Making her own opportunities and victories in an industry that doesn't always greet new Black entrepreneurs with open arms.
By Kiki Cyrus as told to Sucheta Rawal
Zagat Stories makes coverage of Black subjects a priority year round, along with people and subjects underrepresented in media generally. In recognition of Black History Month 2021, all Zagat Stories in February will focus exclusively on interviews with Black chefs, restaurateurs, bartenders, brewers, bakers, and others in and around hospitality.
Kiki Cyrus worked at several restaurants through college before opening Kiki’s Chicken and Waffles in Columbia, South Carolina. Her restaurants have become a popular stop for politicians and celebrities, including Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton.
I opened Kiki’s Chicken and Waffles along with my then-boyfriend—now husband—Tyrone Cyrus, in August 2012. Our dream was to open our own restaurant. We were young, inexperienced, yet we knew what we wanted.
I majored in marketing and sports entertainment management at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. As a college student, I also worked at restaurants, mainly because I always had a passion for cooking and learning about the restaurant industry. During my summer internships in Charleston and Chicago, I continued to work at restaurants in the evenings and weekends. But when I graduated in 2009, there weren’t many jobs here, and I wasn’t open to moving.
However, the restaurant industry around me was booming. The southeast restaurant chain where Tyrone and I worked was always packed with large crowds. That’s where we learned the ins and outs of operating a high-volume restaurant.
I wanted to be a chef, but no one would give me a position. Maybe they believed that I couldn’t do the job—that I didn’t qualify because I did not have a culinary degree, but I think it was mainly because I am a Black female. I was competing with other male chefs in a male-dominated career. So I took upon myself to open my own restaurant where I won’t need to compete, and where I could also give other women the opportunities I didn’t get.
One weekend, Tyrone and I took a short road trip to Atlanta and ate at the iconic Gladys Knight’s Chicken and Waffles. We stood in line for two hours. It was ridiculous to wait that long for food, but people did. They were even willing to travel out of town for chicken and waffles. We did too! That’s when I told Tyrone that we needed to bring the chicken and waffles concept to Columbia.
The banks did not want to lend us money because restaurants are “risky.” The landlords told us that we didn’t have any business experience, and they didn’t want to rent space to us. Yet after months of searching, we found a very small location where we opened the first Kiki’s Chicken and Waffles.
My name is Kitwanda Cyrus, but I go by my nickname Kiki. Most people think it’s a made up name and are often surprised to find out there’s a real “Kiki” behind Kiki’s restaurants. When I walk around the dining room, they don’t realize it’s actually me—a young female chef-owner. When I introduce myself to strangers in the city, some people exclaim, “You’re not Kiki of Kiki’s Chicken and Waffles, are you? Oh my God! You’re so famous!” But I don’t feel famous. I worked hard for this.
The first two weeks after opening my first restaurant were extremely slow. I could count how many customers came through the door. I was second-guessing myself. Had we made the right decision?
Then one of my classmates who worked at a radio station in Columbia reached out to me. He recommended that I ask USC’s women’s basketball team coach, Dawn Staley, to help with my advertising campaign. She was a local celebrity and did a radio commercial for the restaurant. That’s when things began to change. People heard about us on the radio, came to try our fried chicken wings and Belgian waffles, posted on social media, and helped spread the word.
Two years into business, we decided to get a food truck so we could hit different areas of Columbia and reach people who couldn’t get to us. We went to job sites, hospitals, and schools. Business was good. We got rights to sell at the Colonial Life Arena during games and concerts. We expanded our restaurant to three times its original size, with lots of seating and private rooms.
When someone asks me how I got celebrities to come and eat at my restaurant, I tell them that I have no idea! People ask each other for dining recommendations on social media, and our fans send them here. Over the years, famous chefs, sports figures, and politicians have eaten at my restaurant. Once I saw on Twitter that Deion Sanders was on his way over to Kiki’s, and I rushed down there to meet him. Another time, I got a call asking me to prepare for Joe Biden’s visit. He was coming to eat in an hour or two. I didn’t even know how to prepare! The Secret Service had barricaded the entire area, and I was patted down to enter my own restaurant. They watched me cook his food and asked that he be seated in public view. I remember he ordered my signature chicken and red velvet waffle with cream cheese frosting, along with a glass of ice tea.
By summer of 2019, news of Kiki’s famous sweet and savory pairings and soul food dishes had spread across the country. We had long lines, and we didn’t want our customers to wait for hours. We decided to open a second restaurant on another side of Columbia.
After a busy holiday season and tax month, the pandemic hit us hard in March 2020. We closed the second location for a few weeks, reduced capacity, and pivoted to take-out. Sales dropped considerably, but the carry-out business did relatively well. In the south, people understand that small businesses are important for the community, so they continued to support us.
Our food truck did even better. Generally we don’t bring out the food truck during colder months. But we got a lot of requests from schools and offices. With a turn toward feeling safer outdoors and being socially distant, people hosted important celebrations in their backyards instead of our restaurants. We were asked to cater weddings, baby showers, and graduation cookouts during the pandemic.
Normally, the food truck would not be a huge source of revenue, but during COVID, it helped supplement our business. We charge a minimum of $500 to come out for an event, and most of our meals cost around $9. We probably make over $1,000 at each event. During the pandemic, we have had an event almost every week—sometimes every other week. I think about how so many restaurants are suffering right now and how we lucked out with the food truck.
Another reason the food truck did better than the restaurant is because Kiki’s Chicken and Waffles is normally seen as a crowded place. It is where families come for celebrations and sit for hours. They enjoy the good food, good music, and homey atmosphere. Some people don’t feel comfortable coming out to a restaurant right now, even at 50 percent dine-in capacity and distant tables, masks, QR code menus, and hand sanitizers. Some folks don’t even want to step inside to pick up a to-go order! That’s why they like the food truck. They can be outside and get their favorite Kiki’s dishes safely.
Like most brick-and-mortar restaurants, we continue to have expenses for rent, staff, food, and so on. But we don’t feel it is right to close in lieu of the food truck, because it would make some customers angry. I got a lot of pushback even when we closed one of our locations for six weeks when the pandemic started. Thankfully, we had a rainy-day cash reserve, and even though money has been tight, the food truck has played a big part in our restaurant portfolio.
I love our customers and pride myself in how I have managed the business. It was hard at first. Tyrone and I worked from opening to closing, and we closed at 2 a.m.! We were doing everything ourselves. Over time, we learned to balance family, business, and life. We hired good managers, assistants, and waitstaff that helped us grow. We put processes in place so we won’t have to physically be in the restaurants all the time. This will help us expand further. Once the pandemic slows down, I plan to open another location, perhaps in Rock Hill, Augusta, or Charleston, where many of our customers are traveling from.
I always tell people that you need to have three bones to be successful in life—a wishbone, a backbone, and a funny bone. I had a wish to open my own restaurant and strived toward it, with the intention of never giving up no matter what happens. The pandemic is not going to stop me. I plan to continue to open more locations.
A strong backbone is needed to keep going when things get tough. If you have a restaurant, it will never be easy. Unexpected things will come up, and you will just need to fix them or pivot and find a way to get through.
And a funny bone is having a sense of humor to get through difficult times. It’s when a customer complains that he did not like the food, and I turn to him and say, “Perhaps you enjoyed the ambiance better!”