Multi-unit IHOP ‘Zee on How Businesses Should Address Racial Inequalities and Shortcomings
"Understand that when PPP loans came out, there were literally African Americans and Latino business owners that said, ‘that’s not meant for me.’ Can you imagine, because we’ve never been in a space where anything has been designed for us?” said Adenah Bayoh, a multi-unit IHOP 'zee.
When Adenah Bayoh opened up her first IHOP restaurant in New Jersey at the age of 27, she was among the youngest IHOP franchisees in the country—and the journey getting there was met with consistent challenges. I spoke with Bayoh about how businesses and franchise leaders should be responding to the killing of George Floyd—an unarmed black man who died on May 25 after former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes while Floyd was handcuffed face down in the street.
Forced to flee Liberia due to civil war when she was 9, Bayoh lived in a refugee camp before immigrating to the U.S. when she was 13. After earning a degree in business management and deciding to become an IHOP franchisee, Bayoh found that seven banks turned her down for financing.
“Black and brown people are struggling in this country,” Bayoh said. “It’s very difficult to get any kind of funding as a black or brown business owner, so when you see a business go up that is minority-owned, understand the struggle to get that business up.”
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. Franchise Times reported last year that through urban renewal projects, Bayoh has 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 currently in development, as are more locations for her own concept, Cornbread, a fast-casual farm-to-table soul food spot in Maplewood.
“The burden of proof is harder for us. When I said, ‘hey, I want to open my own concept for Cornbread,’ people asked, ‘why not open another IHOP? You’re very good at it,’” Bayoh said. “Imagine if I was another person, that conversation more than likely would’ve been different. So I want us to know that the struggle is real.”
As far as how businesses should be responding to recent outrage over racial inequalities, Bayoh suggests a twofold approach: gaining awareness of a company’s own shortcomings and having honest, open dialogue about decision-making and unconscious biases.
“You have some brands with only one black executive, and this is 2020. It’s great to have all these diverse brands and show what we’re doing, but are we truly really living what diversity means? Are we giving power to people who have been marginalized for centuries? What does that look like in your restaurant or business?” Bayoh said. “I think we have to be very honest and open to the answers that come, because George Floyd was the tipping point, but this has been going on for years.”
For Bayoh, bringing awareness to this looks like calling people out at times for their shortcomings. An organization was recently working on a project for Bayoh, and she told them they needed to show up with a more diverse crew. “What I mean by that is, I need you to go find someone of African-American descent, or Hispanic, to participate in this job, and I shouldn’t have to help you do that,” Bayoh said. “It’s being very intentional, being aware and bringing attention to it.”
Another way Bayoh facilitates conversations with her team is simply by sharing her own personal story, and the response from team members has been overwhelmingly positive, Bayoh said.
“I get to be a role model to my team, and they get to see that I’m very honest with my struggles, I’m very honest with my past, I’m very honest with my shortcomings, because I want them to know that as difficult as things are for us—especially black and brown women in business—I want them to know that there is a path out there for them,” Bayoh said. “I want them to be heard, seen and respected.”
‘Change comes about when you’re very uncomfortable’
When COVID-19 hit and shutdowns began, Bayoh made a commitment to cover her staff’s salaries for at least two pay cycles at her restaurants. Even today, she’s still sustaining waitresses and servers as dining rooms are still closed in New Jersey. As Bayoh pivoted like many others to offering 100 percent takeout and delivery, her sales dropped between 50 to 70 percent at her stores.
“Eventually, amidst all the chaos and challenges, we got some kind of relief in PPP loans,” Bayoh said. “But understand that when PPP loans came out, there were literally African Americans and Latino business owners that said, ‘that’s not meant for me.’ Can you imagine, because we’ve never been in a space where anything has been designed for us?”
There is nothing more empowering, Bayoh said, than when she sees a person of color start out as a busser or dishwasher and make their way to manager or owner.
“I want to be a beacon of hope for anyone listening. I want them to know that life is difficult, but we are strong as a people,” Bayoh said. “I made the decision to really participate in my community, to really be present. How we address social ails is happening in urban American right now, and I want to be an active participant.”
Bayoh's urban renewal projects, such as her redevelopment of the Irvington General Hospital site into mixed-income residential units, have helped minimize harm caused by gentrification, where parts of cities are reinvested in by typically upper- or middle-income families or individuals, which often raises property values and displaces low-income families. Bayoh is also running a free breakfast and lunch program for students and delivering meals to essential workers at hospitals during overnight shifts.
"We have our foot heavily engaged in the communities we do business in," Bayoh said. "We pivoted from, 'this is happening to us,' to, 'what is our impact during this time? What are we doing to lessen the burden of other people that are obviously having a harder time right now?'"
Bayoh advises all companies to take a look at how they're showing up in the communities they service.
“I do believe as difficult as things are and as many problems as everybody has, this particular moment we’re experiencing right now is a gift. We have had to change a lot of things, and change is not easy,” Bayoh said. “But change doesn’t come about when you’re comfortable, it comes about when you’re very uncomfortable. Embrace this time right now. The universe is speaking to us and saying that we have to stop, we’re moving too fast and we’re making decisions that are not equitable for everyone…that’s what this pandemic has forced us to do, sit still and think about everything happening.”
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