“Life goes on,” says Marco Senghor. “Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose.”
Just a year ago, Senghor — the longtime owner of the Bissap Baobab dance club and family of Senegalese restaurants, with locations in the Mission District and downtown Oakland —was in danger of losing everything. He’d been arrested on charges of immigration fraud and faced possible deportation, accepting a plea deal last August that allowed him to maintain his citizenship status. In the process, Senghor’s accumulated legal fees forced him to sell off his original Bissap Baobab nightclub in the Mission, which he’d run for more than two decades, and, a few months later, to close its Oakland restaurant outpost as well. Only Little Baobab, the tiniest spot in the roster, was left standing. Factor in the challenges of COVID-19, and it’s practically a miracle that the Mission’s Little Baobab, the tiniest spot in Senghor’s roster, has managed to remain open.
But Senghor, who completed the one year of probation he was sentenced to serve on August 22, tells Eater SF that he’s ready to start winning again — and not just on his own behalf, but on behalf of the broader community. And so, after staying dark for eight months, Baobab Oakland will reopen at its 381 15th Street location this Thursday, September 3. It will serve some of the West African specialties Bissap Baobab is known for: its mustardy chicken yassa, peanut-based mafe stew, and assorted fresh-squeezed juices. But the restaurant will also house a new collective of mostly female POC-run food businesses — which means the menu will also feature an eclectic mix of naan wraps, cupcakes, and jujube tea.
It would be easy to expect a certain measure of bitterness from Senghor. After all, before all of his troubles, he was a figure who was so beloved for his longstanding contributions to the Mission that folks in the neighborhood would sometimes refer to him as the “mayor of the Mission” — or, as the SF Chronicle put it, “the last prince of the Mission District.” Instead, Senghor waxes philosophical about the whole ordeal.
“This country gave me everything,” he says. “It took it back, but I can do it again.”
For Senghor, the most important takeaway from the COVID-19 crisis has been the importance of collective effort — of people looking for ways to give each other a boost instead of only looking out for themselves. He cites Little Baobab as a prime example: He’d been forced to close the restaurant at the beginning of the pandemic, and, because his legal issues wound up disqualifying him for a federal stimulus loan, prospects for the business were not looking good.
It was at this point, however, that SF New Deal, a local initiative that paid struggling San Francisco restaurants to feed the needy, reached out to Senghor. According to Senghor, signing up for that program, then teaming up with Jose Andrés’ World Central Kitchen to prepare meals out of his unused Oakland kitchen, gave his restaurant a lifeline when he needed it the most. In turn, providing meals for hungry people at homeless shelters renewed Senghor’s own sense of purpose.
This whole notion of community support was on his mind when he started to hear from a number of immigrant women in his social network who’d lost their day jobs to the COVID-19 crisis and were looking for ways to grow the food businesses they’d originally started as side gigs. Senghor thought about the Oakland restaurant space he was still hanging onto (thanks to a very understanding landlord, he says) — what if he opened up that space and allowed some of these other entrepreneurs to sell their products there too?
“That should be the way that people think in the future,” Senghor says. “Why have one room for one person? Maybe people can share their space and do well together.”
So, when it opens on Thursday, the new Baobab Oakland collective kitchen will feature selected menu items from a few established businesses: Kasa Indian Eatery will offer chicken tikka masala, available as a rice plate or a naan wrap; Double Rainbow ice cream will be available by the pint; and, of course, Bissap Baobab will have its juices and Senegalese dishes. According to Senghor, the centerpiece will be what he calls the Afro Wrap — a burrito-like item he’s been perfecting over the years, stuffed with vegetables, plantains, couscous, and the customer’s choice of protein and sauce.
But Baobab Oakland will also feature items from a several lesser known businesses, some of which just started during the pandemic: Mama Juju Tea, which specializes in Chinese medicinal teas; Marina Sweet Catering, which sells cupcakes and other baked goods; and Love’s Little Things, which sells natural lotions and sprays.
Marina Houngbadji, who started Marina Sweet Catering when she lost her day job as an event planner, says Senghor is “like family” — he’s the one who approached her, she says, and said, “Why don’t we get everyone together, and have everyone support each other under one roof?”
Meanwhile, Senghor says he hasn’t given up the dream of finding some way to reopen the original Bissap Baobab in the Mission, or at least some version of the concept in an even larger space: a restaurant, bar, and nightclub where a thousand people might roll through on a Saturday to drink and mingle and dance the night away. He’s already got a real estate broker who’s taking him around town to look at potential sites, though Senghor stresses that there isn’t any particular rush: “We all know there’s no room for bars or clubs or dancing for many years to come.”
Baobab Oakland will be open initially Thursday through Saturday, from 5 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Initially, customers will need to pre-order online, or via the third-party delivery apps, but eventually, once the restaurant staffs up, walk-in orders will also be accepted.