Free of boards and nails, the two large windows at Little Baobab that once concealed a packed and uninhibited dance floor behind red curtains will reopen on Friday night to operate as a late-night take-out stop, serving crepes and African wraps.
Though Little Baobab is no longer a dance venue (that portion of the operation has moved to the adjoining Bissap Baobab), owner Marco Senghor said he hopes to target the Mission’s late night bar-goers with takeout orders and late hours over the next month. Little Baobab will be open from 5 p.m. until midnight on weekdays, and stay open past 2:00 a.m. on weekends.
Customers will have their choice of vegetarian and meat wraps, crepes, and a selection of traditional Senegalese appetizers. If all goes well, juice popsicles may soon become another option on the menu. Depending on how his reinvented restaurant fares, Senghor said he would consider opening for lunch.
After 15 years in business at 3388 19th Street, Little Baobab suffered a kitchen fire in May 2013. Senghor was told that a rice cooker that had been left plugged in overnight had caught fire.
Since then, Senghor said he has had to “jump through hoops” to bring back Little Baobab, which served as a unique hub for Latino and African culture and music, drawing regular patrons from the surrounding community and beyond on weekends.
“I always said I would open up again — I couldn’t give this place up,” said Senghor, remembering the humble beginnings of his first business in the Mission in 1998.
“I used to protect the prostitutes on this street — they would come in here,” remembered Senghor. “I would tell the gangs to take their business elsewhere because it was bad for my business.”
Despite his longstanding roots in the neighborhood, Senghor nearly faced displacement from the community that he helped cultivate.
“It was so hard to reopen, I felt like I was getting kicked out of the neighborhood,” he said. “The economy was changing, and people were making my landlord offers. Fortunately, she wanted me to stay, she said my business was the right thing for the Mission.”
Senghor said he has had little time to be excited about Little Baobab’s comeback. “I’m exhausted to be honest, from being torn right and left throughout this whole process.”
Insurance hurdles, numerous inspections by the health department and attempts bring the space up to code drained Senghor financially because he has continued to pay rent for the space despite not pulling in revenue.
Since 2009, Senghor has been running the next-door Bissap Baobab (formerly Bollywood Cafe) at 3376 19th Street, a larger restaurant and bar space where he began hosting Little Baobab’s weekend parties following the fire. The adjacent restaurants remain two of the few African-owned businesses in the Mission.
Senghor also opened up a second Little Baobab location in downtown Oakland, fearing that San Francisco city bureaucracy could prevent him from reviving the original.
The restaurateur is still waiting to install two refrigerators at Little Baobab, the last step that will put him on track to reopen for the weekend — which he plans do quietly.
“We are going to open with baby steps,” he said, giving himself a month’s time to collect feedback from new and old patrons before committing to a grand opening to celebrate the restaurant’s comeback.
“It’s taken so long, you can’t just come back right away,” he said. Once Bissap’s lease expires in three years, Senghor said he may consider moving the club component back to Little Baobab, where he has six years remaining on his lease.
“We don’t know what will happen in three years,” said Senghor. “Its coming down to time, and to what the community wants to see there.”