Go to Brooklyn cafe Sol Sips early enough and you might see owner Francesca Chaney disappear on a bicycle and roll up 10 minutes later with extra groceries or flowers. There’s something comforting about using a bicycle to run errands, whether you grew up in the city or the suburbs, and watching Chaney, a 2019 Eater Young Gun, go about her morning on two wheels communicates something that doesn’t need to be said: This is her neighborhood.
On this particular Saturday, the summer is thick in the air and Chaney is sorting carnations to place on the tables and counter of her vegan cafe. Nicknamed Sol by her friends, she’s an East Brooklyn native and a 23-year-old black woman. Chaney’s intentions as a restaurateur are deliberate and meaningful.
Chaney’s journey to becoming a business owner began when she sought out nutritious and convenient options in her neighborhood. She found slim pickings, so she decided to do something about it. She started selling her organic smoothies and juices out of her cousin’s apothecary, which evolved into a pop-up complete with vegan food, which in April 2018 became the permanent fixture it is today, situated on a quiet street in Bushwick. Her next challenge is to spread the word to those in the community.
Chaney wants to center people of color in the wellness movement. The wellness industry raked in $4.2 trillion in 2017. Its growth is twofold: Vegan, or plant-based, eating is no longer just a personal health matter, but also an altruistic mission, given the environmental costs associated with eating meat and processed foods. But despite the large numbers of poorer, darker people of the world engaging in vegetarian recipes for millennia, the narrative around the health benefits of plant-based diets has been driven by white people of the West. “Before we opened, my personal goal was to make sure we had room at the table for everyone,” she tells Eater. “The community that has evolved within Sol Sips is very diverse, and there are people coming from so many different places who have been interested in learning about how to incorporate vegan options — or just incorporate vegetables into their diet.”
Chaney’s attempt to change perceptions around who gets to be vegan comes in the form of a vegan sliding-scale brunch where diners pay between $7 and $15 for a full meal and freshly squeezed juice. On this Saturday morning in July, the customers were locals and regulars, as well as vegans who learned of Sol Sips through social media. They all seemed to recognize that Chaney was doing something special.
Many Sol Sips customers come to the tiny Bushwick restaurant precisely because they appreciate what Chaney is doing for her community. “I feel like especially in the city, there is a range of incomes, and a range where not everybody can go for a $15 and $20 brunch every Sunday,” said Christa Pratt, one of Chaney’s early supporters, while waiting for her meal during sliding-scale brunch. “But you know, everybody deserves to wind down every now and then. I think it’s great that she was able to find a sweet spot where she can get what she needs and people can pay what they can pay.”
James Lim, who calls himself a “fake vegan,” was visiting Sol Sips for the second time. “I think it’s great, I think it makes it super accessible, especially to have a cuisine such as this,” he said. “I feel like sometimes even cuisine can be perceived as kind of bougie and overpriced in a lot of places I will not mention. It’s nice that a place like this is here.”
Bushwick has been rapidly gentrifying for the last 10 years. For Bushwick natives like Sol Sips customer Tammy Martinez, dining options were limited to cheaper fast food or overpriced white-owned restaurants and cafes. She says Sol Sips was a welcome addition to the neighborhood. “I was surprised to see someone so young and, you know, and my type of people... making it happen out here,” she said during brunch. “We want her to grow bigger and open more places, because we need more places like this. It’s a good place to come and eat real good food, healthy food, and come and relax.“
Although Sol Sips may have started as a neighborhood secret, word has gotten out: Yelp and Google searches for vegan food lead many customers to the restaurant. For these customers, the convenience of location and appetizing food matters more than the accessible price. The first time many of them hear about the sliding-scale brunch is when they’re told about it by Chaney at the register, by which time they’re more concerned about satisfying their hunger than the virtuosic message of a possible choice. When reminded of what exactly the sliding-brunch is during interviews, several of that day’s vegan customers congratulated her. “That’s amazing. I can definitely relate sometimes to when I’ve only had seven bucks,” said Carla Peralta, a vegan and recent Bushwick resident.
The range of customers at Sol Sips speaks to how the internet leads diners to new restaurants — those who already frequent vegan restaurants will search for and go to new vegan restaurants, and those who aren’t vegan probably won’t. But a few Sol Sips customers were drawn to specific dishes Chaney is serving at Sol Sips, like the jerk jackfruit. Non-vegan Crystal Scott says her vegan coworker’s recommendations led her to make the drive out from the Bronx. “I came out of curiosity, mostly,” she said. She ordered the sliding-scale brunch.
Much of Sol Sips’s popularity, however, hasn’t come from traditional word of mouth, but instead from the platform Chaney has created on social media, along with the attention she’s received from traditional media outlets. Disrupting the white-and-thin trope of veganism is just as important to many of her followers as it is to her. “I was really intrigued and happy to see a business like this open up. Especially in a gentrified area such as Bushwick,” said Lim, who read about Chaney online before going to Sol Sips. “I think it’s important to support.”
As the word spreads about Sol Sips and its sliding-scale brunch, Chaney’s evolution into an inclusive voice for the wellness community continues. Her full-service restaurant, First Sunday by Sol Sips, is set to launch in the fall as another iteration of her mission statement: to encourage accessibility and community through healthy food. A larger space will allow her to intersect art and music with her food and expand her menu. She aims to continue spreading her message of inclusivity, and hopes to have a version of the sliding scale at her new restaurant. Her supporters at Sol Sips will no doubt be there to cheer her on.
“Look at her now,” Martinez said. “You’re here interested in her story, you know what I’m saying? It’s happening, and it’s going to continue happening, because we’re all going to stick together, and we’re going to help each other out. And this is what it’s all about: support.”
Pelin Keskin is an associate producer at Eater.
Gary He is a New York City-based photojournalist.