Inside a Black-owned bed-and-breakfast empire

This article is reprinted with permission from The escape house, a newsletter for second home owners and those who want to become one. Subscribe to here. © 2022. All rights reserved.

Monique Greenwood, former editor-in-chief of Essence magazine, swapped her pen for a whisk and opened a bed-and-breakfast with her husband 28 years ago in the heart of the Bed-Stuy neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York.

Almost three decades later, the two are at the helm of several successful properties under the Akwaaba name, which means Welcome to Twi, a language spoken in Ghana.

The Escape Home’s Danielle Hyams spoke to Greenwood about her success, diversity (or lack thereof) in the hospitality world, Airbnb ABNB,
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and survival during Covid-19.

The following has been abridged and edited for clarity.

Monique Greenwood

EH: Tell us about the transition from journalism to hospitality.

greenwood: I was studying and preparing for a career as a magazine editor and was able to fulfill my lifelong professional dream by becoming Editor-in-Chief of Essence magazine. It was around this time that I started staying in bed and breakfasts and really enjoyed the experience and the more I stayed there the more I realized that it was related to my personal passion for decorating, entertaining and creating special experiences that people can remember for a lifetime.

I’ve always believed that real estate is the best investment you can make. In 1995 we opened our first Bed & Breakfast in Brooklyn. It was in a ramshackle mansion two blocks from our home. Our thought was: We should definitely be successful with only four guest rooms, because there weren’t any big hotel chains in Brooklyn at that time.

Akwaaba Mansion in Brooklyn.

Akwaaba bed and breakfast inns

EH: Have you found that many of your skills carry over from one job to the next?

greenwood: I think being able to read people intuitively has been helpful in both careers, being a good listener has been helpful in both careers, and being able to intuit one’s needs before they even know what they are has certainly been helpful are. And then I think that attention to detail as a journalist and certainly as a restaurateur is crucial.

EH: Since then you’ve expanded Akwaaba beyond New York – how did you choose the locations?

green wood: I really had this vision of having a home I love in a city I love any time of the year and the B&Bs were a way of making that happen. We started in Brooklyn and as I expanded I thought Brooklyn would be great for fall. Then we went to Cape May, New Jersey for the summer beach, and then to Washington, DC, my hometown, for the spring and cherry blossoms, and then we went to New Orleans for the winter because it’s quiet warm there when it’s cold everywhere. (Greenwood and her husband have since sold the New Orleans and DC locations and opened B&Bs in Philadelphia and the Poconos.)

Akwaaba Mansion in Brooklyn.

Akwaaba bed and breakfast inns

EH: Bed-Stuy – and Brooklyn as a whole – has changed a lot in the last more than two decades. How does a business grow and change with the community in which it is located?

green wood: A lot of people attribute or blame us for the changes at Bedford-Stuyvesant, depending on who you ask. When we opened here 27 years ago, when a guest came and pulled up in his yellow taxi from the airport, I can remember that sometimes the taxi would slow down and then I would see it speed away and that was because the taxi driver was… Guest said, ‘why are you staying here, it’s not a safe place.’

To our surprise, when we opened we had a lot of people off the street, around the corner, through the tunnel over the bridge, wanting to leave without having to leave, so we think we pushed the concept of staycations forward. And then as the neighborhood kept changing and it wasn’t just a place people wanted to visit, it was a place people wanted to live, a lot of creative people caught on, Midwesterners, yuppies, millennials, whatever you call them wanted to come to our neighborhood. This has made us the number one choice for parents with young adult children who now live in the neighborhood.

Buttonwood Manor in Cape May, New Jersey.

Akwaaba bed and breakfast inns

EH: Let’s talk about diversity in hospitality, where ownership is predominantly white. Are things changing?

greenwood: I still think it’s not super diverse given the small number of black owned hotels or bed and breakfasts in the industry, the numbers are still terrible. There is a high entry price to get into this part of the business because you have to have the real estate. And we still face injustices when it comes to funding. What we’re seeing as part of a new awareness of Black lives is that Black consumers are much more conscious about how they spend their money. So when we ask people how they heard about us, the vast majority of people of color say, “We wanted to support a black-owned business. We are grateful and appreciate this awareness. And of course we also have those who aren’t of color but are allies and are also conscious about how they spend their money.

I’m very active in the bed and breakfast space and I’m always talking about how you create a space that welcomes all people. And sometimes it’s as simple as, let’s take a look at the reading material you have. Could you get some books by Lorraine Hansberry or Toni Morrison? Can we look at some of the pictures on your wall, can we have a reflection of what the world is really like? Can we even diversify the food offering at breakfast to make people feel comfortable?

Akwaaba in Brooklyn.

Akwaaba bed and breakfast inns

EH: Airbnb…

green wood: With a large number of people having never stayed at a B&B at all, the fact that Airbnb somehow takes the name but specifies a different type of lodging experience creates confusion among consumers. There’s no second B at Airbnb – nobody makes you breakfast and nobody provides you with the service, which we’ve quite frankly used as a differentiator for our industry. This was a challenge to help people understand the difference between the two types of experiences and why the bed and breakfast might be more expensive than the Airbnb stay.

Akwaba in Philadelphia.

Akwaaba bed and breakfast inns

EH: How have you coped during Covid-19?

green wood: It was a roller coaster ride. When we were finally able to reopen it was a slow return to New York and DC and Philadelphia as these were cities with high cases of infection. So we had a lot of interest and bookings at our Poconos location in the mountains, but very little in the cities. In fact, 2021 was our best year ever at our Poconos location. Now we’re getting rejections by the minute because of Omicron, so we’re just trying to brace ourselves and figure out what’s next.

The mansion on Noble Lane in the Poconos.

Akwaaba bed and breakfast inns

EH: Is there anything you would like the guests to know or know?

greenwood: We don’t make a big fuss about tips, but it’s nice when guests tip the staff because they’re in the service industry, and when you think about it, they served you breakfast, they made your bed, you have these things done. So I don’t think that many people would go to a restaurant and sit and eat without leaving a tip. I think it’s important that the staff in a bed and breakfast is given the same consideration. I think some people just don’t know.

This article is reprinted with permission from The escape house, a newsletter for second home owners and those who want to become one. Subscribe to here. © 2022. All rights reserved.

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