Francesca Chaney is changing the game, one meal at a time. The 21-year-old college student is the owner and creator of Sol Sips, a vegan cafe located in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood.
Sol Sips started as a temporary pop-up shop that is being renovated to become a permanent location for anyone looking for a healthy and affordable meal. The cafe features an entirely plant-based menu of food and drinks, with no more than four ingredients in every product.
“The response that we got in the three months was really positive,” Cheney told VIBE of the pop-up shop. “We got a lot of feedback that encouraged us to keep going, so what it’s grown into is making these foods accessible to everyone.”
Despite being the daughter of a vegan nutritionist, Cheney was never pressured into following a plant-based diet. Instead, her mother made sure that she “understood the importance of eating healthy and eating plants.”
At age 16, Cheney (and some of her friends) transitioned into vegetarianism, but she wasn’t exactly eating the best foods. The only after-school meatless meals available in her neighborhood were fried tofu and broccoli from a local Chinese restaurant. “In terms of being a ‘healthy vegetarian’ or ‘healthy vegan,’ I didn’t really start that until around the time that I started creating the Sol Sips brand,” she said.
Cheney began making her very own beverages and unique herbal tea mixtures three years ago, which she sold in her community, and at different festivals and events. By 2017, Cheney scored a temporary pop-up space, and as of this year, her story has been spreading all around the internet.
Going forward, Chaney wants to lead neighborhood food tours and visits to local farms, to teach residents about the food options in their own communities. Her main goal is to educate people on the benefits of a plant-based diet without being pushy or overbearing.
Days before her official grand opening, VIBE spoke with the young entrepreneur about the challenges of running a business, and how she plans to turn Sol Sips into a global brand.
VIBE: How did Sol Sips evolve into a cafe?
Francesca Cheney: We were doing events, weekend gigs and festivals and we had an opportunity to do a pop-up [cafe] in an actual space. It was our trial period to test that vision with regular, local people, as opposed to somebody that is going to the festival because they know that they want to buy certain things. This was solely to be in the space of community.
What has been the most challenging part about juggling a business and being a college student?
It’s been extremely challenging. That’s not something that deters me, and it’s not something that I’m afraid of taking on. It was a struggle in the beginning because we literally opened the pop-up the week of my finals. That was an intense week [laughs], I’m glad that I got through it. Coming into the spring semester [at Brooklyn College], I had a conversation with my parents and my family, they were like “We support you, whatever you want to do. If you feel like you’re comfortable going straight thorough, do it. If you want to take a break, do that. Just know that you’re supported.” So I decided to take a break for the spring semester. [In the] fall, I will return back to finish the end of my junior year, and then my senior year.
Your family sounds really supportive, how involved are they in helping you run the business?
They give me my space to come up with the vision, or the menu, or how we’re going to interact with the customer. Pretty much the whole standard operating procedure they give me the space to do that, in terms of the process of what’s happening at the cafe, my mom helps. She knows the process to make different meals, and how to run the cafe in general. She also gives me feedback on how things can go better. That’s pretty much how my family is in general: “We support you, let’s have a conversation about what we can do better next time.”
What’s the most challenging part of running your own cafe?
The challenging part is trying to gage what [foods] people will gravitate towards and what they won’t. Also, not taking it personally. There are certain things that people like more than others. What I’ve learned is focus points, and that’s what the pop-up was supposed to do. What the [customers] liked, what we’re selling the most of, what wasn’t working. So now, coming into our grand opening, we know all of those things.
Where does your food come from?
Our food is locally sourced from an organic wholesale company, and we’re building relationships with local farmers in upstate New York and also local farms in Bushwick. But for the winter period when we were doing the pop-up, we were working mostly with the wholesale company. They get most of their foods from fresh local farms.
What advice would you give to convert someone to veganism?
I’m not trying to convert anyone. What I like to do in general, and I can say this in regards to my family — one side is black Southern American, and the other black Central American — and so the diets are heavy in meat. When I go to family functions, I’m never like “You need to be a vegetarian or a vegan.” I’ll just make a vegan dish. People will be shocked that it’s vegan, or shocked that it taste so good, and then I let them know that they can get these ingredients at the grocery store, let them know the cost, and also [encourage them] to take inventory on [their bodies]. How are feeling after a meal that doesn’t have meat in it? Are you feeling lighter, or more energized? Based on those feelings, you can implement it into your diet, and then maybe in the long run you might want to eliminate things that make you feel heavier, which may or may not be meat. All of our bodies work differently.
What is your long-term goal for Sol Sips?
I plan to stay in the pop-up space for at least five years. In [regards to] the brand I hope to dedicate at least the next 10 years to really having it be something solid. If we don’t have a setup in your neighborhood, we’ve done a pop-up there. If we don’t have a pop-up then there’s some way that we’ve connected, where we’ve helped in some way to close the accessibility gap. Since word has gotten out [about Sol Sips] people have been reaching out from all different parts of the world. I’m looking to make it something that’s global, and have it be interactive, not just a cafe where you go in and get food, or drinks. I want it to be a conversation constantly. I also look forward to connecting with people who are already doing the work, who are lobbying [for better foods in different communities]. We plan to connect and exchange energies with everyone, and offer what we can.