Right to left: Marco Senghor, Marina Houngbadji, and Yichen Feng outside Bissap Baobab in Oakland. Credit: Ricky Rodas

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When Marco Senghor closed Oakland’s only Senegalese restaurant this past December, he knew he would bring it back someday. Years of immigration trouble had forced Senghor to close two of the three Bay Area establishments: the larger Bissap Baobab night club in San Francisco’s Mission District and the smaller Bissap Baobab restaurant in Oakland.  Now, with his immigration troubles recently behind him, Senghor has returned to relaunch the Oakland restaurant, but it isn’t exactly the same: The new Bissap Baobab, which opened on Sept. 3, features a collective kitchen space led by small business owners who Senghor first met years ago in San Francisco.

The menu features items from a variety of Bay Area food makers: Kasa Indian Eatery, ice cream distributor Double Rainbow, Mama Juju Tea, and Marina’s Sweet Catering. A local microbusiness, Love’s Little Things, is also selling natural lotions and sprays. The restaurant, located at 381 15th St., is currently open for take-out and delivery from 5:00 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. from Tuesday to Saturday.

Yichen Feng, who runs Mama Juju Tea, saw the pandemic as the ideal time to take a risk by joining the new Bissap Baobab venture. Feng reached out to Senghor about the Oakland location and proposed the idea of turning it into a space for multiple small businesses to work as a collective—splitting the rent and creating a shared menu.

When Feng pitched the idea to Senghor, it didn’t seem at all far-fetched to the Senegalese entrepreneur. “Back home in West Africa, people work together all the time,” Senghor said.

Feng and her friend Connie Leung have been brewing traditional Chinese medicinal teas that their mothers and grandmothers prepared for them when they were young, and experimenting with the recipes so they’ll appeal to a wider audience while staying rooted in “this deep ancestral knowledge that’s over 1,000 year old,” Feng said. “I drink this tea all the time.”

Selling the teas is significant to Feng because for too long, she said, people outside her culture have monetized and appropriated traditional Asian remedies, like Kombucha. “We’re well versed in this because these are the traditions our families have bestowed upon us,” said Feng.

All of the businesses sharing the Bissap Baobab space in Oakland are owned by women, an aspect of the collective that Feng said is intentional.

“So much evidence has shown that when women create wealth and income, a greater proportion of that is invested back into our community,” she said. “It’s really beautiful.”

Dedication to community is what inspired Joanna Cruz and her partner Teao Sense to start Love’s Little Things, which makes all natural disinfectants and lotions. Cruz said her family began making body sprays made from rose quartz, a stone that symbolizes love and is thought to have healing properties, while volunteering at The Village, a homeless encampment in East Oakland. When the pandemic began, Cruz felt like it was time to “step up and offer this healing to the broader community.” They even began teaching their son how to make the spray.

Cruz and Sense, who are the founders of the band turned-artist collective Audio Pharmacy, have a long history of utilizing their creative talents for community building. When they lived in San Francisco, Senghor would let them host fundraisers at his restaurants for causes like typhoon relief in the Philippines. After they moved to Oakland, Cruz became the community events manager at Baobab’s Oakland location until it closed. “It’s been a real journey for my family and Marco,” Cruz said, “but we believe in the culture of Bissap Baobab and in Marco.”

Marina Houngbadji, who is also Senegalese and owns Marina’s Sweet Catering, said the new Bissap Baobab has strong community roots. “In Senegal there’s a word called teranga, which means you make everyone feel welcome,” Houngbadji said. To explain, she used the example of a family member who has lost their home. “Everyone lives in the same house. They will not let you be homeless, and this is the same in business.”

Baking has been Houngbadji’s passion since she attended Laney College as a culinary arts student. She was recently working as a catering events coordinator, until she lost her job due to the pandemic. Starting a catering company of her own had always been a dream—one that, until now, felt unobtainable. When she was going to school and working full time, said Houngbadji, she didn’t “have the drive to just work on a business plan after-hours and then go back to work the next day.” Now, she’s planning to use the Bissap Baobab kitchen to bake sweets like cookies, which are already available for pre-order.

“I would never have been able to start my business if the pandemic hadn’t started,” she said. “It’s hard to start a business in the pandemic, but I can do it.”

Houngbadji has also drawn inspiration from the Black Lives Matter movement. She grew up in France, and although Houngbadji said she never feared her life could be ended by law enforcement, racism was present there. Senghor, who she considers a mentor, said they’ve both received hate calls in recent months because they are successful Black business owners and immigrants.

It certainly hasn’t deterred Houngbadji. “Me starting this business is showing the world that we can be strong,” she said. “You think my life doesn’t matter, but I will show you that it does.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Marco Senghor was forced to close all three of his Baobab locations—two in San Francisco and one in Oakland. In fact, Little Baobab in San Francisco never closed. The story was updated on Sept. 11 to reflect this.

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Ricky Rodas is a member of the 2020 graduating class of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. He has spent the last two years reporting on immigrant communities in the Bay Area as a reporter for the hyperlocal news sites Oakland North, Mission Local, and Richmond Confidential. Rodas, who is Salvadoran American and bilingual, joins us through a partnership with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities. Rodas will be reporting on small and immigrant-owned businesses in Oakland.