When a Black man serves 17 years of active duty in the U.S. Army and the Alaska National Guard, a sense of achievement should be expected. Yet, Derrick Green began exploring other visions of well-being while serving four more years of part-time duty as a Guardsman.
“I was studying Tyler Perry, and I realized that during the time I was in the military, this man had been homeless and sleeping in a van. He went from that to putting himself in a position to purchase Fort McPherson, a decommissioned Army base in Atlanta,” says Green, a former military policeman.
It was 2015 when Tyler Perry’s plan to hire thousands of Black and Brown people at his 330-acre entertainment complex hit the news. The magnitude of the self-made billionaire’s success as an actor, writer, director and producer inspired Green, now CEO of Waffles and Whatnot (WAWN). He asked himself a life-altering question. “If I apply my entire being, walk in faith and put my whole self towards something, what can I accomplish?”
The Alaska restaurateur first tested that question when he set up a waffle business on a downtown Anchorage sidewalk in 2016. Green had no business experience. He would listen to customers and figure out how to adjust his recipe so people wanting gluten-free, low-cal or vegan could eat his waffles. Waffles and Whatnot moved into a food truck when the weather turned frigid. “It wasn’t even about me. It was about the waffle irons. The waffle irons were so cold they weren’t cooking the waffles properly. They couldn’t get up to temperature,” Green explains.
By the time the novice entrepreneur opened his first restaurant in Eagle River in 2018, Waffles and Whatnot had a reputation to maintain. His food truck and breakfast were twice named best in Alaska. “I had been the state’s highest-rated food establishment for two years,” says Green. “When I opened the restaurant, I had already built this following of people who were used to excellence.”
The CEO readily acknowledges that he was learning how to operate a business as he ran one, mostly from books, educational videos and business classes. Despite pouring all of his savings and most of his time into his new restaurant, it closed in 2019. “I lost the restaurant and my house within 24 hours of each other. My wife needed a break because she was working in the business. She took the kids and went back home for a couple of months,” Green says
The career military policeman retired from the military around the same time. He also said goodbye to the daughter from his first marriage to his late wife, Shirili. Mia left for a student exchange program in Germany. It was a depressing time for Green. “Literally, my entire life and everything that I found stable collapsed and disappeared. I had to sit in my darkness completely alone for two months and figure out my life.”
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It took losing the restaurant for Green to recognize that he lacked the skills and temperament to manage everyday administrative duties, such as bookkeeping, staffing and payroll. What he does possess is the fortitude to keep pushing forward.
“I decided not to give up,” he says. Listening to motivational videos helped him understand there is no in-between. Either give up or give it his all. “This has been an absolute grind, but I’m constantly learning. I’m constantly improving and modifying,” says Green. “It’s more than just a business. It’s adapting to change. It’s being resilient. It’s persevering through all those struggles and stresses.”
Not surprisingly, losing a restaurant was not the first time the Florida native had demonstrated an ability to overcome life’s toughest challenges. His childhood living in poverty and hood attitude could have stunted his military career if it were not for his Army mentor, Aaron Pelzer. “I call him my pops because he stuck with me for the rest of my life. He was more of a father figure than my actual dad. Within three years under his mentorship, he had me winning the competition for the best military policeman in the United States Army,” says Green, who has a degree in criminal justice.
Pelzer taught the young soldier that he was capable of being so much more than a stereotype or statistic. The entrepreneur believes the same is true of other African Americans who grow up learning how to hustle but not how to build a business. “We are intelligent, talented, hardworking people. I just feel like we haven’t been properly educated to turn those talents, education and resiliency in the right direction.”
Waffle and Whatnot’s owner resumed his entrepreneurial mission when he located a building on Muldoon Road that would become the location of his current restaurant. A visit by Food Network’s Guy Fieri in October 2021 to film “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” caused a social media buzz in Anchorage and immediately impacted Waffles and Whatnot. The “Meaty, Cheesy and Sweet” episode aired in March of this year. “We saw an 85% increase in sales the next week. Every time the show airs or re-airs, we see an influx of people. Last week, we had somebody fly up here from Phoenix just to try the food,” Green adds.
A gray and gold stencil of Guy’s face and the celebrity chef’s signature graces one of the walls at the restaurant. Fieri also flew Green to California to appear on the “Guy’s Grocery Games” episode that will air on Father’s Day, June 19. “Thus far, it’s been an amazing experience. I’ve learned from all of this to take advantage of opportunities.”
Waffles and Whatnot’s owner uses national exposure to attract more attention to his products and philosophy. He started making waffles to provide more nutritious meals during his late wife Shirili’s six-year battle with cancer. Green shares why he decided to focus on foods and ingredients with healing properties that helped his mother’s struggles with HIV/AIDS and his grandmother’s hypertension.
“Those situations inspired me because I’m trying to use my life and the acts of my life to make a difference. I’m trying to be the change that we need. Within the Black community, diabetes, heart disease, and cancers run rampant. All of those are related to the food we eat.”
Today, Green still researches and experiments to incorporate Ceylon cinnamon, coconut oil, and other beneficial ingredients into Waffles and Whatnot’s menu dishes. He tries to avoid preservatives and artificial flavors and colors. “I manufacture about 95% of the products served in my restaurant. I make them all from scratch. These are the original recipes that I have created,” he says.
