Grit and Drive

Gocha Hawkins grew up in an abusive household on Detroit’s west side and spent two years in prison for selling drugs before making it big in the cosmetology business — and now, the restaurant industry.
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Avacado toast
The menu at Gocha’s Breakfast Bar includes Avocado Toast, shown, along with Bananas Foster Krunch, Georgia Peach Stack (pancakes), Black Bean Energy Bowl, Breakfast Pizza, Grilled Steak Skillet, and Salmon Croquettes. // Photo courtesy of Lamont Johnson

Barely a minute has gone by since the start of the interview with restaurateur and influencer Gocha Hawkins when she’s asked what she remembers about the west side neighborhood in Detroit where she grew up.

It’s invariably the first question posed to the dozens of subjects who’ve been featured in this column over the years — a comfortable icebreaker to get the conversation going. But Hawkins is clearly stymied. There’s a long pause, and then she finally says, “I’m really not sure how honest you would like me to be in this interview.”

Once she’s encouraged to be forthcoming and candid, Hawkins gets around to answering the question about her childhood home and neighborhood.

“I grew up on Stoepel Street and Livernois Avenue,” she says. “We lived in a four-family flat, my mom upstairs, my aunt downstairs, and my other aunt lived in the flat next to my mom. It seems like it was a pretty decent neighborhood, as far as I’m aware.”

Not that Hawkins got much of a chance to check out her surroundings.

“As a kid, I could rarely go outside,” she reveals. “I went to St. Cecilia’s elementary and then St. Martin de Porres High School, and my mom was super strict. Maybe sometimes I could go downstairs and play with my cousins, but my focus from my mom was strictly school. I had to go to school, come home, clean up my room, do my homework, eat, go to bed, and get up and do it again the next day.”

Which sounds like those early years under her mother’s supervision may have been stern and uncompromising for Hawkins, but also stable and secure.

Not so fast.

Gocha Hawkins
Detroit native Gocha Hawkins has enjoyed a diverse career, from hairstylist to image consultant for several NBA teams. Now she’s the owner of two Gocha’s Breakfast Bars, a food truck, and soon, Gocha’s Tapas Bar, all in greater Atlanta. // Photo courtesy of Lamont Johnson

“I was taken away from my mom in like the fourth grade,” she says. “That’s why I was asking about how honest I should be. I don’t really know how to put this, but I grew up in an abusive household.”

Hawkins doesn’t offer any more details, only adding that her father’s mother and sister lived in Alabama.

“Every other year, I went back and forth to Alabama to live with my grandmother and go to school,” she says. “I’d get out of school in June in Detroit, and then go to Alabama and stay there for the next school year. Then I’d go back to Detroit for the following summer and stay there for the next school year. I just kept floating around, back and forth, and with all the transporting around, I didn’t really have a stable child life.”

It really began to unravel for Hawkins in the 10th grade. “That’s when I got kicked out of school,” she says — and it’s at this point in the interview that Hawkins makes it clear she no longer has any reservations about sharing some painful details about her life.

“Being that I was shifted back and forth so many times, I really was just trying to find myself. I got pregnant at 17 and married at 18. My husband was 10 years older than I was. I ended up looking for love in all the wrong places simply because of how I had grown up, and I found myself getting in a lot of trouble.”

Hawkins’ trouble far exceeded the usual mischief most troubled teenagers get into.
“I actually was selling drugs,” she says, “just trying to stay afloat and, you know, figure out life. I ended up going to prison in Montgomery, Ala.”

Hawkins spent two years behind bars, participating in a work release program before qualifying for parole in 1993. Still in her early 20s and determined to straighten out her life and never go back to prison, she enrolled at John M. Patterson State Technical College (now Trenholm State) in Montgomery, planning to earn a degree in nursing.

“But in the first part of the semester,” she says, cackling, “I realized I had to take blood and all of this. I (wasn’t) going to do that!”

Hawkins developed her own recipes, including what she calls Gocha’s Krunch-tastic (French toast), top, and Fried Green Tomatoes sprinkled with feta cheese served with special hot sauce and garnished with parsley. // Photos courtesy of Lamont Johnson

While trying to figure out what to do with her life, Hawkins had an epiphany one day as she was getting her hair done.

“This girl doing my hair was really good,” Hawkins recalls. “I noticed she had a waiting list. You had to sign in and she would take the first 20 people. At that time it cost $18 for a shampoo and set. So, I was thinking, wow, this lady is making a lot of money. And, wow, this is the next best thing to selling drugs. That’s how I ended up going to hair school.”

After switching her major to cosmetology, it became apparent Hawkins was an exceedingly quick study. “There was a girl in my class, and she taught me how to do weaves and all these crazy hairstyles. And that’s why I always tell people this girl was an angel from God.

I ended up being really, really good at my craft, and I opened up a salon across the street from the Alabama State University campus and became a super popular hairstylist.”

Hawkins relocated to Orlando in 1999, where she opened a 14-chair salon. Soon after, she was able to parlay her tonsorial talents into another job opportunity.

“I was doing the hair for this girl who was a cheerleader for the Orlando Magic,” Hawkins says, referring to the NBA team. “She told her coach this young lady does my hair and she’s really good, and so I ended up doing the hair of the entire cheerleading team for the Magic. They gave me the title of ‘image consultant,’ and that was my first job with the NBA.”

