The co-owner of Nana's Chicken-N-Waffles created a successful restaurant without any culinary experience, and she's using her story to inspire other women to achieve their goals.
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Kelli Ferrell
Corey Reese Photography
| Credit: Corey Reese Photography

When Kelli Ferrell decided she wanted to open a restaurant, she had no idea where to start. She just knew she loved cooking classic family recipes and sharing them with others.

She struggled, hard, to get to where she is now—the proud co-owner of Southern comfort food restaurant Nana's Chicken-N-Waffles in Conyers, Georgia, which she runs with her husband, Mark. Three years in, she's still putting in close to 12-hour days every single day to keep business smooth. She's often up until midnight working on this or that for the restaurant. Amidst it all, she's raising five daughters and, ideally, living in a clean home. 

She works hard, but she does it for a greater purpose: to show women, especially her daughters, that they can do anything they want—including opening a restaurant without any previous restaurant experience. 

Nana's Chicken-N-Waffles was born from a vision board Kelli and Mark made in 2016 that illustrated what they wanted to accomplish in the next several years. Mark and Kelli both grew up in kitchens—Mark in New Orleans with his restaurateur father, Kelli in Baltimore with her mom and grandma (the famous Nana in Nana's Chicken-N-Waffles). The Ferrells always dreamed of sharing their family's recipes, and Kelli had entrepreneurial experience as a boutique owner and wedding and event planner. So they added opening a restaurant to their vision board.

"I just thought it would be fun," Kelli says. "I said, 'We'll just cook for people and have a good time.' I thought it was going to be easy."

Far from it. Kelli struggled to get help and support. "I didn't have the tools or knowledge, so I had to do a lot of it own my own through YouTube videos, Google forums, and trial and error," she says. She remembers an encounter with an industry expert who told her all of her ideas were bad—that closing at 4 p.m. would never work, that the menu needed to be bigger, that the planned venue wasn't good.

"It was a lot of 'nos' before it became a lot of 'yesses,'" she says, "but I was determined to really make it work and prove them wrong."

Kelli Ferrell Nana's Chicken-N-Waffles Cajun Shrimp & Grits
Credit: Corey Reese Photography

So she put her head down, did the work, and opened a restaurant on December 26, 2016—yes, the day after Christmas.

Now in its third year, Nana's Chicken-N-Waffles is so successful that Kelli and Mark are opening a second Atlanta location in 2020, with a third location in Baltimore to follow. The restaurant's family-inspired food (Nana's famous fried chicken, Mark's beignets and shrimp and grits, Kelli's waffles in her favorite dessert flavors) is so popular Kelli wrote a cookbook, Kooking with Kelli: Kollection of Family Recipes from Nana's Chicken-N-Waffles, to make it more accessible. She's already got plans for a second cookbook. 

Kelli's proud of her success, but most important to her is turning her story into action for the next generation of women entrepreneurs. She speaks at dozens of women's leadership and working mom events, where her message is simple: Keep going, and don't give up. "Where would I be if I had let that gentleman tell me things weren't going to work?" she asks.

She's also enthusiastic about opening a restaurant in Baltimore because, growing up there, she never saw people who looked like her owning businesses, and she wants to make sure the next generation of young Baltimore girls do see that. "I think it's amazing to be able to show people that an African-American woman can have a successful business and, hey, not even have that culinary degree and background," she says.

Credit: Corey Reese Photography

Soon, she'll launch Women in Restaurants, an educational portal and community that gives women the tools and information they need to make their goals a reality. "It's to give them the tools they need that I didn't have," she says.

And most importantly, Kelli wants to make sure her daughters know they can have it all. "If you have passion for something, then you can do it, and don't let people tell you anything different."