The Anchorage restaurant serves a variety of waffles with sweet and savory toppings, including waffle sandwiches. Breakfast plates, fried chicken and macaroni and cheese are also on the menu, along with vegetarian, vegan and keto-friendly options. Green also manufactures and distributes waffle and pancake mixes. His original WAWN Signature House Sauce can be purchased online and recently became available at Walmart stores in Alaska.
Green has encountered some obstacles trying to keep his foods natural while meeting FDA and corporate shelf-life requirements. “The challenge is trying to get the product out for mass consumption. If I just planned to operate a mom-and-pop place in Alaska, having zero preservatives or zero artificial ingredients would not be a big deal. I would manufacture everything and keep it refrigerated the way I want,” he says.
One of Waffles and Whatnot’s most popular entrees is fried chicken. Green created the batter for chicken strips he used to make for his ailing mother. The story behind the name on his chicken dishes is touching and traumatic. When he was a kid, he saved up his money, bought a baby chicken he named Dan and raised it in his Florida neighborhood. “Dan would literally walk me to school at Fort Pierce Elementary and find his way home. After a while, Dan had children following us all along that path I took to school,” Green recalls. “My mom would say, ‘You need to control that little bad-ass yard bird.’”
Regrettably, a neighbor cooked Green’s big white rooster, but Dan is remembered on the menu as ‘Bad Ass Yard Bird’ or BAYB. The Salty BAYB Daddy is one of the waffle sandwiches made with chicken, cheese and bacon. “I promise you our chicken doesn’t taste like anything you’ve ever tasted before. I import ingredients from around the world to make the chicken batter. I’ve created this unique flavor with amazing health benefits,” says the restaurateur.
The Waffles and Whatnot Experience
Whether his customers are eating in Waffles and Whatnot or ordering Green’s specialty food products, he wants them to be a part of the WAWN experience. It begins with the motto: No Gimmicks. Just Greatness. It means caring more about what he describes as “foodgasms’” than the dollars he collects each day.
“The greatness part is measured when I have a grown man bite into a sandwich and make an involuntary moan or a groan. We call that a mangasm. Or he rolls his eyes into the back of his head, or leans back away from the table,” says Green.
And it’s not just the men, the restaurant CEO adds with a big laugh. “I had this woman come in, and she bit into my chicken and said, ‘Baby, you done put your whole foot into this thing.’ That’s a foodgasm, which is the greatness I’m talking about. The key part is that she’s going to come back. More than 85% of my customers that try the food come back, and they bring people with them.”
As soon as they enter, diners coming into Waffles and Whatnot are surrounded by another aspect of the WAWN experience. The inspirational quotes on the walls and the mural on the floor reflect more than a bright-colored décor. “The first thing you step on when you come into the restaurant is the Road to Happiness. Right after that is the mural that says Black Lives Matter with different words that have impacted me,” Green says.
Green believes difficult, face-to-face talks must occur more frequently in our communities to curtail the hate rhetoric, racial discord and mass shootings in America. The retired Army man and father of four wants what people see inside his restaurant to spark down-to-earth conversations.
He had one of those discussions with a woman who has a Ph.D. and a high-ranking military husband because the Black Lives Matter mural angered her. “We sat down for about four hours. Tears were shed as she learned what that statement meant to me, and I learned what that statement meant to her.”
Perhaps the most valuable assets Green shares are the knowledge and wisdom gained from his life experiences. His daughter Mia resented the 16 to 20-hour workdays her dad devoted to his business. When the pandemic forced the exchange student to leave Germany, she started working at Waffles and Whatnot. Training at the restaurant taught her what it means to other people.
One of those patrons is a mother who finally feels safe eating out with her child. Green goes the extra mile, including taking out a new waffle iron to accommodate the youngster’s severe food allergy. “Mia, who is very empathic and emotionally aware, has changed her perspective.”
The social enterprise Green started with a mixing bowl in his kitchen serves as the foundation for his dreams of promoting the well-being of others by expanding Waffles and Whatnot. In April, the entrepreneur partnered with a struggling business to open his second location. The owners of Elim’s Café, Kelvin Guzman and Armi Abuan, will feature their best Dominican, Puerto Rican and Filipino dishes with top sellers from Waffle and Whatnot’s menu.
“It means a lot to take these entrepreneurs and wrap a success system around them, so they have a greater chance of making it,” says Green. “You have people who pour their entire lives into this thing. They know how to cook, but they don’t necessarily have the business experience behind them. That’s how I lost my restaurant in Eagle River.”
Waffles and Whatnot’s CEO envisions creating WAWN University to build one of the nation’s largest franchise operations. His idea is to fuse the culinary talents of people who own food trucks, coffee shops and small cafés with his formula for the WAWN experience. They would learn the practical systems and financial literacy necessary for businesses to thrive
In the meantime, Green continues to educate himself and build on the success of Waffles and Whatnot. Publicity from Food Network, Amazon’s Black Accelerator Program, Meta’s (formerly Facebook) Small and Medium Business Council and Entrepreneur Magazine is raising his national profile and reputation.
The Anchorage businessman knows he would never have achieved so much if he hadn’t done the one thing all successful entrepreneurs do: keep going through failures, upsets, divorces, bankruptcies or other setbacks. “You want to look in the mirror and say I gave this everything that I have. I gave it my best. If you can’t say you gave it your best, then you’ve wasted your time.”