There’s a reason behind most everything in Derrick Green’s Anchorage restaurant, Waffles and Whatnot.
The picnic benches are red in homage to his late mother, who had HIV/AIDS. Words of affirmation and praise written in Sharpie decorate nearly every wall. In the kitchen, a quote from Oprah is written in blue marker on the freezer door.
The restaurant is emblematic of the triumphs and tribulations of an entrepreneur working to build something in his community.
Waffles and Whatnot, located at 500 Muldoon Road, features a selection of chicken and waffles, often tailored to customers’ allergy and dietary restrictions.
“I think that small businesses have a responsibility to build community, especially in this divided country that we live in right now,” he said.
Green started Waffles and Whatnot in 2016 with a folding picnic table in downtown Anchorage. Located outside Sara’s Gift Cache on Fourth Avenue, he cooked his waffles to order and eventually upgraded his set-up to a homemade cart. One summer, he built a coffee shack and operated in Kenai during dipnetting season.
“At that point, I fell in love with it,” Green said. “I truly fell in love with entrepreneurship.”
The rocky road to building a business
After 17 years in the military, Green left active duty in the National Guard to pursue his passion. He went on to purchase a food truck and landed a six-month slot at the Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson commissary.
On Nov. 23, 2018, he opened his first restaurant in Eagle River. He used $7,000 of life insurance he received from his mother after her death on Nov. 1 of that year and $10,000 he had raised.
Seven days later, a 7.1 earthquake rattled Southcentral Alaska and “just broke everything,” Green said. Shortly afterward, the Eagle River home he shared with his late wife was foreclosed. “I can’t tell you the soul-crushing guilt that I have for losing that house,” he said.
“I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, and I failed,” Green said. He ended up losing the Eagle River restaurant in 2019.
“So many entrepreneurs have this fantasy of what entrepreneurship is, and they think that they can come in and stick a toe in and you can’t, you’re not going to succeed,” he said. “You have to give it every freaking thing. And understand that you could lose everything.”
After attending a franchise conference in California, Green returned to Alaska with a mission to make his business work. On his drive home from the airport, he found a building for lease in Muldoon that would eventually become the restaurant he operates out of today.
At the beginning of February 2020, Green moved his food truck into the parking lot outside the building. The following month, he was able to offer indoor seating. Then his restaurant, like so many others in Anchorage, had to endure the ups and downs of the pandemic.
“Every day once I hit my break-even number ... I was like, ‘OK, I can go get 5 gallons of paint. OK, I can go get a couple sheets of drywall. I can go get some nails and some screws.’ And that’s how I began building this restaurant,” he said.
The first door he’s ever built is painted sky blue and leads to the restaurant’s restrooms.
Near the kitchen, a new addition stands out boldly against a red wall. For some in the food world, the gray and gold stencil of a face with spiky hair and sunglasses carries the weight of an Olympic gold medal.
“Guy! Ate Here,” it reads. Underneath is the signature of the Mayor of Flavortown himself, Guy Fieri, dated October 2021.
The Food Network show “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” is on its 42nd season and is hosted by Fieri, who travels across the country to visit accomplished “greasy spoon” restaurants. Episode 4 featured Waffles and Whatnot, and premiered Friday night on the Food Network channel.
Within the next month, Green plans to open his second location with Elim Cafe’s owners. The location at Dimond and C Street will feature a few Dominican, Puerto Rican and Filipino-inspired dishes, in addition to Waffles and Whatnot’s traditional menu items.
A personal connection to the food he serves
Green grew up in Fort Pierce, a city on Florida’s eastern coast. His mother, Linda Anderson Gilliam, worked in fruit packaging and made $4 an hour. When minimum wage increased by 25 cents, he remembers that his mom cried.
“I remember feeling worthless, standing in a welfare line with my mom waiting on government cheese and the milk and the butter and the big rolls of baloney that we used to get, and things like that,” Green said.
At the time, he had a pet chicken named Dan who, ironically, loved fried chicken.
Dan was “a big white rooster that thought he was a dog and he used to walk me to school,” Green said. “But my mom would say things like, ‘You better control that badass yard bird.’ ”
Now, his signature chicken batter dons the name “Bad Ass Yard Bird” in his mother’s honor.
For Green it was a privilege to give his 18-year-old daughter, Mia — the oldest of his four children — her first job and W-2.
“For my daughter to know where I come from, and to see where I am, and for her to be in the kitchen when Guy Fieri comes in and she gets to meet Guy is almost indescribable,” Green said.
Since Waffles and Whatnot’s inception, Green has made 100 versions of his waffles, ranging from keto-friendly, vegetarian and vegan options to gluten free or low/no oil — and everything in between.
That’s helped him accommodate people with food sensitivities and allergies like Green’s first wife, Shirili, who died of cancer after six years. During that time, it was difficult for her to find food that was nutritious and that she could stomach through waves of chemotherapy-induced nausea. In addition, Green’s mother had HIV/AIDS and took numerous supplements.
Green wanted to find healthy and nourishing options for them while still providing American-style comfort foods. That’s a goal he’s carried on today.
“If you came in, and you told me that you’re allergic to iodine and corn, I’m going to make sure that you can eat with everybody else in your group,” he said. “With that, we have waffle mixes in the back that have people’s names on the bag.”
In addition to operating the restaurant, Green manufactures waffle mixes and house sauces for distribution at Anchorage’s Natural Pantry. Eventually his products will be sold at five of the state’s eight Walmarts, he said.
Waffles and Whatnot is more than just a business for Green — there are layers to his story, but through it all, it remains a way to give back to his community.
“One in 15 black men are incarcerated,” Green said. “One in three black men will see the inside of a jail or prison cell in their lifetime. And with numbers like that, I have to build something that people like my dad, when he does get out, they have a place to go.”
“I have been blessed with a vision for how I can make a difference,” he said. “And I’m in pursuit of that.”