Fast-Food Fast Tracker

WHEN IT COMES TO REAL ESTATE, the saying goes, everything is ""location, location, location.'' But La-Van Hawkins's notion of an ideal location is a little unusual. A gritty vacant lot on Chicago's down-and-out South Side is his version of the prom ised land - soon to be the site of his first Burger King franchise in this city. The competition is just down the block: McDonald's. It's a location Hawkins managed when it opened in 1988, after he rose through McDonald's ranks - all the way from toilet scrubber. ""Now I get to come back and whup their ass,'' Hawkins bellows, putting all of his considerable bulk (6 feet 2 inches and more than 325 pounds) into the challenge.

Hawkins, 37, has more than size on his side. He's also got soul, especially the street-smart savvy sort that translates into big bucks. Over the past five years he's made millions by giving fast food a cultural makeover, tailoring it to African-Ame rican, inner-city life. He got his start back in the early 1990s as a franchisee for the Checkers chain of eateries, for which he boosted profits by doing business as his fellow blacks would like it. When studies suggested, for instance, that African-Ame rican consumers prefer bright colors, he made his restaurants pop with cherry red and metallic silver accents, and poured on the neon.

With 14 Burger Kings today in the roughest corners of Detroit, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. (including five Detroit outlets he bought just last Friday), Hawkins is aiming for the big time. In partnership with Black Entertainment Television's Robe rt Johnson, he aims to build an empire of some 475 Burger Kings by the millennium. Patrons will savor Hawkins's inner-city take on Burger King: his outlets offer banana shakes and Cajun fries. Klieg lights and neon light up the restaurants as brightly as baseball stadiums; hip-hop and R&B pump from their sound systems. Uniformed Nation of Islam guards provide security. African-American flags fly. The familiar orange-and-red logo is there, but make no mistake: this isn't your suburban Burger King.

Hawkins is more than a black Dave Thomas, the founder and ubiquitous pitchman of Wendy's. His aim is to build neighborhoods and self-esteem, not just restaurants. At the corner of Mack and Connor avenues on Detroit's East Side, between debris-strew n vacant lots and boarded-up homes, Hawkins's polychromatic restaurant stands as a symbol of hope. Hawkins offers employees stock options and paths to becoming owner-operators. ""I'd like to go as high as I can in the company,'' says one employee, Regina Harrison, a 29-year-old assistant manager in a Detroit outlet. ""Maybe I'll own my own franchise some day.'' Hawkins also makes half-million-dollar grants to church foundations and school programs in nearly every neighborhood where he sets up shop. He p reached his personal gospel of black self-help from the speaker's platform at last year's Million Man March; he's bankrolled the all-black circus dubbed Cirque du Soul. He even helped Louis Farrakhan broker a hip-hop detente after rapper Biggie Smalls wa s murdered last March.

Some among Burger King's top brass were apprehensive about Hawkins's tinkering with the company's formula when he bought his first franchise early last year. Now they want to imitate him. Revenues at his restaurants are twice as high as at the aver age Burger King. ""How can you argue with that?'' says Burger King chief executive Dennis Malamatinas. That's not to say that Hawkins doesn't have his detractors. He angered at least some business people in Atlanta several years ago for allegedly employi ng nonminority builders. And competitors grumble that the inner-city market for fast food is nearly glutted. His expansion, they say, could make an already poor economic situation worse.

Hawkins is now worth about $50 million, by his own reckoning. Not bad for a kid out of Chicago's notorious Cabrini-Green housing project and a former gang member who kicked a $2,000-a-day cocaine habit. But his ambitions don't end with Whoppers. Wh en he's not with his wife, Wendy, swimming at one of their homes in Baltimore, Atlanta or Boca Raton, Fla., Hawkins is scouting other potential business opportunities. Recently he bought a small California pizza chain to aim at the inner city. He and Rus sell Simmons are starting a chain of theme restaurants based on Simmons's Def Jam properties. And then there are Hawkins's political aspirations: sooner or later, he intends to parlay his growing empire into a bid for public office - more than likely as a big-city mayor. ""He's an evangelist for the inner city,'' says Terrian Barnes, head of the International Franchise Association. ""He makes you believe he's going to save the schools, cut down crime and deliver a quality burger. He's larger than life.' ' La-Van Hawkins is also living proof that while the future of black America may not be in flipping burgers, it's not a bad place to start.