The cost of a meal
After leaving Nigeria, Adeola ‘Dee’ Adedayo found economic and physical security in America and opened Ecowas International Restaurant
Adeola “Dee” Adedayo arrived in the United States searching for opportunities—as well as safety.
She found both and then some.
Adedayo, owner and chef at Ecowas International Restaurant in North Sacramento, left her native Nigeria with the intent to study abroad. America, she says, simply offered more than her West African home: Health care and electricity. Educational and business opportunities for a better life.
“An average person can put food on the table for their family in the U.S., which is not the case in Africa,” Adedayo says.
It’s early afternoon and the 43-year-old mother of four has been here since 11 a.m. readying the restaurant’s signature dishes, most notably its jollof rice, a fragrant dish made with a blend of red bell pepper, onions and habanero peppers. It serves as a hearty base for a protein, be it beef, chicken, goat or fish, and is a customer favorite—Adedayo’s, too.
From the outside, Ecowas presents a nondescript shop front. Located in a strip mall at the busy corner of West El Camino Boulevard and Northgate Boulevard, it’s tucked away near a dollar store, a nail salon and a check cashing store. Inside, the ambiance is subdued, unremarkable even, with just a few pieces of Afrocentric art and decor.
The heady smell of spices, meat and vegetables is enough, however, to make Ecowas feel like the most welcoming of places.
The restaurant’s been open since May and, says Adedayo, “so far, so good—thank God.” Long days, long nights, sure. It’s a hard business, she says with a smile.
“You have to love it,” she says.
Adedayo does. She learned her craft in Nigeria, where she helped manage one of her mother’s many restaurants. She hadn’t always planned on pursuing a restaurant career of her own, however. Initially, Adedayo planned to come to the United States to study agriculture. Then, perhaps she’d move back to Africa and start a farm.
Once here, however, she realized the possibilities. She’d left Nigeria, in part, as a way to escape a forced marriage. Once here, she says, she realized the country offered not just endless potential, but personal freedom, too.
“When I came I changed my mind,” she says. “It’s safe here. So I stayed.”
For the first five years she moved around: New York, Texas, Minnesota and Georgia. Then she landed in Sacramento, where she studied nursing. Eventually the demands of juggling single motherhood and work led her to run homes for those experiencing homelessness and mental challenges. (A 2014 investigation by SN&R revealed the homes were the subject of multiple code enforcement violations and state licensing inspections, as well as complaints from tenants. Adedayo denied the allegations.)
Along the way she also started catering, cooking her mother’s signature West African dishes and adding touches of her own.
Finally, recognizing a void, she decided to open a restaurant. While there were a few local places specializing in North and East African food, none specialized in those from West Africa.
“There are differences between [the regional dishes],” she says. “The climate is different and the food is different—the spices, the preparation, everything.”
“This being the state capital, I thought it would be a good idea,” she says.
So far, her instincts have proven right. Open six days a week, Ecowas draws customers from near and far, Adedayo says, including many who drive up regularly from the Bay Area.
It’s a busy, fulfilling life and, Adedayo says, she’s found her place.
“This is home.”