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San Francisco’s Beloved West African Restaurant and Club Just Won a Big Legal Battle

West African restaurant, performance space, and nightclub Bissap Baobab in the Mission finally won approval to sell alcohol

The exterior of Big Baobab painted in orange, pink, and yellow. Patricia Chang

Bissap Baobab, the Mission’s beloved Senegalese restaurant and nightclub, earned a beer and wine license after surviving a 10-month legal battle over relentless noise complaints.

Owner Marco Senghor still has to apply for a liquor license to make Bissap Baobab’s full bar available to customers, which he says will finally give the business a shot at earning a significant profit. But he and his advisor Kevin Ortiz hope the incremental victory is a sign of progress for a Mission Street corridor currently subdued by a declining economy and mounting tensions among neighbors with different visions for what the neighborhood should be — and whom it should serve. “It’s hard to fight to do your business when you feel like someone’s holding you underwater,” Senghor says.

Marco Senghor, owner of Bissap Baobab in the Mission.
Patricia Chang

Even before he officially opened Bissap Baobab, or “Big Baobab,” last fall, a group of aggrieved neighbors living in condos next door began calling Senghor — and the city — about the level of noise coming from the building. The complaints required several court hearings with San Francisco’s Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control and ground Senghor’s liquor license application to a near-halt, forcing him to develop a series of contingency plans to keep the business afloat. He converted the 4,000-square-foot space into a studio for Zumba and tango classes; opened it up to catering companies looking for extra cooking and prep space; and rented it out as an event venue for weddings and birthday parties. But without the ability to sell alcohol, Senghor still had to apply for a loan from the city and launch ambitious fundraising efforts to pay the rent.

But as of May 2, a judge ruled that as a venue that champions multiculturalism in each aspect of its enterprise, Bissap Baobab provides a unique service not met by any other businesses in the neighborhood. The restaurant’s presence is, according to the judgment handed down by the ABC, “in furtherance of a revitalization effort in the Mission District.” It also acknowledged that Senghor appeared “to have made specific efforts to improve compliance with the noise conditions” of his petition for a conditional license.

Ortiz said Bissap Baobab’s triumph sends an optimistic message to the rest of the city as some residents struggle to resuscitate its bohemian identity. He also hopes the judge’s decision will pave the way for an amended legal process he finds both antiquated and contradictory. Currently, the City of San Francisco Entertainment Commission is responsible for regulating sound levels for the venues under its jurisdiction, but the ABC can essentially override the commission’s authority if it receives a noise complaint from a business in pursuit of a liquor license, as was the case with Bissap Baobab. “It’s a sign of hope that Marco was able to win,” he says, “and a sign that the community was willing to fight. But it shouldn’t have had to be this hard.”

Senghor said he will continue to keep his doors open to tenants who take issue with Bissap Baobab’s noise levels — but in the meantime, he has work to do. He and his team just completed construction on a front patio and hope to fill it with guests to expand the restaurant’s capacity. He’ll also add a calendar of themed nights such as Afro-Taco Tuesdays accompanied by live music from the Afro-Latinx band Agua Pura; jollof rice; thieboudienne, the hearty, tomato-based dish of rice and fish considered a classic in Senegal and Gambia; and Afrobeats on Saturdays. “I had tears talking to my friends, saying I didn’t think this was possible,” Senghor said. “Let’s make peace and make the Mission shine. I’m not gonna go nowhere.”