The storms of life struck a young Liberian girl and her family with a devastating force. Her grandmother and 20 other villagers ran for their lives when murderous armed rebels came to her village.
The New Jersey restaurant and real estate mogul will never forget their flight through the jungle to the Sierra Leone border. “I still have images of little kids being pulled to walk faster; mothers carrying kids on their backs with stuff on their heads,” says Bayoh.
The First Liberian Civil War erupted in 1989. BlackPast.org states that the brutal conflict lasted until 1996, claiming more than 200,000 lives and displacing one million people. Yet Bayoh had already begun imagining a life in the United States.
“I had this strong image of it and held onto it. I knew I was not destined to die in that civil war and that God had a greater plan for me.”
Adenah Bayoh, a Grandmother and Grit
Before Bayoh manifested the plan that includes ownership of four International House of Pancakes (IHOP) franchises, five independent restaurants and a portfolio of residential and commercial properties, she survived on grit and gumption.
She developed those traits living with her grandmother, Jenneh Viskinda, in Liberia and a Sierra Leone refugee camp. “So, my grandmother did the best with what she had. She had a lot of grandkids and family to take care of. So, that’s what she did until it got really dangerous for us and we walked all the way to the neighboring country,” comments the co-owner of Cornbread Farm to Soul.
Even harder than abandoning the farmland, restaurant and real estate her grandmother owned was leaving Viskinda at the Liberian border. The aging matriarch could not walk and was pushed through the steamy jungle in a wheelbarrow until it broke. “When we left my grandmother, I was devastated. I was so sad. I remember counting marks and plotting my journey back,” Bayoh recalls.
About two weeks later, the courageous child returned to Liberia to get her grandmother and return to the refugee camp. “She was very shocked. From then on, she made sure she never left my side. She would always say, ‘Oh my God. You’re a dangerous little girl,’” remarks the restaurateur and real estate developer.
Bayoh continued to strengthen her grit and gumption by crossing the border two or three times a week to help her grandmother and others endure the refugee camp. “When we touched down, business resumed as usual. My grandmother was able to put a market together. My cousin and I would travel back into the dangerous parts of the country we just left to get goods and vegetables to sell at the refugee camp.”
Buying IHOP with Boldness, Bravery and Beliefs
The entrepreneur’s parents were in America earning money for their children’s schooling when the civil war broke out in their homeland. She was 13 when her father finally got her and her brother out of Sierra Leone and into the U.S.
The teenage refugee never let being several grades behind in school stop her from seizing opportunities. “When I got here, I was a busybody. I did everything. I started my first job at McDonald’s at 13 years old. I worked there all throughout high school,” says Bayoh. “When I went to college, I worked. I took 18 to 21 credits some semesters. But I always kept a job. I kept about two or three jobs.”
The young immigrant applied her work ethic with boldness and began building her financial future with a business management degree from Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey and saved $27,000 from her numerous jobs. “I was able to buy a three-family house in Irvington. I used my $27,000 for a down payment and got approved for a FHA loan.”
Working in banking, collecting rents and owning a beauty shop put Bayoh in a position to take a brave leap into franchise ownership. “I wanted real estate, but I didn’t want a diner. I was working at the bank. I had real estate property and I was pretty content with that. They say you make plans and God laughs,” says the founder of Adenah Bayoh & Companies.
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When Bayoh first met the Greek owner of a rundown diner in Irvington, the smirk on his face when she told him she wanted to buy his place fueled her determination to make it happen.
“When I gave him my $25,000, he jacked up the price to $1.2 million when it should have sold for $850,000 to $900,000. A lot of banks wouldn’t finance me. I think the reason for that was they hadn’t seen an Adenah before. They hadn’t seen someone like me that wanted to pull off what I wanted to do,” explains the business maverick.
At least seven banks turned down Bayoh before a business associate helped her secure a GE Capital Franchise Finance Corporation loan. She would have lost her $25,000 investment had the then 27-year-old entrepreneur given up on becoming one of IHOP’s youngest franchisees in 2007.
“I’ve always had the mentality of not thinking when is someone going to come in and do this, but when am I going to come and do it.”
Bayoh now owns four IHOP franchises, including one in downtown Newark. Her unwavering belief in investing in the Black community pushed her past every obstacle. Her flagship franchise received several awards in its first few years of operation.
“I think these communities where I am from suffer from disinvestment. Our communities are run down not because of us. They are rundown because we lack proper resources,” she says. “It is the tale of Black history in this country. For me, when I see us, I see opportunity. I see perseverance. I see strength.”
