When Brooklyn teens Julian Alexander and Natejhia Lopez first spotted a new vegan eatery in their neighborhood of Bushwick recently, they were skeptical. A proliferation of pricey cafés, restaurants, and stores had started popping up around them — making the two often feel out of place in an area that they had once considered home.
But something about the small café, named Sol Sips, made the two teenagers stop and take notice.
“I was walking down the street and I saw this shop, and I said ‘oh, is this just another gentrified vegan shop.’ And then Julian was like ‘Wait no, there’s black people in there,’” Lopez said.
The teens ventured inside, ecstatic to find out that the café, unlike other new neighboring businesses in the area, was black-owned. The two teens are now interns at Sol Sips, a vegan eatery owned by Francesca Cheney, the 21-year old founder, that is about to open permanently on April 5.
What started as a few homemade drinks sold in an apothecary in Crown Heights has flourished into a burgeoning Brooklyn business –- and a real brick-and-mortar cafe located in the heart of Bushwick. Along the way, Chaney has instituted a sliding scale of prices that aims to make her menu of plant-based green smoothies, juices, and vegan eats accessible to lower income communities and communities of color who she says have been historically priced out of the expensive health food market, or have had limited access to a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables. According to NYC.gov, diabetes, a diet-related disease, disproportionately affects Black and Latino New Yorkers.
“There’s definitely a food crisis happening,” Chaney said.
Sol Sips will showcase an expanded menu with items like a popular jackfruit tamarind panini, brazil nut milks, and raw hot coco. Drinks at the café can run from $4 to $12, but on Saturdays, customers can pay as little as $7 for a full brunch that includes a drink.
“People pay what they can afford,” said Emily Chaney, Francesca’s 57-year-old nutritionist mother and a full-time vegan for 20 years. It was important to her and her daughter, she said, to make more vegan health food available to all their customers, even if it meant that Sol Sips wasn’t always raking in money.
From a young age, Francesca’s mother taught her about the nutritional power of plant-based food, but that didn’t always mean that it was easy to find. Growing up in East New York, Francesca said she didn’t notice a lot of healthy vegetarian food options in her neighborhood.
When Chaney moved out at eighteen, she struggled to balance college and three jobs. (In addition to being a chef, Chaney is also a full-spectrum doula.) As a result, she often resorted to eating fast food fries and soy-based products when she was short on time.
“At the time, I was getting sick every other day just because I had so much going on,” Chaney said, adding, “I wasn’t paying attention to what was going into my body.”
Some of Francesca’s other family members, she noted, also suffered from diabetes or hypertension.
Things changed when she started working in her cousin’s apothecary in Crown Heights and as a part-time babysitter for wealthier households in the area. Soon, she noticed that there was an abundance of nutritious plant-based options in other areas of Brooklyn – she had just never seen them in her neighborhood.
“I was around households that had more privilege – suddenly there was a Trader Joe’s around the corner,” Chaney said.
At her cousin’s shop, she began experimenting with plant-based elixirs that she developed, combining juices with ancient Eastern medicine standbys like ginger and turmeric – to make herself feel more “energized” and “lighter.” She started giving her concoctions to friends and family, and soon after, her cousin let her host her own pop-up in the shop. She experimented with new ingredients, like jackfruit, a vegan staple for its “meaty” texture and nutritious properties—and found that she loved the feeling of cooking.
“There is something meditative about it,” Chaney said.
When Chaney’s family realized how serious she was, they rallied to support her, and it wasn’t long before her mom and aunt went into business with her.
By December of 2017, Chaney had launched Sol Sips as a pop-up café in Bushwick, peddling simple green smoothies and juices infused with ginger and lavender. After three months, demand grew enough to make the café permanent.
Chaney took to crowdfunding on GoFundMe to raise funds for the permanent cafe, and often hosts events.
At 1 a.m on a Sunday morning, a crowd of 20-somethings grooved to a DJ’s beat. Colorful bags with bright patterns adorned the walls, glimmering in the low light. Large trays, once full of vegan burritos, were now empty on the counters.. She was surrounded by her mom, her business partner, and her friends.
“Do you want some pomegranate juice?” Francesca asked. It’s a question she’ll be asking her customers soon enough. The brunch was over, but for Francesca, things are just beginning.