weren’t showing up to work. What is the issue? What is going on in their social life? What’s going on in your personal life?
And you know that that really is the biggest issue with this population. Their personal lives are so damaged that it overflows and prevents them from maintaining regular employment. So I think that because I come from a family from the same types of neighborhoods, with the same type of issues and challenges, I understand it. I didn’t hold it against the person when they couldn’t maintain their job.
We took the extra mile with a lot of offenders or people from that population to make sure that they stayed employed. And I think that the concern and to know that someone cared about them really helped. I think it has evolved today where it is like an each-one-teach-one type of situation, where I have a population in here that’s been on parole or probation so they understand and tell the newcomers the protocol of how to act.
They talk to them and talk them through if they see that they are having a bad day, so it’s kind of like a built in training program that has kind of developed here on its own. What’s really important and what’s great for Oakland is that there are so many small businesses open with an owner-operator who’s running the business, I think it lends to being able to create a model, and that is what I am working on now with the Oakland Rotary, who I really applaud for stepping up and trying to get involved with this once they heard what we were doing here to try to make a difference.
We took the extra mile with a lot of offenders or people from that population to make sure that they stayed employed.
Because it’s really difficult for someone who has never had a job, who’s lived their life on the street or a life of crime, and you turn them out on the streets after getting out of jail; they’re not going to get a job anywhere. They’re not even going to get an interview. So what is their only alternative but to turn back to a life of crime?
And they’re not really ready. Large corporations are not really equipped or governmental agencies aren’t really equipped to deal with “how do we get this person prepared for work.” The first way to do that is in a small work environment with hands-on experience. At least that’s what I found.
M.O.I. JR: It looks like business has been pretty good. I’m a consistent and loyal customer.
Derrick Johnson: We appreciate that. We want you to continue to be (laughing).
M.O.I. JR: No doubt. You have two new locations opening in the near future. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Derrick Johnson: Yeah. I’m working on a location out by the airport. I’m working on that as we speak. And surprisingly I’m working with BART and the City of Richmond who have been very instrumental and very aggressive, as I should say, in wanting to put my brand in their new Richmond BART garage. They have a new garage there, and they’re really trying to revitalize.
And the City of Richmond is very aggressive about getting African American businesses and serving the community. I’ve been working with Janet Johnson, with the City Manager’s Office, and Amanda Elliot also, and it has been just great working with them in trying to promote and getting this project off of the ground. And it is coming along pretty well.
M.O.I. JR: The food industry is changing. When we talk about soul food, people are starting to be more healthy. How is that affecting the menu at Home of Chicken and Waffles?
Derrick Johnson: Actually, it hasn’t really affected us. In our food traditionally, we use fresh ingredients. We cook yams. We cook greens. We don’t use any frozen items. At one time, I thought about doing something with the Oakland Public School System, so we had a nutritionist come in and really rate our food.
Other than the syrup, the waffles, and the mac and cheese, everything else is pretty healthy: red beans, blackeyed peas are protein and everything is freshly prepared, and most of the food is prepared daily. I think we stay consistent with having a really healthy menu that is consistent with what is going on today.
And then when you want to cheat, we’re the place that you come. I mean if you are health conscious, you are vegan, we have items for those as well; none of our sides are made with meat. But you know when you want to cheat, come here and get some fried chicken and some waffles, and that’s good for your soul (laughing). It’s been around forever.
When you want to cheat, come here and get some fried chicken and some waffles, and that’s good for your soul (laughing). It’s been around forever.
M.O.I. JR: That’s what’s up. I just want to thank you, and before we let you go, can you give the people the address and how can they hit you up online if they are planning a trip to Oakland?
Derrick Johnson: If you are coming to Oakland, please look us up. Homeofchickenandwaffles.com is our website. It also has our contact information. We actually have two locations: Our Oakland location is 444 Embarcadero West, and we have a location in Walnut Creek at 1653 Mount Diablo Boulevard.
And yes, please come in. We welcome all. And mention JR and we will give you a free waffle. So that’s all you got to do.
The People’s Minister of Information JR Valrey is associate editor of the Bay View, author of “Block Reportin’” and “Unfinished Business: Block Reportin’ 2” and filmmaker of “Operation Small Axe” and “Block Reportin’ 101,” available, along with many more interviews, at www.blockreportradio.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.