An often repeated quote about what it takes to succeed is sometimes attributed to the queen of country music Reba McEntire who said, “To succeed in life, you need three things: a wishbone, a backbone and a funny bone.”
The co-owner of Kiki’s Chicken and Waffles in South Carolina heard a slightly different version of the saying: a wishbone, a backbone and a jawbone. “The wishbone means you need to dream big and that life has endless possibilities,” says Kitwanda “Kiki” Cyrus. “The jawbone is being able to ask for help whenever you need it. The last one is the backbone. You definitely need the courage, effort and determination to make sure that you reach your goal.”
Kiki and her husband Tyrone applied all three to their dream of opening a successful restaurant in Columbia, S.C. in 2012. They worked from opening to closing day in and day out to build a business with a reputation for excellent food, prompt service and a family-friendly atmosphere. “It means a lot to see dreams become a reality. Many days of brainstorming and writing our plans and goals on paper, and actually executing those goals made it all a reality,” co-owner Tyrone Cyrus says.
Starting Small, Growing Larger
Kiki and Tyrone met while working at a popular chain restaurant, California Dreaming. They opened their first Kiki’s Chicken and Waffles in a small space where they became the first in Columbia to serve the dish already made famous by Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles which has eight locations in the Los Angeles area.
A trip to the now-closed Gladys Knight’s Chicken & Waffles in Atlanta gave Kiki’s owners the idea for what would attract customers to their restaurant. “Just the fact that people stood in line two hours to get chicken and waffles, I knew it would be a big hit if we brought it to Columbia,” says Kiki.
The couple rolled out a food truck to expand Kiki’s customer base. Before long the menu also grew to include Southern favorites patrons wanted to see on the menu. The restaurant located at 7001 Parklane Road serves fried chicken with waffles, pancakes or French toast. Customers can also order shrimp and grits, a fried fish platter, smothered pork chops, a veggie plate and more. Traditional sides such as mac and cheese, collard greens and sweet potato soufflé are available. “We basically developed our cooking skills from our parents and grandparents,” says Kiki. “My husband is more of a line cook. He knows how to cook and push food out in a certain period.”
Treating Customers Like Family
Kiki’s Chicken and Waffles upholds its slogan, “Hands Down Best Soul Food in Town,” by making it a place that feels like home. From the red velvet waffle with cream cheese icing to the different flavors of Kool-Aid served, people are reminded of favorite meals prepared and seasoned with love. “A lot of people come in and say, ‘I thought my grandmother was working back there because the food is so good.’ People just love it,” Kiki says.
She and Tyrone made it a point to get to know their patrons, visiting each table during the early years. Managers are required to continue the tradition. Tyrone believes that approach, along with the excellent food, live jazz and open mic night, brings people back. “The family atmosphere makes Kiki’s different from other soul food places in Columbia.”
Word of mouth and the four and a half stars from Trip Advisor attract locals as well as celebrities visiting from out of town such as NFL Hall of Famer Deion Sanders. Former presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton dined there during a campaign stop, and so did then-Vice President Joe Biden. “Just having the Secret Service come in and have to pat you down to get into your own restaurant. It was an amazing experience,” says Kiki.
Becoming Parents with New Priorities
Priorities shifted for the restaurateurs when their now three-year-old son Tyler was born. Tyrone still opens a couple days a week. Kiki stops in to check on operations and work on the accounting books. They trained managers, cooks and servers to run the restaurant and maintain quality so that they could spend more time together as a family. Kiki also does the restaurant’s catering, so an organized, efficient schedule is a necessity. “When we opened, we did not have any kids. We could get up and go to the restaurant at any time. We didn’t have to take care of a little one.”
Plans for opening a second Kiki’s Chicken and Waffles in Harbison next month also keeps the couple on the run. The new restaurant is located in a busy commercial area next to a movie theater. Kiki sees the expansion as an opportunity to attract new clientele. The Parklane location is furnished with booths that cannot accommodate large groups. The new Bower Parkway location will have tables that can be moved together. “We have outdoor seating at this one. Also, we have a private dining room that we will allow people to rent out. A lot of guests want to have a reserved space for baby showers and birthday parties,” Kiki says.
Rewards Outweigh Challenges
The Cyruses recognize that they will take on additional challenges with the opening of a second restaurant. Kiki understands that maintaining the quality and consistency at both locations is vital to their continued success. “We’re just going to stay on top of it, and make sure the managers are on top of the cooks and making sure our servers are providing good customer service like we want it to be.”
As a 2018 chef ambassador for the state of South Carolina, Kiki has gained additional knowledge and experience making guest appearances and doing cooking demonstrations. Meeting so many different people is one of the most rewarding aspects of owning a business. She recalls the time two elementary school students came into Kiki’s Chicken and Waffles with their parents after she gave a business presentation at their school. “That type of stuff makes your heart smile. You’re able to touch kids and people who want to open their own business but just aren’t sure how to do it or don’t think their dream can come true.”
For Tyrone, the most rewarding aspect of owning a restaurant is putting a smile on customers’ faces. His advice to anyone who wants to succeed as a restaurateur is simple, “Have a passion for the restaurant business, and do it because you love doing it.”
Kiki also suggests that entrepreneurs learn early that they will not please everyone. “Don’t give up. You’ll have people say certain things that are not true. Everybody is not going to love you or like your business.”
And remember the three strong bones that helped the Cyruses succeed: wishbone, jawbone and backbone. “We both had a dream to open a successful restaurant someday, and that determination and hard work are what got us there,” says Tyrone.