Adenah Bayoh was born in the small town of Foya, Liberia. She got her first taste of entrepreneurship at 6 years old carrying bread baskets. At the end of each day, she would lower her prices to ensure all her inventory was sold. Bayoh’s family fled Liberia when she was 9 due to civil war, and immigrated to the U.S. at 13. Her first taste of the food franchise industry was as a teenager working at McDonald’s.
Franchise ownership wasn’t part of Bayoh’s plan. She attended New Jersey’s Fairleigh Dickinson University and earned a bachelor’s degree in business management. After graduating, she worked in banking and began investing in multifamily homes.
I had the honor of speaking with Bayoh to capture her unique journey to owning multiple IHOP franchises, as well as launching her own restaurant venture, Cornbread.
Thank you so much for sharing your story with BE readers. You were recently featured on the cover of Franchise Times magazine, where you shared a great deal about how you became an IHOP franchise owner. Unlike most franchisees, you pursued ownership out of frustration and obstacles. The first frustration was that there were very few food franchise options when you went back and visited the town you grew up in. The second was that you were essentially dismissed by a gentleman that you approached to purchase his café. Do you think you would have become an IHOP owner were it not for those frustrations?
No, probably not. I think sometimes in life you set out to do one thing, but your journey and your experiences lead you to your true purpose. When I think about the life that I’m living now, it is truly reflective of what I feel I was called to do. I’m passionate about ensuring that women, Black Americans, and other people of color have the same access to opportunities. I am extraordinarily grateful that where I sit today is a place where I have a platform to affect change, and I don’t take this blessing for granted. Whenever I’m at a table it’s about how do I make room for someone who doesn’t have access. When I’m speaking to my counterparts, how do I advocate for the communities that I do business in. Maybe someone in that community doesn’t have a platform to speak about the lack of quality businesses or quality franchises in their community. I take these things very seriously. Had I not encountered so many obstacles and difficulties growing up, I don’t think I would be sitting here today because there would be no appreciation for it.
Making the Most of Having the Franchisor’s Ear
A number of Black franchise owners have expressed how franchisors underestimate the buying power and loyalty of Black consumers. Why do you think that is?
I think we’re beginning to see this dynamic shift. I think the younger generation wants to be more inclusive. They want to live in diverse and culturally vibrant communities. No communities speak to that right now better than our urban centers. The same attributes that have been used against us, are now making our communities very attractive to people that want to live where we are. What was once called “ghetto,” they want to call home. But sadly, we are not benefiting, and the result is often gentrification. Many of our businesses are being forced out of their own neighborhoods, which is why real estate development is the other aspect of my business portfolio.
As Black consumers, we must better leverage our spending power. We need to be strategic with where we spend our dollars and ensure that the businesses that we support are investing in our communities, not just taking from them. Are they hiring from our communities? Are they providing us with the same level of service? We must consistently align ourselves with brands that support our values. If social justice is important to you, then make demands by using the “dollar protest.” If you don’t agree with what my values are, I just won’t support you. We don’t have to argue about it. For too long, many of us had not used our buying power to hold businesses accountable who sought to exploit our community. But I do think that this is changing. More Black consumers are recognizing their influence and leveraging it accordingly, especially the younger generation. They understand the power that their spending has and they are not afraid to use it and demand better. As a franchise owner, I can impact change by giving Black consumers the option to purchase high-quality services in their own community and not have to go to another community to spend those dollars.
I understand you were turned down for a loan by at least seven banks. How do you push through something like that and not get discouraged?
I think you have to understand your “why.” When you know your “why,” the “how” is easy. And you are not easily deterred. I knew why I wanted to build my first IHOP. So, one bank saying no wasn’t going to deter me from my “why.” Every day I’m reminded of my “why.” I’m doing this to affect change. I want another young girl to see me and say I too can do that. Because you can’t be what you can’t see. I firmly believe that every no brings you closer to your yes. Don’t take a no as a negative thing. When one door closes, another one opens. But you have to continue to turn the knob. So, when I was turned down by a bank, I didn’t take the notion of “I disagree with you.” I asked, “What made you say no to this application?” They gave me the answer, I took it, I worked on that issue, and went to the next bank. When the next bank turned me down, I asked why and fixed it. And I continued that until I got to my yes. And when I got my yes, it was a two-day process.
