When Francesca “Sol” Chaney decided to open her own vegan restaurant, she had two main priorities: affordability, and more specifically, affordability for people that looked like her. As a vegan herself, Chaney had watched eagerly over the years as more vegan eateries popped up across New York City’s five boroughs. But she and many others were dismayed to find that most of these restaurants, despite professing to uphold the vegan beliefs of health, wellness, and kindness toward all sentient beings, primarily offered meals for around $15 or more, making them unaffordable for much of the city’s hardworking minority population.
“I see a lot of the people [in New York] are people of color who are in lower class or lower middle-class income levels,” she says. “Why would I make a space that didn’t cater to us? It was a no brainer to me.” Thus Chaney’s inclusive, affordable vegan restaurant, called Sol Sips, was born.
Instead of trying to conform to the exclusionary version of veganism populating Brooklyn’s neighborhoods, 22-year-old Chaney decided to make her restaurant one where everyone felt welcome. So far, she’s succeeded—Sol Sips quickly became a go-to spot for vegan customers of color and has now grown into a neighborhood staple. A longtime member of the health and wellness community, Chaney created a space that served healthy, homecooked food, without breaking the bank of the average consumer of color.
A mark of progress
Sol Sips has been a welcome divergence from the largely white spaces that dominate the vegan industry.
“There are so many Black and indigenous cultures that already practiced plant-based diets,” says Chaney. “Yet we don’t see ourselves represented in the vegan and plant-based world because of the disparity in income bracket and income level.”
It’s true that a high financial barrier to entry would be a strong gatekeeper preventing Black Americans specifically from being represented in the vegan community. According to the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey, Black families earn $57.30 for every $100 earned by white families. In New York, during 2014-2015, the average income for white families was $122,200, 77 percent greater than the average family income for Black citizens ($69,100) and 93 percent greater than the average for Latino families ($63,500) according to the Fiscal Policy Institute.
“[The vegan food industry] is geared toward people that do have more money,” says Chaney. “Because of the socioeconomic background of this country, we know that it’s probably not going to be Black people.”
Chaney’s determination to break this narrative has culminated in Sol Sips, a space for vegan food enthusiasts of all backgrounds to sit, converse, and enjoy food in an inclusive space. Fan favorites include a natural alternative to coffee called root brew, the jackfruit panini, and a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich made entirely from vegan alternatives to meat and dairy.
Perhaps most notable is that Sol Sips’ brunch is priced on a sliding scale—customers can pay whatever they want or can afford for a full brunch meal, no strings or expectations attached. This is yet another example of Chaney’s commitment to making enjoyable experiences that can be shared by everyone around her.
Blazing a trail
What’s remarkable about Sol Sips is not just its progressive business practices, but also the fact that Chaney herself has become such a successful restauranteur. New York City’s restaurant scene is a notoriously difficult arena to succeed in for anyone—more so for someone who also happens to be young, female, and Black.
“It’s still really crazy to me, honestly that I’ve been able to do this work and get a lot of support, especially being a Black woman,” Chaney says. “I’ve seen a lot of people that have been involved with food and social justice that are Black women and they get a lot of pushback.”
Black women have long had society’s permission to do the work, Chaney says; what’s changing is their ability to own it. “We’ve been feeding people. We’ve been doing this work,” she says. “But then we never have the opportunity to get the funding, the capital, or the access to the resources that maybe a larger corporation might have, or a non-woman of color owned, or a non-Black woman owned business might have.”
This history of gatekeeping hasn’t stopped Chaney and other Black entrepreneurs from demanding a seat at the table in order to create businesses catering to their own communities’ needs. Since 2000, there’s been an increase in Black entrepreneurship to the tune of three times the national rate of business owners. In particular, Black women are the fast-growing group of business owners, growing 322 percent from 2007 to 2015.
Many Black entrepreneurs are circumventing obstacles to entrepreneurship by turning to the very population their businesses are designed to serve: their community. Sol Sips had humble beginnings; Chaney’s team started off in a pop-up shop, which is perhaps part of what made the restaurant seem so approachable to members of the surrounding Brooklyn community who were used to being excluded from more high-end vegan fare. During its first three months, Sol Sips’ patrons were increasingly supportive, and before long Chaney and her team realized they needed a permanent space. Chaney launched an initial crowdfunding effort that yielded more than $5,000, and community support only increased once the business opened a storefront. The restaurant’s Instagram now has more than 13,000 followers, and Sol Sips is one of the most well-rated Brooklyn restaurants on Yelp.
Finding financial (and emotional) sustainability
While her restaurant has had an impressive measure of success, Chaney continues to face her fair share of challenges. The restaurant’s quick growth meant Chaney had to figure out how to scale quickly without sacrificing quality or jacking up costs—all while handling the exhaustion of juggling it all at such a young age.
But Chaney’s leadership and seeming fearlessness demonstrate exactly how invested she is in balancing a flourishing business while maintaining a persistent routine of self-care. Most recently, she closed down her restaurant midweek to take a mental health day, letting her customers know why over Instagram–a highly public move that many corporate competitors might deem unwise. But among her most faithful patrons, Chaney’s prioritization of her mental health feels relatable, and they laud her for it.
“One of the things about running a restaurant is that it requires not only physical energy but also emotional and mental energy. Interacting with customers and holding space for customers requires me to be OK,” she says. “If I’m not OK, then I’m not going to be able to listen to people. I’m not going to be able to show up for people.” By taking care of her health first, Chaney is actually investing in the health of her business long term.
So, what’s next for the young innovator? A bigger space or second location is certainly possible, but Chaney’s priority is continuing to maintain the space she’s already created and ensuring it continues to serve the community first.
“Ultimately [I’d like] a space where I can co-create with the community,” says Chaney. “One of my hopes is that we can have community center dinners once a month that are completely free, so everybody can actually just really, really experience something that is built together, but also something that feels good and something that tastes good—without having to worry about the cost.”
And really, isn’t community what good food and business is all about?