Kiki Cyrus and Hillary Clinton

Among the political notables to visit Kiki Cyrus at Kiki's Chicken and Waffles: Hillary Clinton. Provided

COLUMBIA — Seven years ago, when Kitwanda "Kiki" and Tyrone Cyrus opened their restaurant, Kiki's Chicken and Waffles, there was no rush to get in the doors. The couple thought there would be an appetite for their signature dish in Columbia's Northeast, but in the first days, the attention they got was scant.

"The opening was very, very slow," Kiki Cyrus said.

Within a few weeks, however, word of mouth took off, helped in part by pictures of meals posted on social media. It also got a boost from one of her previous employers: University of South Carolina women's basketball coach Dawn Staley, who recorded a commercial for Kiki's.

The restaurant has been a huge hit ever since, with wait times of up to two hours common throughout the weekend and celebrities, including presidential candidates, regularly stopping by.

A second location northwest of Columbia has opened this month to help meet the demand for the restaurant's mix of soul food and hospitality. The new location, in the Harbison shopping district, has more than 200 seats and a private dining room. Adding the second restaurant should help them serve guests from that side of Columbia or from the Upstate who have been making the journey to the first location, she said.

From the start, the Cyruses thought that they had a signature dish that would be a hit in the Columbia market even if they didn't imagine the level of popularity that prompts a waiting list for seating beginning at 10 a.m. 

Staley already knew that Kiki Cyrus was a hard worker. She served as USC team manager for Staley's first season, taking on such chores as readying equipment and toting laundry. When she shared her plan to open a restaurant, Staley wanted to help and recorded a commercial.

"I just wanted to support dreams," Staley said. 

At first, the restaurant had a relatively limited menu around the signature chicken and waffles, Kiki Cyrus said. Customers, however, encouraged them to add more soul food to their offerings, such as mac and cheese and collard greens. Those additions have been popular, helping Kiki's fill a niche in the Midlands.

"We really don't have too many soul food restaurants in Columbia," she said.

They had honed the skills to fill that void with years in the restaurant business. Tyrone Cyrus worked for 14 years at the restaurant California Dreaming in Columbia, where Kiki Cyrus also worked part-time while at USC. From that experience they learned the importance of keeping service moving in a busy restaurant, with a goal of bringing food to customers within 13 minutes of the order being placed, she said. 

With the initial location a hit, they pursued other ways to grow before opting for the second location, including a food truck and a sales counter in the Colonial Life Arena. 

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Former Vice President Joe Biden, a regular visitor to South Carolina, was the first national figure to visit the restaurant. The first hint they had about his pending arrival was the Secret Service inspecting the building, she said. 

Other political figures also are dropping by, especially as the state's Democratic primary looms next year. Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York made sure she was supposed to just dig in using her fingers instead of knife and fork during a gathering with black business leaders at Kiki's in February.

Often, Kiki Cyrus said, local customers invite national figures to visit the restaurant. When former pro football and baseball great Deion Sanders recently asked on Twitter where he should eat in Columbia, a surge of replies told him to stop by Kiki's, which he did.

The restaurant's large following of loyal fans reflect its emergence as a hub for the African American community, but Kiki Cyrus said that she and Tyrone take pride in making everyone feel welcome.

"We want that diversity, and we get it a lot," she said. "Everybody likes soul food."

Staley said the restaurant's success as a destination is a result of the capabilities that she saw in Kiki Cyrus at USC.

"She works hard, she's relatable and she opens her arms to the community," Staley said.

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Mike Fitts is a veteran South Carolina journalist who covers business from Columbia.