Opening a restaurant is already a challenge, and Hamissi Mamba and Nadia Nijimbere have navigated the ups and downs of owning their own business. The couple were planning to open their highly anticipated East African restaurant Baobab Fare last May when the pandemic hit. With final inspections recently completed, Mamba and Nijimbere debuted Baobab Fare in its own space at the corner of Grand Boulevard and Woodward Avenue in New Center. Until the grand opening next month, the couple will offer limited reserved seating at the restaurant, along with takeout.
“Highly anticipated” is a phrase thrown out often enough when talking about the latest restaurant in Detroit. For Mamba and Nijimbere, this phrase isn’t hyperbole. Ever since their days doing pop-ups at Brooklyn Street Local in 2017 and vying for the $50,000 Hatch Detroit grand prize (which they won,) Baobab Fare and its East African dishes have been on the radars of people throughout Detroit.
When asked why Baobab Fare generated such early buzz and kept it up for several years, Mamba says, “we’re bringing something new [to Detroit]. And our story, as well, what we achieved, our courage … people [told us] keep pushing, it’s not easy, but keep going. That was a big push and big motivation for us, because … people wanted us to be here.”
From Burundi to Michigan
Opening Baobab Fare has been a long journey for Mamba and Nijimbere, one that began in Burundi in East Africa, where the two met and fell in love. They had a good life there, Mamba says, and if things hadn’t turned out the way they did, they probably would still be there today.
But Nijimbere, a human rights worker, faced persecution and fled Burundi for Michigan, where her sister lives. Mamba, who worked as a sales and marketing manager, stayed behind, and struggled to get a visa. When Nijimbere arrived in Detroit, she discovered she was pregnant with the couple’s twin daughters. Mamba wouldn’t meet his children until his arrival in Detroit in 2015, after finally securing a visa on the third try. Reunited, Mamba and Nijimbere tried to make a new life for themselves in Detroit with their children. Mamba found it difficult to land a job, eventually securing employment in a factory. But the couple dreamed of building something of their own together in Detroit.
Nijimbere was a good cook, and Mamba helped his mother in the kitchen growing up. While at Freedom House Detroit, a haven for asylum seekers, he took an entrepreneurship course through ProsperUS, slowly laying the foundation for the future restaurant.
In 2017, Mamba and Nijimbere were granted asylum. It was the moment that solidified their future, Mamba says. “That was the moment we can say, now we can make it happen, because at the moment you have a future, you have hope…now you can focus on what’s next. We’re going to stay here, because this is home now.”
It’s a message now etched in bright yellow paint on the dark gray wall behind the sleek bar at the couple’s New Center restaurant.
“More than a restaurant, Baobab Fare is a gathering place where all are welcomed and embraced,” the message reads.” You are not only our guest, you are our family. Thank you for being here as we share our East African fare, culture, and community. Detroit Ni Nyumbani. Detroit is home.”
Filling a void
A main inspiration for Baobab Fare was shaped by necessity. When Mamba first came to the United States, he was missing the foods of his home country. “The first thing [you notice] when you’re coming from Africa, the first thing that will shock you, is the food,” Mamba says. It was hard to find the vegetable-forward cuisine of East Africa in Detroit, and his beloved rice and yellow beans.
Mamba says East African cuisine packs a lot of flavor, a result of the many cultural influences on the region. With its locale on the east coast of the continent, it was a strategic location for Arab and Indian traders passing through the region, bringing with them spices like coriander, cumin, turmeric, and more. Those spices then melded with local flavors and dishes. “That is the richness of [East African] cuisine,” Mamba explains.
In Detroit, the pair noticed the lack of East African restaurants, too, and spied an opportunity to share the flavors of their regional cuisine.
At Baobab Fare, diners can expect the signature East African beef stew with spinach, fish dishes like samaki, plenty of vegetarian and vegan options (which are typical in Burundi, where meat is very expensive and not often served,) and the restaurant’s own line of fiery piri piri sauce and passion fruit juice to balance out the heat.
Mamba and Nijimbere took over the current space after the original restaurant concept, Wilda’s, fell through due to a lack of funds. They took out several loans to build the restaurant, transforming it from a blank concrete canvas into a modern and stylish space with black tables accented by bright red and yellow chairs and a black and white checkered tiled floor.
As the global health crisis has led to many restaurants closing for good, Mamba and Nijimbere did worry about how they were going to pay back the loans if the restaurant didn’t open. They even feared bankruptcy. But the couple got a reprieve on the rent from the landlord, Midtown Detroit Inc, giving them time to set up and get the business started, Mamba says.
Baobab Fare is the latest in a string of new restaurants opening in New Center, like Yum Village, the Kitchen by Que, and the upcoming Supino Pizzeria. Mamba doesn’t see opening here as coming into an oversaturated area, but rather an opportunity.
“We are fortunate to be around them, because they’re going to bring people in, people want to come to see them and to follow them, and they’re going to see us,” he says, noting the diversity of food offerings in the neighborhood. “This is what Detroit looks like, that diversity…this is going to be a destination of food.”
Eventually open Sunday and Monday, 7 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Tuesday - Saturday, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Order online for takeout. Reserved limited seating currently. Masks required.
6568 Woodward Avenue, Detroit. baobabfare.com.