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Brooklyn Restaurant Owner Francesca Chaney on Who Gets to Be ‘Well’

The Sol Sips owner wants to see healthier, more mindful workplaces throughout the restaurant industry

Smiling woman standing in front of a sandwich board.
Nick Mancall-Bitel is an editor at Eater overseeing travel coverage and the international maps program.

Who gets to be well? Francesca Chaney tries to answer that question every day at Sol Sips, her vegan cafe in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn. Through accessible, feel-good food, the 2019 Eater Young Gun shows how a successful business can uplift everyone, specifically the Black and brown people often excluded from wellness conversations. The cafe serves not just plant-based nutrition, but also free cooking classes to engage the community and provide inspiration to restaurant owners across the city.

Chaney pushes for wellness on the other side of the counter, too. “[A restaurant] doesn’t have to inherently be exploitive,” she says, suggesting owners think about “upholding the actual people that are [working] in these spaces regardless of the job description — upholding them and saying, ‘I support you and I see what you’re doing. I’m going to make sure that you feel supported, that you feel safe.’”

As many owners re-examine toxic workplaces, Chaney urges a total re-imagining of the relationship between boss and employee, and between cook and customer, suggesting a holistic alternative in which leaders value workers and chefs seek to provide nourishment over profit. “I’m always doing that work to evaluate because I’m not a person who’s completely 100 percent free of accountability,” she adds. “It’s a process of figuring out and navigating the service industry.” As she helps Eater conceptualize the ideal future of restaurants, Chaney shares her own evolution and her vision of wellness for all.

Eater: What do you think is going to happen in the next five years?

Francesca Chaney: I’m interested to see how the culture of dining and breaking bread with each other changes or transforms, and if there’s going to be more room for transforming the service industry. We already know the way that the service industry can be exploited.

I’m hoping that servers’ wage [the tipped minimum wage] is something we reassess: figuring out [how we] can support individuals who are working in the service industry and are banking on these tips. And being a little bit more holistic in thinking about how tedious, physical, and mentally draining it is to be in kitchen and restaurant culture, sometimes for seven days straight for some people. I’m looking forward to seeing a care-based approach that supports people working in this industry from the ground up.

Other than that, I would really hope that we’re moving away from valuing nourishing people based on the numbers, the amount of orders we can put out per hour. Can we actually consider the human experience in consuming this food? I would really like to see more reverence toward the human body in the everyday work of nourishing human beings.

Chalkboard-style sandwich board in between two potted plants outside Sol Sips.
A chalkboard sign for Sol Sips in the space’s current outdoor dining setup

What does a healthy workplace culture look like in the restaurant industry?

Definitely getting rid of servers’ wage. And then, for me, not creating a hierarchy — so we’re not thinking about the dishwasher as someone just washing the dishes. We’re valuing the fact that these dishes are being done so that we can get more work done; it’s a vital part of the flow of work. We’re not just looking at it like, “this is a dishwasher, this is a porter.” We are looking at the work culture from the team-based perspective. Everyone is a key player.

Something that I would also like to see within healthy work culture is tending to people’s needs a little more. I’ve noticed in a rush, or on a Saturday, if it’s just a lot of work, everyone is in it until we get the work done. I’ve been working on being more mindful of [things like] more breaks for water for everyone, more nourishment, and making sure people feel supported.

And then maybe not upholding the seven-day-a-week practice that I feel is such a route to burnout within the restaurant industry. Is there a real need to be open six or seven days a week? Can this industry function on five days? I’m not saying I’m advocating for everyone just shortening their hours. I don’t know everyone’s situation; I don’t know what their needs are or what they’re looking to get in return on their investment. But I’ve had conversations with restaurateurs who are like, “We don’t even need employees to make the food. We can just have this machine that’s making this food or taking the orders. People just come up to the iPad and put their order in.”

I would like the general culture to value each human being, so that it can transfer back into valuing human interaction in the actual service of the food between customers and the workspace environment.

What responsibilities will future restaurants have toward their customers and their neighborhoods?

Woman seated at a wooden outdoor table looks directly at the camera.

We’re thinking about the culture of the space. This is a conversation I’ve had with other restaurateurs in Bushwick, and I’ve had to call them in on this because we work to say, “I’m a restaurateur and I’m not racist” or “I’m a restaurateur and I’m hiring locally.” And that’s enough. But also, what culture are you upholding in the environment? I’ve been to restaurants and bars in Bushwick where I’m cool with the owner, but when I go in there on a regular Saturday night, I’m the only Black person in there. That’s not to say that the owners don’t have interactions with Black people. It’s just they’re upholding a space that’s contributing toward gentrification, where people in the neighborhood feel very comfortable with being lax about the topic, or just being exclusive, even in how they interact with each other on a regular Friday or Saturday night.

We’re using these jargony terms like “being inclusive” or “being mindful of people that are coming in” or “mindful consumption,” but I think it’s just like, “value the human being.” Value every person that comes inside your space. [We need to] start moving from: how much we can make based on how we design the space, who’s going to think it’s hip, or how much money they have in their pockets, or what trust fund babies are going to be supporting this space. [And start] saying, “Wherever you’re opening your restaurant, can anyone just come in here and feel comfortable to get a meal?” ... I value the human experience in my space over the aesthetic of “Is this Instagrammable?” or “Is this going to be the it place in food?” It’s really not about that. It’s food. We have to be mindful.

What’s going to drive these changes? Does it come from customers, education from chefs, an industrywide push?

That’s hard to tell. I would hope that it’s a collective conversation where everyone’s input is involved. We value feedback from all ends of the spectrum and we uphold it. We might not have a choice to say, “These people will drive the conversation.” It might be that the conversation is here and it’s happening and it’s now. We have to address the need to be more responsible with food and more responsible with access.

I’m looking forward to seeing more visibility in the food world that isn’t based on who’s going to drive numbers or influence or profit for a restaurant concept or a media company that’s amplifying the voices of people in the food world. I would love to just see a range of different people, whether it’s one of my homegirls that has a food business that she’s running out of her home kitchen that is nourishing to the folks around her. Different things that don’t have to exist within the structure of Michelin or even Eater saying, “This is the creme de la creme of food.” I would like to see the narrative go different places. Everyone has their own connection with food because everyone has to interact with it. People are doing different things that may be so unknown to us; it’s important to share because it’s their story. I would love to see that visibility in the community and in the restaurant of the future.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.