The grand opening of Marco Senghor’s Bissap Baobab, or “Big Baobab,” last September was supposed to be a love letter to the people who’d helped him back onto his feet after a grueling pandemic. Senghor closed the first iteration of the restaurant in 2019, using the money to cover legal fees for an immigration case, and spent the deepest days of the pandemic using the kitchen at his smaller restaurant, Little Baobab, to prepare meals for unhoused people when shelters and other food centers were strained for resources. The owner of the pan-African restaurant and nightclub invited San Francisco supervisor Myrna Melgar and several other city officials and hired an Aztec dance crew to perform for the Big Baobab reopening. Senghor had just taken the stage to give his speech when the phone rang. On the other line was a voice screaming at him.
“They were telling me to shut down the music,” Senghor recalls.
To some degree, he’d been anticipating the call from his new neighbors, a group of fed-up tenants and owners of the condos next door to the restaurant, which is located on Mission Street between 18th and 19th streets. They’d been calling long before Bissap Baobab opened, when the only noise would have been from construction. Even now, the phone rings throughout the day, every day — even when the restaurant is closed — with neighbors looking to complain about noise, Senghor says. The entertainment commission has entered during Bissap Baobab’s nighttime hours, sometimes interrupting musical performances and dancing, to confirm decibel levels are in compliance with city standards, which they have been found to be.
The tenants’ resistance has grown increasingly antagonistic, according to Senghor, stalling his efforts to secure the liquor licenses he says he needs to turn a profit. The process, which can take as long as 90 days, involves a lengthy investigation period, and licenses can only be applied for one at a time. But after offers to check the sound levels inside nearby residences and figure out a solution were met with silence, Senghor no longer believes the grievances have to do with noise. “They just don’t want me here,” he says, noting that Bissap Baobab is among the last Black-owned restaurants operating in the Mission. “Maybe they think this place is too beautiful for me, that an African guy is not deserving of it.”
Eater SF reached out to the authors of two complaints for further comment but did not hear back by publication time.
As Senghor braces for another battle with his neighbors — a hearing with the San Francisco Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control scheduled for February 9 was pushed to mid-March after the complainants submitted 150 new pieces of evidence to the appeal — Bissap Baobab’s fate could become a foreshadowing for the rest of the Mission, where the tension between newcomers and longtime residents continues to grow.
According to the documents submitted to the ABC, the source of the issues with the club and restaurant lies in the anticipated negative impact Bissap Baobab could have on residents’ lifestyles and property values. One complainant argued “working from home and sleeping hours will be very challenging while living next door to this establishment with its proposed hours of business and late-night entertainment schedule,” causing the owners’ property values to diminish. That complaint, submitted last July, asked for not only the denial of Bissap Baobab’s liquor license, but also requested the restaurant close by 10 p.m., a move that would essentially eliminate the nightclub option altogether. Another protest that came in at the same time and used similar language appealed to the ABC with mention of a preschool housed within the residential unit that “cannot have music blasting beginning at 10 a.m. daily” — despite the fact that the restaurant doesn’t typically play music that early.
What most confounds Senghor and his personal advisor, Kevin Ortiz, about the complaints is that they come from a group of people who chose to live on one of the most vibrant, commercial streets in San Francisco, situated between Gracias Madre and Beauty Bar and across the street from Mission Chinese and Prubechu. “You wouldn’t live on Mission Street and expect to not hear noise,” said Ortiz, who’s also co-president of the San Francisco Latinx Democratic Club. “It’s not a graveyard. It’s a living, active, breathing corridor.” He added the condo building has been there for at least a decade.
One night last November, Ortiz managed to work with the angry tenants and owners to measure the sound levels from their units. He and a small crew went into various rooms closest to the restaurant; once, a resident pointed out a particularly loud noise, which upon further inspection was traced back to a car parked on Mission Street blasting music from its speakers. Senghor said one tenant entered Bissap Baobab that night to hear things for herself, and accused the DJs of lowering the volume to skirt blame. (Senghor denies this.)
Ortiz was clear that residents should feel empowered to speak up about issues in their neighborhood, but said the troubles facing Bissap Baobab are reminiscent of a more sinister problem. “This is a classic example of what gentrification looks like,” he said. “People are enjoying the culture but then trying to change that culture to benefit their own needs.” It reminds him of the plight of the Black-owned Cafe Envy in Bayview, which was forced to close temporarily after an onslaught of complaints from neighbors on issues ranging from noise to mask enforcement.
Senghor, meanwhile, is distraught. The rescheduled ABC hearing means he’ll have to wait even longer to hopefully obtain a liquor license, putting more pressure on him to figure out ways to stop the bleeding of lost profit, including through a GoFundMe campaign. He recently opened his space to morning Zumba classes for a group of women, but not without hesitation for fear of getting yet another noise complaint. But he’ll continue the fight. “It’s not only me they’re facing,” he said. “They’re facing the community and the people behind it.”