Cultivating Cornbread and Independence
The IHOP owner relied on the strength and resolve needed to acquire four franchise locations and open independent restaurants, including one in Brooklyn, New York. In 2017, she and Zadie Smith launched their first Cornbread Farm to Soul. “Cornbread, for me, is a pact I’m making to have a greater impact in the restaurant space. If you look at the state of food right now, there is a national chain for every genre of food, but none around soul food,” says Bayoh.
The fourth location of Cornbread is set to open in Montclair, New Jersey, this fall. The fast-casual eatery serves farm-to-table American soul food. The restaurant’s meat, fish and produce come from local and family-owned producers and shops.
Calling co-founder Smith “an amazing culinary talent,” Bayoh foresees them using their economic and decision-making power to franchise Cornbread to other women, especially Black women.
“I’m not just selling food. I use my restaurant as a conduit to create opportunities for the people in these marginalized communities that others have turned their backs on. They have so much potential and so much to give. They just need someone to believe in them,” proclaims Cornbread’s co-founder.
In 2021, Bayoh opened Brick City Vegan, a fast-casual place serving plant-based comfort food in downtown Newark. A second location will soon join Cornbread in Montclair. Her restaurants and real estate portfolio provide close to 300 jobs.
The restaurateur credits the ability to recognize and nurture talent for much of her success as a business owner. “I value my people greatly. I believe I’m only as good as the people who work for me, so I pour into them and support them. Once you inspire your people to understand that you’re not just selling food, you’re selling heart, they too can do whatever they put their minds to doing.”
Bayoh lives by the standards that form the foundation of her restaurant ventures: love, give, serve, work and strive. She affirms that all of her eateries are profitable concepts operated by women.
The business maven pauses with emotion before continuing. “My view is that I want some little girl somewhere or some woman somewhere to see what I’m doing and be inspired by it. My goal is always for the greater good and to inspire.”
Greatness, Giving Back and Gratitude
Inspiring greatness also means teaching Alli, her 12-year-old son and Jenneh, the 9-year-old daughter she named after her grandmother, that they come from greatness. “I look at my grandmother, who was not educated, had no resources and came from a remote place in Africa with no running water. Yet, she got up every day and built something, despite everything happening in the world.”
Furthermore, Bayoh views the accomplishments of African Americans as equally uplifting. She names Madame C.J. Walker, the first female millionaire in America and Shirley Chisholm, the first Black female elected to the U.S. Congress, among her role models.
“When I look at the women who came before me that had not even a quarter of the resources I have today, I’m not deterred by nobody. I will keep pushing. I will keep putting one foot forward because stopping is not an option,” declares the business magnate.
Neither is ignoring the needs of others while building wealth. Bayoh gives back by donating meals to the YMCA and other local organizations and through annual events like her “Breakfast for Dinner” event that she hosts at each of her IHOP restaurants around the holiday season.
She shares her expertise with young students and budding entrepreneurs. She teaches them that no matter what the obstacles are, they can overcome them. “One thing I say is there is a light at the end of that tunnel. The only thing you have to do is keep your faith and keep those hard-working muscles going. Always know there is that light waiting for you at the end of that tunnel.”
The New Jersey CEO emphasizes that others shined that light along her journey to creating a multi-million-dollar company. She feels indebted to the teachers who supported her and the community residents who welcomed her and her businesses.
She deeply appreciates Smith and the other entrepreneurs who became partners. TD+Partners Managing Member Patrick Terborg collaborated on affordable housing projects. SheaButter founder and Essence Ventures owner Richelieu Dennis provided funding for Cornbread.
“I’m grateful I came here with an open heart and an open mind. I am proud that I was able to integrate myself into the African American community. They have been so generous to me with time and everything and I’m grateful for that,” says Bayoh.
When asked how she overcame formidable obstacles that would have stopped anyone lacking in determination or strength of character, the CEO referred back to the tragedy of war. “For me, escaping civil war gave me what is called grit. It sharpened my instincts. It made me navigate some really inhuman conditions. As you overcome obstacles and tear down barriers to survive, it gives you survival instincts.”
The restaurateur and real estate developer will continue using those instincts as she pursues her passion for expanding her brands into national franchises and empowering Black communities through economic development.
Named one of Ebony Magazine’s Power 100 and NJBIZ’s Best 50 Women in Business, Bayoh is thankful that her grandmother taught her that no rain lasts forever and no one can stop God’s plans.
“I’m grateful for my glass is half-full mentality. I’m grateful that I always see the good in people no matter what,” says Bayoh. “I have an optimistic spirit that no one can break. Because for so long, I reminded myself that if I could wake up on the other side of the day, everything would be okay, and I still believe that.”