Derreck Johnson ’82 Serving Up Success
Derreck Johnson ’82 has found the recipe for business success – and its main ingredient is compassion.
Owner of the Oakland-based Home of Chicken and Waffles restaurant chain, Johnson actively employs those on parole or probation, giving them a second chance to be productive citizens. He started this practice when he launched his first business, a car detailing company, in 1988.
Johnson says there’s nothing more fulfilling than helping ex-offenders secure a job and paycheck, which allows them an opportunity to rent their first apartment or purchase their first a car.
“Not every ex-offender we hire is successful, but we have a really high percentage who continue to maintain their employment,” Johnson said. “I think that’s because when they come here and work with others who have similar backgrounds they don’t feel so isolated and ostracized. It helps their confidence a lot.”
Most customers are aware of Johnson’s hiring practices, and are understanding when there’s a hiccup in service. “Many of the people I hire have never really worked before and sometimes they might say or do something that’s not appropriate. But we get through it,” he said.
Johnson believes the reason his staffing model works so well is because he’s from an urban community and understands the social and economic issues his employees face outside the workplace. He can generally tell, at a glance, when an employee is having a tough time and needs support.
“It’s rough and rocky at times, but at the end of the day you have to open the door for those behind you, right? We’re going to be relying on that next generation or two behind us,” Johnson said.
Launching Home of Chicken and Waffles
Johnson had never worked in a restaurant before he opened Home of Chicken and Waffles in 2004. “I didn’t know what I had gotten myself into until I opened the doors,” he said. “I didn’t understand how many things you need to manage at one time.”
So Johnson set out to learn the business by going to his favorite San Francisco restaurant to observe. “I went there every single day, for two or three months straight, with a notepad and took notes,” he said.
“One day the manager came up to me and asked ‘How are we doing?’” thinking Johnson was from the corporate offices.
Johnson confessed he owned a restaurant, but had no idea what he was doing. “That manager came over to my restaurant a few times and tutored me,” he said.
The Path Traveled
Johnson interned at IBM while earning a degree in business management from Fisk University. He subsequently enrolled in the MBA program at Golden Gate University, but quit midway during the first semester because the program’s focus was too corporate for his liking.
So he launched a car detailing company, which he operated for 13 years. At the same time, he ran a production/entertainment company and also worked with large firms like Gallo, Hewlett Packard and Frito Lay on their urban marketing initiatives.
Today, Johnson oversees two Home of Chicken and Waffles sites – in Oakland’s Jack London Square, and in Walnut Creek. Two more locations are set to open soon – one in the E One Entertainment complex on Hegenberger Road in Oakland, and the other in the BART parking structure in Richmond.
Johnson’s business philosophy is simple – provide a consistent and quality product. “The chicken and waffles concept has become popular, but we keep it very basic,” he said.
The entire menu, named after family members, is creatively hand-painted on the restaurant walls. Johnson’s dish – Derreck’s Deal – features a thigh or leg, candied yams, greens and cornbread. The restaurant vibe is easy going, with Motown and soul classics spinning in the background.
Johnson is also a staunch supporter of the local community. He regularly supports local non-profit organizations, including the East Bay Youth Symphony.
He also gives back to his alma mater, and has provided on course food for the Dragon Golf Classic, because he feels the college prep education he received at O’Dowd set him on the right path. “Since day one when you walk on campus there’s never a conversation about ‘are you going to college?’ It’s ‘which college are you going to?’” he said. “That experience was the start of me knowing that I could do better.”
Though the restaurant business can be challenging, Johnson can’t imagine a more satisfying career. “We have customers come in to celebrate birthdays and other special moments. Couples sometimes come up to me and say they met their wife or husband in here,” he said. “Those kinds of stories make you feel good, and make you feel like all the craziness is worth it.”
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