Marco Senghor has spent a long time on 19th Street.
The lively block between Mission and Capp streets has been Senghor’s second home for ages — “I was born here,” he explains, even though he immigrated to San Francisco at 24. But after a stressful few years running Little Baobab and being forced to close Bissap Baobab, next door, after 20 years, he’s ready for a change.
On Tuesday evening, after hearing an hour of passionate public comment, the Entertainment Commission approved Senghor’s entertainment permit, giving him the green light to move his small Senegalese restaurant, Little Baobab, into a much larger space less than 500 feet away on Mission Street’s commercial corridor.
The new restaurant, which will take over the former Lupulandia location around the corner, is tentatively called “Big Baobab,” and Senghor, 54, has big plans to match.
He hopes to begin opening in the mornings to host a coffee co-op on weekdays, and serve brunch on the weekends. Live music will play on the long-empty rooftop terrace. Senghor’s ideas are as international and inclusive as ever: He is working with a Turkish and Iranian collective, he will continue to host international dance classes, and he plans to showcase cultural films before turning the space into a dance hall at night.
Though Tuesday’s outcome was a joyous one for Senghor, it didn’t come easily. While the vast majority of commenters spoke to Senghor’s work ethic, generosity and honesty as a community builder and business owner of the Mission’s only West African restaurant, three residents of the apartment building next door to Big Baobab spoke out against Senghor’s proposal, saying the noise would make their homes unlivable.
One woman who said she represented the homeowners association next door burst into tears, saying that, since her windows overlooked Senghor’s future rooftop space, she wouldn’t be able to conduct business from her home during live music events, and would therefore lose her livelihood and her home.
Big Baobab’s clientele will be indoors after 9 p.m., but the neighbors insisted he should close his doors altogether by 10 p.m., a demand Senghor’s team said is unrealistic for a nightlife business.
Senghor’s adviser and friend, Kevin Ortiz, who is also vice president of political affairs for the SF Latinx Democratic Club, explained Senghor’s plans to spend more than $35,000 on sound-dampening materials, including special floor panels, window panes, and sound boards for the walls. Senghor will also purchase a machine to ensure the establishment’s decibel levels stay within legal limits.
“I’m not going against my neighbors. I’m always looking for making peace with my neighbor,” Senghor said at Tuesday’s meeting. When he spoke, most of the people filling the chamber stood in support. By then his petition, started three weeks ago, had already amassed around 600 signatures.
Senghor told Mission Local that he was “a little bit hurt” at the resistance he was facing, considering he hadn’t even had a chance to prove himself as a respectful neighbor. Plus, he said, Mission Street is a commercial corridor with plenty of nearby nightlife that contributes to the neighborhood’s vibrancy.
“I love everyone. This is what I do; I try to bring the community together,” Senghor said in an interview earlier this month.
At Tuesday’s commission meeting, nearly two dozen people, including the commissioners themselves, expressed their support for Big Baobab.
Commenters shared how Senghor was their kindly connection to home when they moved to the Bay Area from Africa, even though they came from different countries (Senghor hails from Senegal and lived in France before moving to the U.S.). Fellow business owners spoke about how Senghor was always there to help anyone and everyone; one man who opened a cafe in early 2020, and quickly had to shut down, said Senghor saved him from financial ruin by advising him and helping store his equipment.
“The community, the people I met there were paramount in my assimilation to the East Bay. It’s the one place that brings people of all walks of life together,” said a patron named Edna, who arrived from East Africa to attend the University of California, Berkeley. “Baobab is more than an entertainment spot. It’s a hub for community, support, and growth. We need Baobab and many more places like this.”
Andrew Brobst from Calle 24 said that Mission Street currently has around 70 shuttered storefronts, and he hopes Big Baobab would help restore life and culture to the neighborhood’s main drag.
“San Francisco is losing it, I feel like, and it’s up to us to bring it back,” Brobst said. “So let’s bring culture, let’s bring music, let’s bring dance back to Mission Street and keep it alive.”
Commission president Ben Bleiman, an owner of nearby Dr. Teeth bar, said he knew Senghor as “the peacemaker,” who helped Bleiman through his own logistical struggles. “Actually, he’s helped me to mitigate issues that I had with people,” Bleiman said. “He’s just that kind of person.”
Ultimately, the commission unanimously voted to approve Senghor’s entertainment license.
Senghor is no stranger to having to fight, but he said this was his first time facing resistance from within the community. Just three years ago, he had to sell the larger Bissap Baobab space in order to pay his legal fees after unexpected federal case challenging how he obtained U.S. citizenship.
“I lost everything,” Senghor said. He didn’t want to go into the specifics of his case, still worried that something could come back to bite him. But even while he was at a low point, worrying about being deported, Senghor said a friend convinced him to start donating food during the pandemic; before he knew it, he said he’d distributed 200,000 boxes of food.
Bissap Baobab, known for hosting large dance parties on weekend nights, is now occupied by Kimbara, and only Little Baobab remains. It has a few tables, and at night still turns into a dance party, but it’s a modest remnant of what once was.
Now, with the Entertainment Commission’s blessing, Baobab may return to its former glory as the “Big Baobab” in its new 4,000 sq. ft. location.
Senghor is also giving up his Little Baobab space, which has been with him since the beginning of it all, more than 20 years ago. His friends at the Oaxacan restaurant Cafe de Olla across the street are hoping to take his place on 19th Street.
Big Baobab will be Senghor’s final restaurant, he told Mission Local. “America is a beautiful place, but it’s been rough,” he said. “At some point, I have to take a break.”
Once he sets it on the right path, Senghor wants to pass the buck to a family member and set his sights back on his first home in Senegal.
“Without the community, I would not be here,” he said. “I feel like Baobab is not mine anymore; it belongs to the community.”