This Community Success Story Holds a Critical Lesson for Restaurants

This Community Success Story Holds a Critical Lesson for Restaurants

Over the past two years restaurant owners have seen way more of the inside of their own kitchens than they have the faces of their beloved customers.

It’s easy to feel isolated in the kitchen and forget that you and your establishment are integral parts of the community. Maybe you don’t see the smiling faces of your regulars anymore and only pack to-go orders. Or perhaps you’ve been so short-staffed that you haven’t been able to maintain normal hours.

Wondering how to serve your community might be low on your list of priorities, but it shouldn’t be. Let us show you why community investment could be the smartest thing you do for your business this year. 

One Oakland eatery is doing it right. Through integrated relationships with community members, activism boards, charities, and fellow restaurant owners, Derreck Johnson, founder of Home of Chicken and Waffles, has embedded this establishment in the fabric of his community.

Oakland’s very own Home of Chicken and Waffles and its incredibly dynamic team utilize local resources to overcome challenges like slow periods, ineffective local government regulation, and labor shortages.

How, you may ask? By investing heavily in the local economy and organizations that support them in kind. 

Home of Chicken and Waffles - A Community Staple

Derreck Johnson is an advocate for long-term investment in one’s restaurant. What does this mean? He is intentional in the creation of his dining spaces.

He creates more than a restaurant – he collaborates with his patrons to create safe, happy gathering places. As a result, his location has become a central meeting point in his neighborhood- a place to gather and dine.

By doing this, loyal locals keep the restaurant full even in times of struggle. Why are they loyal? Because they have already been supported, in one way or another, by Derreck.

Instead of existing in a vacuum, he interacts and partners with other businesses, many black-owned, thus making a web of interconnected eateries and establishments.

His relationships with other business owners allow him to create experiential discounts, promotions, and collaborations. Instead of working against one another, the collaborative nature of their relationship allows for a clear exchange of crucial business information and increases overall sales.

In fact, he has spearheaded a group messaging system between local business owners so that they can work smarter together. Creative partnerships benefit both parties.

Derreck enjoys more than just meals with his community. He gets to know the tastes and preferences of his local neighborhood and works to create special experiences for them.

One such example is a fun promotion called “40- water Fridays” where local superstar E-40’s hand-crafted cocktails are served at discounted prices to excited patrons. Without such strong community ties, creating an integrated and experiential offering would be impossible.

Restaurateurs and Chefs are creative people.  They collaborate with the community and their coworkers to create distinguished dishes and environments. Why not incorporate other creative community players into the restaurant-space as well?

Derreck does just this – the walls in- and outside of Home of Chicken and Waffles are covered in beautiful murals that reflect the spirit of Oakland. As you enter the establishment, you’re greeted with a medley of vivid colors and artwork, featuring a mural of Kamala Harris. 

While mouth-watering smells exude from the kitchen, sounds from world-renowned jazz club, Yoshi’s, enter your eardrums from across the street – a truly sensual and wholly local experience.

A Place Where People Love to Work

Home of Chicken and Waffles is of the few restaurants not suffering from a labor shortage right now. Instead, the staff are putting their heart and soul into serving the best Chicken and Waffles in town. Why are they succeeding where others are not? Home of Chicken and Waffles hires directly from the community and invests heavily in the wellbeing of his employees. 

Derreck is an advocate for hiring previously incarcerated individuals. These community members have fewer opportunities for employment in general and, since the onset of Covid, have been some of the most affected by surging job instability. He believes in second (third and sometimes fourth) chances and goes out of his way to create opportunities for previously incarcerated people. 

Home of Chicken and Waffles is employee owned, similar to a co-op structure. In this design, employees take personal accountability for the restaurant’s performance, directly rewarding high-quality work.

It’s no surprise that when employees have personal stakes in the success of their restaurant, retention increases along with operational efficiency. 

In order to further reduce turnover in a harried industry, Home of Chicken and Waffles employees are trained to fill multiple roles. Next year, Derreck plans to put his “Lifeline Apprenticeship Program” into full swing.  

We’re working with the state of California and partnering with La Familia (another non profit) to start an apprenticeship program to train people in culinary skills - because it’s so hard to find jobs. What we want to do is provide a direct pipeline so someone can come into your restaurant with a defined set of skills and be ready for work.

