Gladys Knight's Son: Waffle, Meet Chicken"When they hear 'Southern,' they think that we're going to be slow. That's the biggest misconception. We're actually a pretty big city, and we're a lot quicker than people give us credit for."
"Southerners love to eat!" says Shanga Hankerson. And that's good news for this entrepreneur, who oversees a small but growing chain of restaurants called Gladys and Ron's Chicken & Waffles.
Hankerson brought chicken and waffles to Atlanta. The popular if unusual pairing first surfaced in 1938 at the Wells Supper Club in Harlem, near the Apollo and Savoy theaters in New York City. As lore has it, musicians wrapping up a show would wander in late, then couldn't decide whether to order breakfast or dinner. The answer: Order both. The breakfast/dinner combo soon made the leap to Los Angeles, where it became famous locally thanks to Roscoe's House of Chicken 'n' Waffles, a Southern California chain.
For Hankerson, who was raised in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, chicken and waffles were already part of his family mythology: His father was born and raised in Harlem, not far from Wells Supper Club, and his mother — the famed singer Gladys Knight, an Atlanta native — was one of those musicians who would visit the restaurant after performing.
So when Hankerson graduated from college in San Diego in the late 1990s, he came up with a plan: Take chicken and waffles on the road, bringing them to his mother's hometown of Atlanta. Working in league with Knight and Grammy Award-winning gospel singer Ron Winans, he mapped out and launched their initial restaurant in 1997.
The first impressions of Atlanta for someone brought up surrounded by desert and beach was that "there was a lot of woodsiness. It was like everything was tucked into a little forest." But as those first impressions faded, Hankerson learned more about what makes Southerners tick. Above all, he discovered their joy in tucking into a good, hearty meal — something else that was in stark contrast to Los Angeles, or "the land of the slim and trim," as he calls it.
His first restaurant opened with a splash, attracting outsize attention in large part thanks to his mom's celebrity. He's since opened additional restaurants (another in Atlanta, and one each in North Carolina and Maryland), with plans to open two more in the near future.
Since moving east more than a dozen years ago, Hankerson has seen the city change "tremendously." More and more major businesses are making the city their hub, development is growing apace, and traffic has noticeably thickened since he arrived. ("It's still nothing like L.A.," he laughs.)
But with that growth has come sophistication, and the city is faster-paced and more cosmopolitan than many out-of-towners assume. "When people come here they think it's just going to be Coca-Cola," says Hankerson. "When they hear 'Southern,' they think that we're going to be slow. That's the biggest misconception. We're actually a pretty big city, and we're a lot quicker than people give us credit for."
That growing worldliness brings with it a host of diversions. "There are tons of things to do here," says Hankerson. "Cool dance clubs, nightclubs, and awesome restaurants." There's also a surfeit of quieter pursuits. Hankerson loves exploring them with his young son, and he's impressed with the family-friendliness of the city. Among their favorite stops: the Children's Museum of Atlanta and the Georgia Aquarium.
Other simple pleasures beckon as well, like cooking at home in residential southwest Atlanta, where Hankerson's house sits on an acre and a half, complete with blueberry bushes, grape vines, and plum, apple and pear trees.
"And I built a pool back there," he says with a laugh. "Hey, I'm a West Coast kid."
Check out Shanga's Atlanta.