On the corner of Embarcadero West and Broadway in Jack London Square sits Home of Chicken And Waffles, a business started nearly a decade ago during the redevelopment of downtown Oakland. When the restaurant’s owner Derreck Johnson started hiring ex offenders 20 years ago at his car wash business, he didn’t realize the impact he was making in the community.
“Hiring started with no specific intention in mind,” said Johnson. “I didn’t think about them being on parole or probation – I was stuck and needed employees. Then a situation presented itself where people wanted to work and were at the right place at the right time.”
Designed with a distinctive décor, the restaurant features a 1960s diner image complete with stainless steel booths and turquoise seats, artistic renderings of the entire menu painted on the wall, along with a Motown soul soundtrack playing in the background.
With growing success, Johnson has been able to open a second restaurant in Walnut Creek.
Ravelle Sweetwyne, an Oakland native and bartender at the restaurant who started three years ago as a busboy, recommended that anyone interested in working at the restaurant should approach the job with a humble attitude.
“The great thing about Home of Chicken and Waffles is that it puts you in a position to be exposed to other experiences. Not just celebrities, musicians, and models, but learning life skills and communication,” said Sweetwyne.
The restaurant has 60 employees, including managers and servers as well as marketing and operations personnel. The restaurant stays open till midnight during the week and 4 a.m. on weekends.
Johnson is also president of the Northern Division of CALPAC, the African-American California State Package Store and Tavern Owners Association founded in 1960.
CALPAC’s mission is to improve the quality of life in local communities of color by providing education and jobs. Johnson is working with CALPAC to support ex offenders looking for employment.
“We start by hiring and helping our community,” said Johnson. “We have to teach them skills in life to move forward, and we need to instill a sense of confidence and self-esteem especially in our young Black men.”
At Home of Chicken and Waffles, new employees start off as busboys or dish washers where they learn the layout and inventory of the restaurant. They can be promoted to expediters, who run the food to tables and learn the menu in the process.
Servers and bartenders gain communication skills dealing with customers.
“I tell new employees that I’m not hiring them with the anticipation of them being here for five or six years,” said Johnson. “The restaurant is a stepping stone to be used to hone your skills so that you can go on to something bigger and get your life on track.”