Not waffling about food business

Gladys Knight and son Shanga Hankerson hit a high note with Chicken & Waffles



JUST WHEN YOU THOUGHT YOU knew soul food inside and out, here comes something else to make your mouth water. Unusual, maybe -- delicious, definitely. Make way for fried chicken ... and waffles!?!

Yes, and brought to you by none other than Gladys Knight and Ron Winans' Chicken and Waffles Restaurant, a sleek, suburban eatery brimming with sophisticated soulful flavor.

The Largo site is the third site in the family franchise, which originated in Atlanta. Gladys Knight is an Atlanta native, but the enterprise is the brainchild of her son, Shanga Hankerson.

According to Hankerson, the love of chicken and waffles was handed down to him by Knight, who got hip to it during her early showbiz days in New York. Back then, musicians frequented a Harlem diner called Wells Restaurant, which was across the street from the legendary hot-and-happening jazz club Small's Paradise.

"The musicians used to go over there, and they hadn't had dinner yet -- but it was breakfast time, 4 or 5 in the morning,'' Hankerson said. "You know, they've probably been drinking ... so they're ordering fried chicken with waffles. That's where it originated."

Although one of Wells' proteges successfully took the culinary combo to Los Angeles, golden waffles and crispy fried chicken (paired, anyway) had been slower to pick up east of the Mississippi River. Until now.

In about a year, Hankerson (who confesses a love of cooking and sharing good food) has cultivated a bustling following in the restaurant's popular Boulevard at the Capital Centre location. It can only help that he exudes the kind of easygoing warmth that everyone hopes for in a host.

It also doesn't hurt to have a menu full of well-prepared soul food favorites, including macaroni and cheese, catfish, smothered chicken and salmon. The dishes are not so full of grease and fat that you feel your arteries clogging up as you eat; on the other hand, the fare is not health-conscious to the point of killing the pleasure of eating it, either.

The restaurant has a full bar, a small stage offering live music and comedy, and a private meeting room available for rentals.

Hankerson said that his top sellers are the chicken and waffle plate, the smothered chicken and barbecue turkey wings.

And where do the restaurant's famous namesakes fit in? Knight said, "I got involved because I love to feed people and I always have since I was a little girl. I wanted to offer [others] what I'd been given."

Hankerson's father was a longtime manager for the late Ron Winans, whose family is legendary in gospel music.

And although the franchise is Hankerson's baby, so to speak, mama still had her say. He said with a grin, "I had to let Gladys have approval of all the recipes and all the decor."

His mother stops by the restaurant when she's in town, about six times this year. And she doesn't just stop in to eat either.

"Everytime she is in town, she comes," Hankerson said, adding that her last visit was earlier this summer. "She goes around and speaks to the customers."

And he's done good if the crowded midweek dining room and bar were any indication. Many diners, like Alan Harris of Columbia, had heard of this upscale spot before coming.

"I'd heard of it through the grapevine," he said. "I'd heard of the Capital Centre, and this restaurant in particular because of Gladys Knight. I wanted to try it."

His sister, Nadine Harris of Landover, added, "I think the ambience is really nice. It's a nice place to bring friends."

It would seem that Hankerson has done what he set out to do: create a place that celebrates the food he loves with style and hospitality. He's also added a few entertainment events each week to keep customers returning. There's karaoke Mondays, live jazz Wednesdays and comedy Thursdays. "We get quite a few from [Black Entertainment Television]," he said.

Hankerson's next Chicken and Waffles spot is slated to open in Las Vegas in 2007. At the end of the day, for the soul music maven-turned-restaurateur, it's most important to "keep the service at a certain level, and the quality at a certain standard,'' she said.

And after the hard work that goes into delivering delicious food, what does she expect? "If we execute everything the way we should ... I expect people to come," Knight said.

Unisun editor Karlayne Parker contributed to this article.


WHERE: 860 Capital Centre Blvd., Suite E, Largo

PHONE: 301-808-6402

HOURS: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m. to 2:30 a.m. Friday-Saturday; 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday

ABOUT THE FOOD: The menu is divided into show business categories, such as opening act, rising stars, encores and Grammy winners. Under each are Southern favorites, some of which are named after the business' namesakes and other family members. They include Southern favorites such as the Midnight Train, which is named after the Gladys Knight & The Pips song; Gram's Grand fried chicken salad; and Uncle Ron's special.

PRICES: Range from $1 (side orders) to $13.65 (main course)


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