In 1997, the Mission District was still a neighborhood in deep transition. The hipsters weren’t yet there in droves. Neither were the foodies. And the intersection of 19th and Mission, close to Capp Street? Foot traffic there was often related to illegal activity. It was in that environment that Marco Senghor took a chance and opened a restaurant that served food from his native Senegal and featured music from across West Africa. Bissap Baobab, named after a majestic tree common to Senegal, was an immediate hit, and for almost two decades, it has thrived in one incarnation or another near that same intersection of 19th and Mission streets.
The Mission has changed, and Senghor is facing challenges that threaten to undermine what he has built up in San Francisco. For one thing, there’s the Mission’s gentrification and the thirst to build condos and other higher-end housing there. New owners recently bought the property that Bissap Baobab sits on, and the landlord has told Senghor that his lease won’t be renewed after its current term expires in 2019. Then there are the discount-dining websites that have staked out San Francisco’s eateries and promise to introduce first-time customers. These customers may not be loyal to repeat dining, so Senghor and other establishments have to navigate a proverbial million-dollar question: How do you cater to these customers without losing money?
Here’s how: You stick to your original vision of an unpretentious spot with a friendly environment, delicious eats, inspired drinks (this is key!), and music that moves people one way or another. Then you bring in new customers on your own initiative by offering new tie-ins, as in viewings of the summer World Cup soccer games. And then, as insurance, you open a second Bissap Baobab – this one in Oakland, where many ex-San Franciscans now live and where many loyal customers had urged you to expand.
Senghor opened his Oakland Baobab eight weeks ago, on May 1, at a downtown location on 15th Street near Broadway, and its debut was vintage Senghor: Musicians played at the tables, people danced, and diners helped themselves to a lunch menu that featured yassa (a marinated Senegalese chicken dish), aloko (fried plantain), and thiakry (a Senegalese yoghurt). Creating a festive atmosphere that puts people at ease – that’s the Senghor way. And that’s Senghor himself, who is also a DJ and plays music at Baobab and other venues.
“It’s a way of branching out and having two locations,” Senghor tells me. “A lot of people have moved to Oakland after what’s happening in San Francisco with the economic pressure and people not being able to pay the rent. And friends who had moved to the East Bay all asked me, ‘Why don’t you come over here?’ Even though I’m still trying to put all my heart in San Francisco and keep what I’m doing, I decided to open now in Oakland because I know Oakland is changing and the prices are getting higher. Hopefully, I’ll be able to maintain both branches at one time.”
Baobab’s position in San Francisco’s cultural scene is epitomized by singer Michael Franti, a friend of Senghor’s who recorded Live at the Baobab at the Mission District location in 1999, and has performed there many times. In November 2002, for example, Franti played a standing-room-only gig at Baobab that began with him clapping and then crooning, “I’m so glad and happy just to be here.” When, a few minutes later, Franti asked the crowd how they were doing, a loud “Whooooaaaa!” echoed throughout Baobab, just as it did at the end of the concert, when people were dancing like pogo sticks. Franti told the dancers they should bring some “good, positive energy” to Baobab and leave their “love” and “sweat” in the restaurant.
That’s what Senghor, who’s 46, has done at Baobab for two decades. He first came to San Francisco in 1990 from Senegal’s capital, Dakar. Senghor’s father, Lat Senghor, was a prominent diplomat, and Senghor’s grand uncle, Leopold Senghor, was Senegal’s most notable poet and president. Senghor, whose mother is French, learned at an early age to reach out to different communities and create a kind of pan-village atmosphere.
Besides Bissap Baobab, Senghor was running Little Baobab, a space next door on 19th Street where he showcased music, dance, readings, and other art events. In March 2013, a fire erupted in Little Baobab’s kitchen, forcing the space to close until Senghor could find the money (more than $100,000) to bring it back to code.
He holds the lease for Little Baobab for the next 10 years, and that property’s landlord, Joelle Calton, says she’s a big fan of Senghor’s business and recognizes how he has helped transform his part of the Mission for the better. She’s helping him to reopen Little Baobab in four months.
“I want to give all the credit to my landlord,” says Senghor, who as a concert promoter has brought African music groups to the Bay Area. “It feels good to know that you have a good landlord in this economy, where most other landlords are trying to kill you right away for more money. She’s doing the best to protect me because she loves Little Baobab. She gave me credit for developing this neighborhood. She always tells me, ‘Marco, you can’t leave. So whatever we can do to help you, we’ll be there for you.’ ”
In Oakland, Bissap Baobab is drawing an eclectic group of lunchtime patrons. Senghor is still waiting for his liquor license so he can sell the same type of exquisite drinks, featuring ginger and hibiscus (a popular flavor in Senegal), that are offered at his San Francisco location. Drinks are a money-maker, helping the business to stay afloat even in trying times. In San Francisco, Bissap Baobab is usually crowded with people well into the evening.
So, how do you survive as a restaurant and music haven in gentrifying San Francisco? Beyond all the tangibles (seed money, level-headed ownership, an attractive setting, and friendly supporters) is a huge intangible: determination. In the long-term, Bissap Baobab may not remain in the Mission District, but it will be somewhere in the city that first welcomed Marco Senghor to the United States.
“I love San Francisco – this is where I was born, basically, in America, in the Mission District,” says Senghor, who I first wrote about in 2003, when Bissap Baobab had already established its reputation. “Even in five years, when the lease is up, I will look for another space in San Francisco. We have a big community behind us.”
“We might,” Senghor adds, “be opening a place that’s not too far from here.”