Baobab Fare, a new restaurant launched amid pandemic-related capacity restrictions this year, has quickly caught Detroiters’ attention. The business offers sumptuous East African dishes like flash-fried fish with fresh corn salad, beef simmered with tomatoes paired with peanut-stewed spinach, and creamy dessert pudding made with avocado and passion fruit. Co-founder and CEO Mamba Hamissi, who came to Michigan from Burundi as a refugee less than a decade ago, said love is a key part of the restaurant’s menu and atmosphere.
“Detroit has given us everything. The only thing we can give back is love,” he said.
Hamissi’s wife, Nadia Nijimbere, arrived in the U.S. in 2013, before Hamissi. She lived in Detroit’s Freedom House, which supports asylum seekers in Michigan. There, she found out she was pregnant with twins. Hamissi met his daughters when he got to the U.S. two years later.
“For me and Nadia, this was not a choice, to come to the United States. It was just to survive,” Hamissi said. “The only home we have right now is Michigan and Detroit. That’s the only home we have.”
Hamissi, who was a sales and marketing manager when he lived in Burundi, said that when he and Nijimbere were first building their new life in Michigan, they expected to find work quickly. But finding employment turned out to be more difficult than they expected.
“We didn’t have a family, we didn’t have anybody around,” he said. “We had a very good education back home ... so we were like, it’s going to be easy for us to get a job. But unfortunately, we couldn’t get a job. And that was like, how are we going to get out of this situation? That was the way we started.”
He and Nijimbere made plans to open an East African restaurant, market, and juice bar drawing inspiration from the baobab tree, which, Hamissi explained, is native to Africa and grows in dry desert areas.
“You can eat anything--everything--on that tree, so that tree’s very useful,” he said. “We were inspired by the name of the baobab tree. We want to be like baobab, growing in Detroit.”
Baobab Fare employs former residents of Freedom House, who, like Nijimbere and Hamissi once did, are seeking opportunities to find work in a new country.
“We have some people who are coming to this country as refugees. They don’t speak the language, they don’t know how to write, they don’t know how to read,” said Hamissi. “Our main goal right now, and when we started, was to give a chance to people who [don't] have a chance.”
Hamissi said that sometimes, when customers aren’t familiar with East African food, they might be hesitant to try Baobab Fare’s offerings. So, he says, he talks with them to try to establish a connection.
“[I] tell them who we are, and then try to get the trust from them,” he said. “I usually tell people, ‘Try it, and if you don’t like it, you don't have to pay.’ … Let’s say, like, our dessert. Many people don’t like avocados, like, ‘No, no, no, no, I don’t like avocados,’ but it’s like, ‘Here, try it, just one bite, try it,’ and then: ‘Oh, this is different. This is good.’”
But Hamissi said he’s also noticed an increase in people who are interested in tasting new cuisines for the first time--especially in one age demographic.
“Young people, they’re willing--they want to try,” he said. “I was surprised to see people who have never been out of Detroit try new things like, ‘Oh, this is good, I like to try new things.’”
Hamissi said he and Nijimbere were nervous about opening the business amid the pandemic, which has proved particularly devastating to the restaurant industry. But, soon after they launched the business, their worries dissipated.
“We are so, so busy. Some of the weekends, if you don’t have a reservation, you can’t even get a seat,” he said.
Hamissi said the carefully prepared food is worth the wait.
“This food takes long to cook,” he said. “Some people say we are taking long, we are very slow. Sometimes you can wait for one hour. But we don’t want to lose what is important for us. You’re not going to give love when you’re in a hurry. You’re going to give love when you take your time.”
This post was written by Stateside production assistant Nell Ovitt.