It is often said that in order to be successful, you need to make a career out of something that you love. Using that criteria, Tonya Cornelius, owner of Chef T Takeout, is destined for success.
Tonya “Chef T” Cornelius is a Columbia native. A 2001 graduate of Keenan High School, Cornelius joined the Army after high school.
“I joined the Army, which is something I thought I would never do,” Cornelius recalled. “I knew that if I joined, they would pay my way through college.”
Cornelius served as an aviation special and was stationed at Fort Drum, located in northern New York state.
“It was 20 miles from the Canadian border. It was COLD – especially for a southern girl up there – oh my gosh. It frequently got below zero degrees. I served my whole enlistment at Fort Drum. That’s probably why I got out,” she laughed.
In 2005, Cornelius left the Army and returned to South Carolina. After being reacclimated to southern climate, she got a job working in food service at Bookman Road Elementary School. Although she loved her job and the people she met, she realized that she could not stay there.
“They made me feel so comfortable there, I knew I had to leave because I didn’t want to wake up 15-20 years later still working in the cafeteria. There is nothing wrong with that, but I knew I didn’t want that to be my path,” she said.
Cornelius got a new job working at a sorority house in USC’s Greek Village.
“I applied for a cooking position, but they put me in as a dishwasher,” she recalled.
Things were going fine – until tragedy struck. A close family member died unexpectantly.
“I lost my cousin,” Cornelius said. “We were six months apart, and we graduated together. She was more like my sister. It made me look at my life and realized that I needed to do something.”
Cornelius dreamed of opening her own business.
“I really just wanted to do a food truck, but I couldn’t afford the food truck that I wanted. It was cheaper for me to go the restaurant route,” she says.
Cornelius began driving around town looking for the perfect location to open a restaurant. Her journey led her to the food court at Dutch Square Mall. She launched her restaurant, which she named Chef T Takeout, in October 2016.
“I started out doing baked potatoes and wings,” Cornelius says. “People started asking for more and more things, such as fried rice and crab legs. I started doing everything. It was just too much.”
Cornelius operated in Dutch Square Mall for over two years. But she noticed that traffic in the mall was steadily declining and other restaurants and retailers were moving out. Seeing the handwriting on the wall, she began looking for a new location. She found it in the Greenview Plaza, located at North Main Street and Fontaine Road. Chef T moved to its new location and had its grand opening on March 28, 2019.
“I feel like I have come home since I grew up in the neighborhoods around here,” Cornelius said. “I am back home.”
When she moved to the new location, Cornelius revamped the menu.
“Since we moved to our new location, I have downsized the menu,” she said. “There are some things that I bring back as special items. People can follow me on social media to learn of the current specials.”
Chef T is known for its loaded baked potatoes. Cornelius offers the potatoes with a wide variety of toppings.
“Nobody around here does it like Chef T,” Cornelius says. “We have ribeye steak, bacon, shrimp or chicken. You can top it with one meat or all four. We can add jalapenos, mushrooms – whatever is in the kitchen, we can add to it.”
Chef T also has an extensive soul food menu.
“People love our turkey wings. We can do it baked, fried or smothered. People also love our fried pork chops. I was trying not to fry them, but you have to give people what they want. Mac & Cheese is also one of our signature dishes.”
Chef T also has a variety of dessert items.
“My top selling treat is my peach cobbler dump cake and my strawberry crumb cake cups. It is like a strawberry short cake ice cream.
Cupcakes were popular at the old location, so I guess I am going to have to start making them again,” she laughed.
In addition, Chef T offers catering services. She can cater events from as small as five people up to five hundred. For the right price, she can cater events anywhere in South Carolina. And she is not limited to the items she sells in the restaurant.
“I don’t like to do a set menu,” Cornelius says. “I like to see what the event is and give them a list of items to choose from. Each event is different. I can even do an on-site barbecue. Chef T is versatile!”
Long-term, Cornelius wants to add arcade games and televisions to make the restaurant a neighborhood destination.
“I want it to feel like you are hanging out at your momma’s or grandma’s house,” Cornelius says. “I can also see a food truck in my future.”
When asked why she has been successful, Cornelius says that it is because of love.
“I fell in love with the restaurant business,” she said. “We have food made with love. That is something that should extend to all aspects of your life. You should do everything with love. We need more love in this world.”
Chef T Takeout is located at 6820 North Main Street Suites E & F. Daily specials can be found on its Facebook page at Facebook.com/CHEFTTAKEOUT803.
Chef T Takeout is open for breakfast and lunch Tuesday through Thursday from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. It is open for lunch and dinner on Fridays from 12 noon to 8 p.m., Saturdays from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m., and Sundays from 1:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. Orders can be placed by calling (803) 772-5200 or at ChefTTakout.com. Meal delivery services are available through Waiter, Grubhub and LetsDrive.