Before Airbnb, there was the “traditional” B&B. Bed & Breakfasts became popular in the 1960s, after the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. But African-American women have been providing food and hospitality (whether they wanted to or not) since they first came to these shores. So it’s no surprise that Black women are making a name for themselves in the B&B industry.
I’m a huge fan of Cheryl Watkins, owner/innkeeper of Ms. Elsie’s Caribbean B&B in Charlotte, N.C. and Monique Greenwood, owner/innkeeper of Akwaaba Bed & Breakfast Inns, with locations in Brooklyn, Cape May, The Poconos, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. Both innkeepers are tapping into their ancestral “Black Girl Magic,” serving unique hospitality that welcomes repeat guests from all over the world.
Why open a B&B?
Greenwood: I’m passionate about providing people with memorable experiences. And I realized that real estate is the best financial investment you can make. So when I stayed at my first bed & breakfast as a guest, I discovered that all of those things come together in the form of owning and operating a bed & breakfast…I hope to create a legacy for my daughter.
Watkins: Not long after my grandmother, Ms. Elsie, had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, I had a dream. We were eating breakfast and I was crying. And she says, “Cheryl stop crying. You have so much to be thankful for, so celebrate my life.” It was a recurring dream, and when I had the dream on March 2nd of 2000, I found this house the next day. I opened that year on my 39th birthday in September. I’m a people person…and being from the Caribbean, hospitality is in my DNA. I have my grandmother’s love for the kitchen and my mother’s love for crystal and china, and I have brought that beautiful fusion to Ms. Elsie’s.
What do you bring to the industry as a Black woman innkeeper?
Greenwood: I think the world has always known that we are hospitable people. We know how to clean and how to cook. We know how to make you feel at home. Those are the kind of jobs that they made us do, so they ought to give us some level of credit for knowing how to do that well. I have always contended that Black folks pioneered the concept of the bed & breakfast. We were the ones to lay that groundwork — out of adversity comes innovation (a reference to The Green Book). Black guests know that they’re going to come to a place where they’re not just tolerated but where they are celebrated. I want any guest with green money, so all are welcome. But it has even more significance for Black guests…some of our guests have nicknamed Akwaaba “Wakanda!” (a reference to the movie, “Black Panther”).
Watkins: We pride ourselves on five generations of women in business. My great-great-grandmother owned a guest house where people came from all over the world. My great- grandmother had a bakery and was a seamstress, my grandmother, Ms. Elsie, owned a general store and also catered within the community, baking wedding, christening, and birthday cakes. My mother was a private duty registered nurse who also established her own childcare center.
So I’m carrying the torch on this 5th leg as I celebrate my grandmother’s legacy.
Discuss your mission and building your brand.
Greenwood: Sometimes it’s not just [a guest’s] luggage, sometimes they’ve got some baggage, and if we can help them unpack that while they’re with us, then that’s the kind of experience that they’ll never forget. It’s more than “is the food good and is the bed comfortable?” Everybody on my team understands that we’re not just providing a place for people to rest, our mission is much deeper.
Watkins: The gift of hospitality is what I’ve been charged with on a spiritual level. People ask, “Why didn’t I know this was here?” It’s because 98% of my business has been word of mouth.
What are some of your signature dishes for guests?
Greenwood: Our challah bread French toast is very pretty on the plate …. we get our maple syrup straight from the farm in the Poconos. We serve that with sautéed pears and scrambled eggs and turkey bacon. We only serve turkey, chicken or fish products. We don’t serve any beef or pork — trying to get our people healthier if we can. We do shrimp and grits and cornbread. We do the type of breakfast that your mama would have made you, that we’re all too busy to do for ourselves these days.
Watkins: We offer a fine dining, three-course, Caribbean-style breakfast in the morning. We start with a fresh fruit plate, then a seafood entree, and then we wrap it up with dessert. I make St. Martin pan-fried salmon — my own twist on my grandmother’s recipe. We make my grandmother’s black cake, pound cake, grits and salt fish, Johnny cakes, sorrel, a signature house drink “Barbados Lemonade” that my mother-in-law made when my husband was a kid that’s very popular with our guests. My food has a WOW factor! Most people say that the food is too pretty to eat. Everybody grabs a camera before they start eating!
Any challenges as an African-American innkeeper?
Greenwood: The role of innkeeper has been a very white industry and so the predominant guests have not been people of color. Some [White] people will see the website and what we offer and think it’s a good value and decide to be a guest, while others may see that they’re coming into a home owned by a Black person and may be uncomfortable with that. [If that’s the case] I’d rather they go someplace else where they’re comfortable.
Watkins: Sometimes people are shocked to see that I’m a Black innkeeper. But my grandmother’s philosophy was that you meet people right where they are until they show you a different face, and even then it is not your struggle because only God can deal with his children. Spirituality is the core and essence of what I have relied on to carry me through these past 18 years. It is my foundation.
What do you love about being an innkeeper?
Greenwood: The world comes to my home. I get to meet these incredible people every single day and be a part of their lives if only for one night. And I’m just filled by that. I love stepping back and watching that fellowship that happens between the guests. Most come as strangers, but many leave as friends.
Watkins: I enjoy the opportunity to serve people from all over the world. I do it well and hope to pass that torch to others so they can continue to keep the legacy of my grandmother and her grandmother before her. As I always say at the breakfast table, we stand on the shoulders of the ancestors who walked this road before us and we give thanks.
Advice for other women wanting to become innkeepers.
Greenwood: You have to love people. Be a guest in as many B&Bs as you can, and talk to the innkeepers. And as women, we have to understand that we have lots of transferable skills. One girl cold called me to work here. She said, “I’ve never stayed at a bed & breakfast and never ran one, but I raised four children and made their meals every day and made their beds every day and kept a clean house, and I have a good heart and love to serve.” And I said “Well, you know how to do this job. You’re ready, let’s go!”
Watkins: Someone said to me when I started, “Know when you’re going to take your vacation before you do anything else.” Know when you’ll take time for you because this is a business that can consume you. Schedule massages and your “me time.” But that’s important no matter what business you’re in.
What’s next for you?
Greenwood: I want to continue what we’ve been doing well these past 24 years. I’d also like to do another book this year and launch a home decor line.
Watkins: We are considering another location somewhere in the Caribbean in 2020. When I consider retiring, I think of how I love the girls’ night outs, the reunions or bridal parties — just the gathering of women. When women gather, I am a fly on the wall and I enjoy that so much that I say “not yet!” I can’t stop, because I need to continue to have this space available for my sistas.