And far from her last. Cheerleading teams around the league took quick notice of the job Hawkins was doing in Orlando, and an opportunity soon emerged for her to return to her hometown and make over the cheerleading team for the Detroit Pistons. She promptly sold her salon in Orlando and proceeded to bounce around the country — and the NBA — as an image expert, first in Detroit, then Miami, and finally on to Atlanta in 2010.

“I did that for over 10 years,” Hawkins says. “I’d give the (cheerleading) coach and their team a full image for the year, as far as their hair and makeup, and making sure it all collaborated with their uniforms.”

At the same time, she kept working her craft in various hair salons and earned a reputation as the go-to stylist for a handful of prominent celebrities. “I did Drake and Beyoncé in Miami,” Hawkins says, “and Serena Williams, too.”

Shortly after arriving in Atlanta, Hawkins had no trouble finding the exact job she wanted. “I started working at one of the hottest salons there,” she says, and she added the rapper Nicki Minaj to her growing list of celebrity clients that already included Vivica A. Fox, Ja Rule, and Pitbull, to name a few.

After opening a five-chair salon in Atlanta, she soon caught the eye of the producers of the reality TV series “L.A. Hair,” and became a featured cast member in one of the final seasons of the show, which ran for five years. “It was just a show about doing hair,” Hawkins says, laughing. “We were just a bunch of hairstylists doing a bunch of different celebrities and having fun. It was cool.”

Especially because of the reaction she received when she returned to Atlanta after appearing on the show. “I started really blowing up,” Hawkins says. It quickly became obvious that her modest, five-chair salon wasn’t going to cut it. “And that’s when I closed it and opened Gocha Salon in Midtown (Atlanta),” she explains.

Business was good, but it didn’t take long for Hawkins to realize that when she needed to take a break for a late breakfast, there was a problem.

“There was nowhere to eat, nothing but chain restaurants,” she says. “So, I thought it might be great to open a restaurant in my neighborhood. I found a location, and the rest is history.”

Gocha’s Breakfast Bar opened in December 2018 in Atlanta’s Cascade area, featuring a menu with recipes Hawkins still prepares in her own kitchen, ranging from “Krunch-tastic” French toast and “Better Than Yo Momma” buttermilk biscuits drenched in honey glaze to her shrimp and grits and veggie-based impossible burger with a side of parmesan truffle fries. At the same time, she closed Gocha Salon.

“I always tell people it’s a gourmet breakfast,” Hawkins says. “Our slogan is, ‘Tastes great and feels good.’ We’ve been crowded from day one, and I’ve never looked back.”

The food isn’t the only feature of Hawkins’ restaurant that regularly brings droves of customers through the door. “I decided to have a full bar, and everyone is asking me, who’s drinking in the morning? And I’m saying everybody does.”

A signature selection on the menu at Gocha’s Breakfast Bar is Impossible Sweet Potato Nachos, which includes black bean salsa, cherry tomatoes, red onions, jalpenos, cheese, and chipotle sauce. // Photo courtesy of Lamont Johnson

The only thing Hawkins didn’t think of was a to-go menu, mainly because, in addition to wanting her food to “taste and feel good,” she also wanted it to look great. “I’m a very visual person,” she says. “That’s why I never planned to do to-go food, because it doesn’t look the same once it shifts around in the box or bag, and also it’s cold. I like my food hot.”
That was just fine until the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020.

“The to-go (orders) were taking over the dining room like we couldn’t believe!” Hawkins exclaims. “We didn’t have Uber Eats or Grubhub, or any of that type of stuff set up. So there would be 50 to-go tickets on the board and maybe just five for the dining room. Guests were waiting way too long and we were getting bad reviews.”

Which is when Hawkins came up with a solution to the problem. “I thought if we open up a food truck, that will alleviate this headache of the guests not receiving a five-star experience, and that’s what we did in January of 2022.”

The 22-foot-long food truck, adorned with Hawkins’ face and logo, sits directly alongside her restaurant. “It has everything on it that our kitchen has, and it solved our to-go problem immediately,” she says.

By that time, Hawkins had opened another Breakfast Bar location in Fayetteville, 20 miles south of Atlanta, and announced plans for Gocha’s Tapas Bar, which is set to open this spring. Later this year, sometime during the second quarter, another Breakfast Bar is set to open in downtown Atlanta.

The 51-year-old Hawkins readily attributes her success and seemingly insatiable appetite for hard work to her roots in her hometown.

“That’s what I look back on when I talk about where I got my drive from,” she says. “You know, my dad is 72 years old and he still works at Ford. Every single person I know from Detroit, they have drive, they have a hustling spirit, and they’re not waiting on someone to say yes. They’re just go-getters.”

It turns out Hawkins does have her limits. When asked if she’s still utilizing what is clearly an exceptional gift for cutting and styling the hair of her many celebrity friends and clients, she erupts in a cascade of infectious laughter.

“No, I do not. Absolutely not,” she practically yelps. “I thought I could do both, but this restaurant industry is way more than I thought I was getting into. I tell people all the time, this is the hardest I’ve ever worked in my entire life.”