interviews

Why Bushwick Is Rooting for the 21-Year-Old Owner of a New Vegan Café

Francesca Cheney is all smiles.

Last December, while her college classmates were taking finals and looking forward to winter break, Francesca Cheney was putting the finishing touches on her vegan café pop-up, Sol Sips. She’d found a small space on Wilson Avenue in Bushwick, about ten minutes from her apartment in Bed-Stuy, and from December through March planned to sell vegan drinks and food to anyone who came by. Once a month, they’d host a sliding-scale brunch, where a full meal with a beverage could be purchased for $7 to $15.

This week, through no small amount of hustling and crowdfunding, the Sol Sips pop-up became a permanent fixture on Wilson Avenue. Cheney talked us through creating a community-oriented café in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, and the impact she ultimately wants to make on the New York food scene.

You’re 21. Between the permits and Health Department and red tape, how do you manage to keep yourself from getting too overwhelmed in a world that tells you, “You have to be this old and you have to be this white to succeed”?
I’m just consistently going through the list every day. Setting intentions. And I do a lot of research. It’s wild: The other day, I was in the Department of Consumer Affairs. I looked around and realized, “Wow, no one here looks like me.” These are all people who are going to register their businesses and no black women were in there.

One thing that I find is, just being direct and transparent with people has helped a lot. I know, if I’m going to have to talk to someone, they’re already looking at me a certain way because I’m younger, so I have to be very direct and say, “This is exactly what I need and this is where I need your support,” or “This is what I have and this is what I can offer,” as opposed to, you know, being unsure. I just have to take up space a lot.

A lot of people are under the impression that the restaurant operates under a pay-what-you-wish model, but it only happens every once in a while, right?
It’s on Saturdays. It’s so funny because we were just on Fox, and I think they also marketed the story that way. That’s cool, but I want it to be really clear: It’s a “sliding-scale brunch,” and I really like the term sliding scale because it has been used in a lot of grassroots movements and organizing movements. And I actually found out about that through a doula organization that I worked with where the service was just based on your income.

I was like, Okay, why not just incorporate that into food? When we started doing it, it was once a month, and now we do it once a week because the space is there and we can support it. So you can pay $7, and if you want, you can pay $8 or $9 or $10 or $15. And you get a full meal and a full beverage. It’s really just about equity.

And you rely on people to do the right thing?
Yeah, yeah! What I saw in the model we did when we were doing the pop-up was, people were really honest and really transparent. And also, the space is small. You get to interact with people’s energies. The people I’ve run into, they just seem to be like, “Okay, this is what I can give.” And a lot of people who are privileged own up to their privilege when they’re in the space, which is really cool, too. I just go based off of trusting people and trusting that everyone’s operating with integrity. We’re setting up a system where you have to [make a reservation], so we can make the space because it’s a high-demand thing.

You study anthropology at Brooklyn College. How do you balance this project with school?
I’m on a semester break right now. I have one more year, and I want to make sure that I finish. But Sol Sips is in a place right now that I didn’t expect when we originally did the pop-up. I thought, Okay, when it’s time to go back in for the spring semester, I’ll be able to manage it and balance it out. Then we started to see that it was going to be a thing around mid-January. The break gives me from February to August to really just set everything up for the café and hopefully go back in the fall semester.

How many hours are you putting into the café every day?
The hours right now are intense because the café is open 12 hours a day, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. We’re brand-new, we’re still breaking even, so we need to be open a certain amount of hours just to make revenue. And when I get home I’m also working on other things, whether it’s lists or doing research or studying or reading entrepreneur books. Actually, Crystal just gave me two books.

Crystal is our landlord. When I first heard about Sol Sips, and when my editor suggested that I reach out to you, I didn’t realize you were also the upstairs neighbor that I see in the building. Anyway, I’m always bragging about how my landlord is a black woman.
I do the same thing! She was telling me, “If you’re not in school right now, you need to be reading books on just managing a business.” So, I’ll do that when I come home. So, I guess hour-wise, I’m putting in a minimum of 16 hours a day into the business.  

And then eight for sleep.
Well, sometimes sleep. I’ve been getting in enough sleep to the point where I feel good, I feel energized. But I’ve been really, really excited recently, so I’ve barely been able to sleep.

You’ve gotten a lot of press coverage for this business, and most of it started with black-focused news outlets.
It’s wild. An editor for Essence hits me up via DMs on Instagram. She’s like, “I’ve been following your business and I want to do an interview with you.” So, they reached out to me and we did the interview and she sent me the link. Essence put it up on their Facebook page in early March, and it started a soft viral wave. And then I wake up the next day and it’s another site, Live Kindly Co.; they covered this story. And then I wake up the next day and then it’s like the Shade Room and Black Wall Street and Power 105. Everyone was sharing it.

The black community is like, Yassss!
I saw some of the comments on certain posts. People are like, “She must be rich,” and “Her credit must be on point.” I mean, before I lived here, when I lived in East New York, I was living in the projects. I’m from the hood. A few people in my family own businesses, so we had a lot of conversations about the budget. And I’m a hard worker. I saved up a big portion of the pop-up’s initial funding. We also crowdfunded almost $4,000. And then my family came in to hold me down on the rest of it. And they only came in after I had a business plan to present to them and had actual concrete steps to let them know that this is actually something that will make money.

To balance costs, everything on our menu is only made with four ingredients or less. So, it’s a minimalist approach because it’s simple food, but it’s also a budget approach. It’s not something that I’m throwing out to people. It’s like, how can you actually get healthy organic food to people for an accessible price if you’re using ten different ingredients, on the real?

Even so, I’m sure you’ve probably been told that only 20 percent of new businesses make it through their first year. But you also have the black media and young black community rallying behind you. Do you feel pressure to succeed?
I haven’t necessarily even been able to let that pressure sink in because I have another set of expectations for myself. I’m not even playing into the expectations that other people have for the business. I have a very intricate vision. So, I haven’t necessarily felt that pressure because I already put a ton of pressure on myself that’s probably greater than the amount of pressure that people are putting on me, but it’s not in an unhealthy way. It’s just in a “Let’s do this shit and let’s see how far we go” way.

Most people would tell you to take another location to Fulton Street or another high-traffic area, but you want to open another location in your old neighborhood. Why’s that?
I would tell people, like, yeah, East New York. And they would be like, “No! Don’t! Don’t go to East New York! You’re not gonna make any money there!” But what makes people think that? What makes people think that there are no vegans in East New York or vegetarians in East New York or pescatarians in East New York? I was one of them. The options just aren’t there. So, I know that it’ll be successful there and I have no doubt about it, and especially now that Sol Sips has received a platform where we can speak on it a bit more, I think that it will be a situation where people will be less hesitant because they were probably looking forward to it being in their neighborhood and weren’t trying to take the L all the way to Dekalb.

For now, though, you’ve got your lease, your space, and, I’m assuming, a hot plate?
Yup, we have a hot plate and that’s pretty much it. And for our coffee, we’re doing AeroPresses and just keeping it really simple, really basic. I’m not trying to be anything that I’m not right now. I’m still trying to cover costs and make sure everything runs smoothly, so this is what we’re going to do for now.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Bushwick Loves the 21-Year-Old Owner of a New Vegan Café