Photo: Melanie Hicken
By day, Monique Greenwood worked in her lifelong dream job in Manhattan’s fast-paced world of magazine publishing. By night, she took on a different role, racing home to tend to guests at a bed and breakfast in a historic Brooklyn mansion.After years of attempting to juggle the two competing worlds, she realised she had to choose. In 2002, Greenwood left her job as editor-in-chief of Essence magazine to focus full-time on her burgeoning hospitality business.
Since then, Greenwood has turned her business, Akwaaba Enterprises, into a mini bed-and-breakfast empire. Roughly 17 years after she first opened the doors of her Brooklyn location with her husband, the business includes three other properties in Washington D.C. and Cape May, New Jersey. A fifth location in Pennsylvania will open this spring. Last year, Akwaaba hit $1 million in revenues.
Still, Greenwood is finding she is juggling just as much as she was before. She is still the warm innkeeper, rotating between various locations throughout the year, serving her guests a warm breakfast or sprinkling rose petals and lighting candles to surprise a honeymooning couple. At the same time, she is the
exacting businesswoman, tough on her eight employees and eager to take on new opportunities.
“I kind of think that I may have one speed, and its called fast. But I am trying to slow down,” she said in a recent interview. “I take on a lot but I’m passionate about everything I take on.”
Sporting wild caramel curls and a polished yet subdued outfit of khakis and a plain black cotton tee from a seat on the Brooklyn mansion’s sundrenched porch, Greenwood exudes a laid-back confidence. With a hearty laugh and friendly demeanor, she is open and approachable – ideal for the hospitality industry.
Still, it hasn’t all been easy. Greenwood and her husband were pioneers in New York’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighbourhood when it was just beginning to emerge from a violent, crime-ridden past. Her New Orleans location saw its business destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, only months after opening. And at her two Cape May New Jersey locations, which are open only four months out of the year, Greenwood struggles to break even.
Yet through a unique style and careful attention to detail, Greenwood has succeeded at creating a brand in an industry segment known for single proprietors. In turn she attracts a loyal following; many of her guests are repeat visitors and make an effort to visit all Akwaaba locations.
“She has created this collection of inns,” said friend and former Akwaaba innkeeper Melody Short. “She is truly a pioneer in what it is that she is doing.”
Greenwood’s entry into the industry started on a bit of a whim.
It was 1993, and she was living with her husband and young daughter in Brooklyn’s Bed Stuyvesant neighbourhood, a predominantly African American community known for its historic housing stock, much of which was crumbling and rundown at the time.
Driving near her home one day, Greenwood spotted a wedding party and stopped to move trashcans, horrified that they would ruin the wedding pictures. Once out of her car, Greenwood was struck by a beautiful but rundown mansion across the street. A fan of bed and breakfasts herself, Greenwood pictured a bed and breakfast there. Almost immediately, she says, her mind was made up.
“I started leaving notes under the door, like every day, saying if you’re interested in selling please call,” she said.
Two years and nearly $1 million later, the Akwaaba Mansion first opened its doors.
While Greenwood and her husband were able to purchase the dilapidated property for only $225,000, they sunk more than twice the amount into renovating and furnishing the building, dipping into their savings and a small business loan.
Since the mansion would also serve as her family’s home, Greenwood said she saw the purchase as a smart real estate investment, even if the bed and breakfast did not become a success. Still, both she and her husband maintained their full time jobs.
“It didn’t feel like a risk to me to try to make that happen,” she said. “We considered ourselves successful the first time any guests came. We lived in the property. Our costs were fixed, outside of a couple of more eggs.”
While it was Greenwood’s first attempt as a small business owner, she is in many ways is a born entrepreneur.
At the age of 24, she was the founding editor of Children’s Business, a trade magazine focused on the children’s fashion industry. At 31, she was named to Crain’s New York Business’s competitive “40 Under 40” list.
Today, her daughter is reminded of her mother’s success whenever she attends class at Howard University, her mother’s alma mater. “They have my mum’s face on the Wall of Fame, so I see her everyday I walk in school,” she said.
In the late 90s, business at the mansion grew steadily, which Greenwood partially attributes to the fact that at the time Brooklyn lacked hotel options. “We felt like our core customers would be friends and families of people who lived there,” she said.
She kept her marketing costs low by relying on her own efforts, reaching out to local residents, churches and funeral homes. Much of her early business was also fuelled by word of mouth from nearby residents, drawn to the inn’s prospect for a relaxing “staycation” and its unique focus on African-American culture. (Each room in the inn has a distinct Afro-centric theme, such as the “Jumping the Broom” room, ideal for newlyweds).
Later, Greenwood threw herself into the local business community, spurring neighbourhood improvement efforts by purchasing rundown buildings and then renting them out to local tenants.
“My mum is sort of the Bed Stuy mayor,” said her daughter. “We’re like Bed Stuy royalty or something.”
Those same factors still drive her business today, but all of Akwaaba’s locations are also helped by stellar customer reviews on Internet sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor that attract guests from far-flung locales. In turn, European tourists now make up nearly 35 per cent of Akwaaba guests.
“From the moment we arrived I felt WELCOMED,” a recent visitor from Florida wrote on TripAdvisor. “The owner Monique greeted us at 8pm, well after check-in hours, graciously walked us through the mansion and recommended nearby restaurants for a bite to eat. If you’re big on details and hospitality then Akwaaba is the place to stay when visiting NYC.”
Her friends and family say they wish she would slow down, but they acknowledge that it is Greenwood’s “all-in” personality that has in many ways fuelled Akwaaba’s success.
“She wants to be available to her guests all the time,” said Short, her former employee. “She has that sleep when you die mentality.”
Still, the growing Akwaaba empire has not come without road bumps. Greenwood and her husband opened a New Orleans location in July 2005, only months before Hurricane Katrina devastated much of the city. While their property only needed minor clean up and at first hosted FEMA evacuees and then relief workers, their hopes of steady tourist business never materialised.
“It was definitely a trying time,” she said. “It was a financial drain to be able to float the property without any income generating.”
Once they were finally able to sell the property in 2010, they ended up breaking even on their investment. Greenwood quickly used the cash to help finance the purchase of her latest property, a 22-acre estate in Pennsylvania featuring a 25,000 square-foot gilded Age mansion once owned by the founders of the F.W. Woolworth Corporation.
Preparing the newest Akwaaba location for its spring opening has required Greenwood to shift away her focus from other properties, such as the two she runs in Cape May, New Jersey. Because she only operates the properties for the summer season, neither is profitable on an annual basis. In the future, Greenwood says she hopes to sell one of the properties so she can have the other open year-round.
“There is business waiting for us,” Greenwood said. “We just have to be able to make the time to go get it.”
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