By Glen Mason
Contributing Feature Writer
New Journal and Guide
Back by popular demand or being introduced to a new generation of foodies is Hawkins’ Chicken.
When the ad for Hawkins’ Chicken first appeared in the New Journal and Guide, it created a buzz. There are a few generations of foodies who had missed this precursor to all the local fried chicken franchises. However, it’s old fans have been lining up for what’s considered a local delicacy.
Hawkins Inn in Virginia Beach, VA was once noted for having the best southern fried chicken around. It was a family-run business for years at the corner of Baker Road and Bayside Road. The recipe originated in the kitchen Ida Hawkins and her daughter Emma Lee Hawkins.
Fried chicken lovers, especially in Norfolk and Virginia Beach, VA. often would reminisce about the last time they had the near tempura, almost but not quite crab-battered, crispy chicken breast and wing sandwich Hawkins Inn restaurant was noted for.
African-American owned and operated, when most businesses were segregated during its heyday during the late-forties to early seventies, Hawkins Inn was the place for African-Americans to have a fun evening out, and get a “good dinner.” Though it had a full southern menu of traditional offerings and sides, it was the chicken that stood out the most. It was the chicken that became a regional culinary legend.
It was because of that legend that Eric Hawkins convinced his mother Edna, to test the waters as a business venture after a local church, Morning Star, held a Hawkins’ chicken sandwich sale as a fundraiser. The trip down the culinary memory lane was a success and a business idea germinated.
Could the demand be revisited?
Edna Hawkins-Hendrix and her son thought that it could if they received a positive response.
“It started slow at first, but once word got out it started picking up,” said Edna, a local author.
“Everyone kept talking about Hawkins’ chicken, so we felt it was a good time to bring it back and test it for a new generation,” said Eric Hawkins, president of Hawkins Heating and Air conditioning. “We’re testing the waters because everyone wants you to open a restaurant, and it takes a little more than a time honored reputation and word of mouth to do that. That’s why we advertised and the response is promising.”
His cousin, Juanita Parker-Penn, one of the original cooks, has returned to help with her years of experience with the old family recipe. She started cooking when she was 8 years old.
“Both of my parents worked and they had eight children, two girls and six boys. I couldn’t just sit around so my daddy built this little step so I could reach the stove,” said Parker-Penn. “I’ve always wanted to cook at Hawkins. I started as a teenager and cooked there until I was in my early twenties.
“I used to have flashbacks of mom and dad coming home smelling like good fried chicken,” said Juanita, Edna’s cousin who started her career as a cook in the original kitchen at the restaurant.
Parker-Penn is a retired cook with the Department of Defense. In addition to her fried chicken, her “pancit,” a Filipino staple, is also in constant demand.
“My mother was Emma Lee Hawkins and my grandmother was Ida Hawkins. I remember the crowds of people who would come in from the wrestling shows and concerts at the Norfolk Arena. Everyone knew they could get a great late night snack or dinner at Hawkins.”
During its hey day, Hawkins’ Inn and Restaurant was a popular location for African-Americans to gather at a time when such places were few and far in between.
Your parents took you there for a weekend family outing. Older brothers and sisters went there on datesOut of town guests were treated to the best chicken around, and would return on future trips with other fried chicken sandwich lovers.
Chloe Jones, a Hawkins’ chicken fan, remembers she received her marriage proposal while on a date at Hawkins.
The romanticism and/or the culinary and cultural history of Hawkins’s chicken reminded New Journal and Guide publisher Brenda Andrews of a popular restaurant in her own hometown of Lynchburg, VA. There, when she was coming up, African-Americans frequented I.B.’s Café for its “popular” fish sandwich. “I.B.’s was where everyone went to get their fresh fish sandwich” her memories and pride rising in her voice. “The fish was whiting. She sold other menu items at the café but everyone came for the fish sandwich. That’s what made me try Hawkins’ chicken a year or two ago,” said Andrews.
“When we were coming up, and especially the generation before us, you didn’t have all the restaurants or fast food places you have today. Then, at a lot of them, you weren’t welcomed in anyway, so we had the little neighborhood places or family-run businesses to go to.They were our places and we supported them,” Andrews added.
Hawkins was a destination for more than fried chicken with a secret family recipe. It was a culturally rich, family-run business where African-Americans from Princess Anne County and those in the know in Norfolk could get a cold beverage, a fried chicken sandwich, sit in a booth and entertain with conversations silenced by the dime or quarter a tune “piccolos” or juke boxes playing soul music in the background. This was Hawkins chicken. The Hawkins family has brought back that taste of nostalgia for Andrews, a bunch of chicken sandwich lovers and for this reporter.
One can only hope that the legendary fried chicken will be back to stay for the next generation of fried chicken. It is more than culinary nostalgia; it is one of the best tasting chicken sandwiches you won’t find at a franchise.