Success With IHOP and Beyond
You currently own three IHOP locations with a fourth under development. Do you plan to continue adding IHOP restaurants to your portfolio and are you looking at some non-food related businesses?
IHOP has been wonderful to me. I will continue to grow with this company as far as it takes me. The baby I’m nurturing right now is Cornbread. I wholeheartedly want to make Cornbread the first national soul food restaurant concept in the country. I know the influence I can have there. The decision starts with me and my board. I’m also open to non-food brands. As I mentioned, real estate development is also a significant part of my business. I redevelop properties in underserved communities. Many of my projects are mixed-use, meaning a building with several units of housing on top and retail on the ground floor. The residential portion of my mixed-use buildings consists of affordable or mixed-income housing because I want to ensure that I don’t contribute to gentrification. My goal is to make high-quality housing accessible to people in the communities where I am developing. I have a large portfolio of projects in multiple cities in New Jersey.
Your IHOP stores are exceeding the system’s $2 million annual average gross sales mark. What do you attribute that to?
The community support. I have strong community support. They give to me and I give right back to them. We’re not perfect. Do we get it right all the time? No. When we don’t, we’re very sincere in our apology and we make up for the misstep. I attribute my success to being present in these communities and building trust. They have opened their hearts and homes to these restaurants. I can’t think of any other thing that has made me successful besides my love for community. Pouring my love back into these communities as much as they have poured into me. It’s the one thing I can attest to as to why my restaurants continue to be successful.
The COVID-19 Effect
How has COVID impacted your IHOP business and when something so large upends pretty much everything, how do you plan to get to the other side of it?
When the COVID-19 pandemic occurred, I was scared, worried, and extremely stressed out. You see your revenues plummet—90% gone. Some stores were down 80%, and we continue to struggle. What has been extremely meaningful for me is the pivot. I am more productive when I’m focused on helping my team and my community. It was easy to say “woe is me,” but then I pivot to how I can help my community come out on the other side of this thing much better.
I’ll tell you how we did that. We did that by giving out free pancakes to anyone that showed up between 8-10 a.m. We gave free breakfast sandwiches to school-age kids who were no longer attending class in person, and sadly, not knowing where the next meal was coming from. We delivered meals to seniors, hospitals, and first responders for free. Once I started focusing on how I could help other people, my problems became fewer. Was I losing money? Absolutely! But was I focusing on that all day? No, I wasn’t. So that made it very easy for me to continue to give to others. I was so lucky to have a business open. Others had lost their jobs, loved ones, and their kids were out of school. Once I did that, I felt a shift, a complete shift, in my thinking.
Creating New Opportunities
In 2017, you partnered with a good friend to open your first Cornbread restaurant in Maplewood, New Jersey. Are you planning to franchise the concept in the next few years? If so, will you be doing anything different from the traditional franchise offering?
Yes, we will be doing some different things. One of the programs I want to do is invite women, particularly Black women, into the franchise process. The way you deliver change in a community is by giving people access to economic opportunity. Black women overwhelmingly start businesses. My next step is to create a program that identifies and recruits those women who were driven to start businesses and back them up with the needed resources. This will increase the likelihood that they will start a business that is successful and sustainable. My objective is to surround them with the right resources and tools so that they start from a position of strength like more advantaged entrepreneurs. Be it financial resources, financial management, etc., all of those things I so wish I had when I started. I want to give them that. I’m coming from two perspectives. I’ve worn both shoes, first a franchisee and very shortly a franchisor. I know what someone just coming into this business can benefit from.
What’s your one piece of advice for readers who really want to be business owners but are afraid and overwhelmed with what goes into it?
There is no right time to start anything. Perfection should not be the enemy of good. You have to start. You will have obstacles thrown at you. Start now, don’t quit, and know your “why.” There’s always light at the end of the tunnel. But you have to keep walking. Rome wasn’t built in one day, but they were working every day.