This program brings in novice employees and trains them across a number of roles they can grow into. Having employees with an understanding of the whole business can be a lifesaver when working with a skeleton crew. 

Employees are also happy to stay at House of Chicken and Waffles because of the benefits! Benefits in a restaurant? Yes! Managers have full benefits while employees have the option to pay into their own benefit program. This encourages employees to move into more managerial roles rather than leave the company. 

The current restaurant manager, Hector, began employment at Home of Chicken and Waffles right out of high school. He’s worked every position, from dishwasher to host, and shared with us his gratitude for Cheetah’s services, and emphasized the importance of partnering with a local community distributor committed to supporting his restaurant’s efforts 

The communication is my favorite part about working with Cheetah.  If there are any issues or problems I call you and you get back quickly.  Just knowing someone is there if you need them.  Sysco - they don’t care really, if they have it they have it, if not “try again next week”.

Home of Chicken and Waffles’ excellent team was hired with promises of equitability, opportunity, and growth opportunities. They stick around because they can create the job they want to have through apprenticeship and managerial training. Give more to your employees and they will work harder for you. 

From Competition to Collaboration  

Derreck and his Oakland network of industry professionals exchange information, help one another out, and are building back better together. His number one tip- engage with your local everything!

Get to know your local government and don’t be afraid to push back on bills or resolutions that don’t make sense. Get to know your fellow business owners and create a web of information and assistance. The better your hyper-local economy does, the better your restaurant will do, and vice versa.

A positive feedback loop can be created, wherein local restaurants support the local community, and, in turn, his patrons continue to stay loyal through tough times. Derreck expands on this in the following quote:  

When you support local, you stimulate the economy in your community.  It offers a job, it allows others to pay the bills, it’s the lifeline. And if you keep the money in your community, then you’ll have a stronger community, and those small businesses you support - you never know what they will build up to! You are investing in them. They might be able to offer more jobs as they grow!

Derreck takes this yet another step further by working with local nonprofits like Eat Learn Play, World Central Kitchen, Deeply Rooted, and Oakland Indie Alliance. He even created his own initiative, The Black Owned Project, whose objective is “to build generational wealth and financial literacy in the Black community through ownership” 

This savvy business owner and loyal community constituant also knows the ins and outs of working in tandem with local government.

Not only does this mean voicing his concerns when something goes awry, but accepting help where he can find it. He is sure to thank Kathy Adams of the Oakland-African-American-Chamber of Commerce from whom Derreck received a grant during the pandemic. 

Derreck emphasizes the importance of “taking responsibility for your community.”  This means more than supporting local businesses and contributing to the community. It means  assuming leadership positions to ensure forward progress.

He recently announced his candidacy for Mayor of Oakland. His campaign’s home page reads:

Derreck Johnson is an Oakland native, born and bred. The founder of Home of Chicken and Waffles, Derreck is running to solve the real problems of our city: massive homelessness, rising crime, and soaring housing costs.

The small-business model Derreck has epitomized is an example of what we see as necessary for running a successful Bay Area restaurant in 2022. Covid has shown us how entrenched we are in the community that surrounds us and how crucial our employees are.

As we all continue rising with the tide of the times, restaurants will need to recreate this model for community activism, engagement, and investment to succeed and overcome unforeseen challenges. 

Community Success Playbook

Derreck has a success playbook that we’re excited to share with inspired restaurateurs. Here are some of his biggest tips!

  • Hire formerly incarcerated individuals and other groups with fewer employment opportunities (helps with hiring, helps the community)
  • Create an employee-owned structure (helps retention and quality of work)
  • Train your employees and consider an apprenticeship program (helps with employee retention and the community)
  • Managers should have full health benefits.  Employees should be offered partial-pay benefits (helps with retention and quality of work)
  • Invest long-term in both your business your community (consider purchasing your land so the space can evolve with you) 
  • Make your restaurant more than a restaurant (a gathering place, a space for creative collaboration, increase foot traffic)
  • Communicate and collaborate with other locally owned businesses (a local community of industry workers helps restaurant and community)
  • Work with the government, don’t be afraid to ask for help from local organizations (there’s more help out there than you may know!)
  • Work with foundations – Eat Learn Play, World Central Kitchen, Deeply Rooted, Oakland Indie Alliance, and anyone else that speaks to your heart
  • Source locally and partner with local distributors (helps the community and the greater environment)
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