Refugee turned IHOP franchisee brings the hustle
After being forced to flee her native Liberia, Adenah Bayoh came to the U.S. and is now growing her portfolio of IHOP restaurants, along with independent concept Cornbread.
Though she was among the youngest IHOP franchisees in the country when she opened her first New Jersey restaurant at 27, Adenah Bayoh’s business acumen was evident much earlier as a 6-year-old navigating the market in her Liberian village of Foya. Her grandmother sold bread at the market and “I’d carry it around in a basket on my head,” Bayoh says. “I had the idea to lower the price at the end of the day to get rid of inventory and my bread basket would be completely empty.”
As a young girl Bayoh was surrounded by women “hustling and bustling,” she says, crediting her farm- and bakery-owning grandmother for instilling in her a no-excuses attitude and the determination she’s summoned often since civil war forced her to flee Liberia when she was 9.
After living in a refugee camp in neighboring Sierra Leone, Bayoh immigrated to the United States when she was 13 and ever since, “I’ve worked my little tail off,” she says, immersing herself in education and earning a degree in business management. Through urban renewal projects she’s built a $250 million real estate development portfolio and added two more IHOPs in Paterson and Newark to go along with her top-performing restaurant in Irvington. A fourth IHOP is in the works, as are more locations for her own concept, Cornbread, a fast-casual Southern comfort food spot in Maplewood. “We bring a really fresh twist to soul food,” she says of the restaurant she opened in 2017 with co-founder Zadie B. Smith. The two just announced plans to open three Cornbread restaurants inside Walmart stores in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
It’s been far from an easy road to success for Bayoh, and there were times that she questioned if her first IHOP restaurant would ever open. “No bank would finance me,” she says. “Literally seven banks said no to me.” She eventually connected with what was then GE Capital Franchise Finance and in 2007 opened what later became the fastest growing IHOP in the Northeast.
“I’m a complete optimist,” she stresses. “But I say to people all the time, opening this restaurant is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.
“In hindsight, it shouldn’t be this hard to start a business,” Bayoh continues. “But I had this motivation, I hung on.”
Her grandmother’s sayings—“You might not always be the smartest person in the room, but you can be the hardest working,” is one—still run through her head, providing that motivation she also aims to pass along to her employees. At her restaurants, they don’t just sell pancakes. “I sell the experience and my personality,” Bayoh says, and she extends that philosophy, to which she ultimately credits strong sales, to rigorous employee training. “I focus wholeheartedly on service. If you focus on that, the sales will come.”
While she’s operating in the same tough labor market as practically the entire restaurant industry, by treating employees fairly “and believing in them,” Bayoh’s been able to retain a large chunk of her staff for upwards of 10 years. She likes to think of those workers, from cooks to servers, as having the potential to become “diamonds.”
“Diamonds are just stones, but add a certain pressure and they become diamonds,” she says.
Just as she’s focused her real estate development efforts on urban renewal—one recent project is the redevelopment of the Irvington General Hospital site into mixed-income residential units—Bayoh also puts her restaurants to work supporting the local community. She runs a free breakfast program for Irvington students, sponsors a Thanksgiving turkey giveaway and hosts an annual “Breakfast for Dinner” free holiday meal event for families in need. And she’s not done yet.
“I want to be a champion of women in this space, particularly African American women,” says Bayoh, noting the person who first reached out to GE Capital Franchise Finance on her behalf was a woman. “I want to be a voice for women—I want to make room at the table for women.”
She strives to mentor and elevate her female managers, and reinforces in all employees what she calls a sense of empowerment, not just while they’re working in her restaurants but in life. “I believe there’s a power when we as women come together.”