In the 14 months it has been open, Ceci’s Chicken and Waffles drawn eager diners to North Little Rock with talented cooking and an honest approach to soul food. All this week, Rock City Eats is celebrating black-owned businesses in Little Rock’s food scene that provide diversity, passion and excellence on an everyday basis. This is the second in a five-part series.
All around the country, it’s easy to find people who can cook. Maybe you had their food at a potluck, or got invited to dinner, and you came away saying, “They should open a restaurant!” And yet, the restaurant business is brutal, claiming victims every single day who can cook just fine but don’t have what it takes to run a food business. It takes dedication, business sense, discipline and exhaustingly hard work to make a restaurant succeed, and that’s before we ever talk about the food. That should tell you a lot about Ciceley McDowell, the woman who started Ceci’s Chicken and Waffles just over a year ago. In that time, Ceci’s has become a North Little Rock icon, luring diners across the river (even sans Broadway Bridge) for a taste of Ceci’s soul food. But don’t be surprised; McDowell’s success runs in the family.
“My mom has been self-employed all her life, so I came from a household of entrepreneurship,” says McDowell. “I saw my mom own a clothing store all my life, and my grandfather catered for the governor’s mansion during Bill Clinton’s time there.”
McDowell graduated with a degree in human resources and started her career at a juvenile facility before opening her own hair and nail salon. McDowell ran a successful salon for 13 years before joining Power Ultra Lounge in downtown Little Rock. It was there people realized that McDowell had talent as a chef.
“People used to say, ‘You should cook, you should get a restaurant.’ And I never thought about doing that,” says McDowell. “I knew the soul food would work, because I had done that at Power, and plus I eat my own food, so I know it’s good. I kind of added the chicken and waffles to that, and we started pulling in people that way.”
One bite at Ceci’s is enough to see why it’s quickly become a favorite. The waffles are made with plenty of real butter, the chicken and soul food are seasoned well every time, and even an uncelebrated dish like chicken gizzards becomes a delicious delicacy under McDowell’s preparation. And Ceci’s hot sauce alone is worth getting in your car and driving for miles to experience. McDowell credits her family, especially her grandmother, for her culinary skills.
“These are all my grandmother’s recipes,” says McDowell. “The macaroni and cheese, the greens are made fresh every day, nothing canned. The candied yams, we candy and peel them ourselves.
“That’s me, the soul food is grandma and what I was raised on. The chicken and waffles is from me traveling and going to different states. All of this food is just different parts of who I am.”
Still, opening and running Ceci’s hasn’t been easy. Like other black business owners we spoke with for this series, the issue of capital was a major obstacle to getting the restaurant off the ground. McDowell started Ceci’s with $300 and several months behind on her rent, and she says it’s a common problem for young black entrepreneurs.
“Being able to go and get a loan, that’s the biggest challenge I think in the black community, is our credit. We either messed it up on student loans when we were younger, or we have liens on our credit that’s just a revolving door that you haven’t had the finances to try to clear that up. So you just don’t have that support.
“I was fortunate enough to have help. My back was up against the wall. But my church donated some money, friends donated chairs, others donated paint. They lifted me up and pulled together to do this. I didn’t have it alone.”
McDowell is now giving back to the community that supported her restaurant from the beginning. When she gets time away from the restaurant, she talks to high school students about owning a business and the hard work it takes to keep things going.
“Before I got this, that’s what I wanted to do,” says McDowell. “I want to tell kids, you don’t have to wait until you get grown or get a college degree to try to launch your gift. You can do it now. Most of the time your gift is right there. It’s just natural. But where much is given, much is required. It’s a lot of hard work, a lot of dedication. You have to have your priorities in order.”
McDowell made it a point to tell me that her Christian faith is a huge part of her life and her work at Ceci’s. She referenced Matthew 17, a story of faith and obedience, as being particularly important to her attitude.
“I’m a faith person, and my business is built on my faith,” says McDowell. “I believe in God, and I believe in the mustard seed. Every time I go talk somewhere, I always bring up that Ceci’s Chicken and Waffles is the story of the mustard seed, not the jolly green giant. The green giant is a fairy tale, but the mustard seed is for real.”