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A Brooklyn-based Chef and Restaurant Owner on What’s Keeping Her Afloat and Optimistic During the Pandemic

Francesca Chaney, the owner of Sol Sips, shares how she’s navigating the complexities of being a boss in tough times and why she’s using the $25,000 award from Discover to help her community.

Francesca Chaney is the owner of Sol Sips, a community-centric vegan cafe in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Sol Sips is one of 200 establishments benefiting from Discover’s #EatItForward campaign. The campaign, which launched as a response to the coronavirus’s impact on Black-owned businesses, called for people across the country to nominate their favorite Black-owned restaurants via social media for a chance for the restaurant to receive $25,000. Here, Chaney talks with Thrive Global about the role Sol Sips plays in their community, the complexities of leadership, and how she plans to spend the award. 

By Francesca Chaney, as told to Alexandra Hayes 

Our community is the reason Sol Sips exists. They are the force that sustains us. I’m inspired to make the food for them. I couldn’t work with food, which is universally seen as a scarce resource, and not be mindful of where it’s going, or be intentional about putting it back into the places we’re sourcing from. 

It’s been scary seeing how much uncertainty has come about with the pandemic. It’s scary to open our doors every day, but it’s very important we keep doing so. Seeing people happy in our small outdoor dining area, it means a lot. This woman came by recently whose dad passed away, and she couldn’t eat. The first thing she did want to eat, though, was Sol Sips. I don’t want to lose that connection because of COVID. 

“A pandemic is here, so how can we still play a role in our community?” And how can we support people in sustaining their bodies? One answer to those questions I’ve asked myself is through our win from Discover. We’re putting $5,000 towards our EBT (Electronic Benefit Transfer) fund to expand how we serve our community. It’s our nudge toward the Senate to pass the bills that are pushing for restaurants to be able to accept EBT cards from people who receive food stamps. There are some restaurants in California that do this, and I’ve seen a nationwide push for restaurants to accept EBT for hot food. Between November 1st and February 1st, we’re giving away over 300 Sol Sips vouchers in $15 increments to anyone who has an EBT card and receives food stamps. Our thought is that if we can trial this, then maybe the Senate could work out a system so that all restaurants can provide vouchers for people that receive food stamps. We also have a meal kit program going, and we’re going to be doing more of that and delivering to people outside of our delivery radius. I’m looking forward to seeing Sol Sips reach more people who want to add plant-based foods to their palette.

“Learning how to support a team while running a restaurant was not always easy to manage.” 

I have six staff members, and supporting them means literally being next to them on some days. I’ll work right next to the barista or the chef and affirm them, let them know, ‘Hey, this is great.’ That hasn’t always been a strong suit of mine. This year, some past teammates said, ‘Hey, I didn’t necessarily feel supported,’ so I specifically made it a point to focus on communication, comfort, and safety. We recently went over code words for a person to use if they’re at the front by themselves and they feel unsafe, or if they feel like a customer might not have their best interest in mind. That way, when someone in the back hears the code word, they can come to the front and help. 

I understand my team is blessing me with their time, their energy, and by simply showing up. It needs to be an equal exchange. We get to grow in this space together, and I take feedback from my team. It brings me back to humbleness. The other day, one of my team members was packing up an order, and I looked at the bag and saw he got a bigger bag than the amount of food warranted. I told him a smaller bag would work for the size of the order. He’s like, ‘Well, I’ve been using bigger bags for orders that have drinks, so that I can tuck the drinks on the side of the bag, and then the box would go in the middle, so that it makes everything secure.’ I mean, wow. I never would’ve thought of that. My team members challenge me every day, and I love it. 

When I was younger and dealing with the complexities of leadership, I thought a lot about what it means to be a boss, and whether that title was even necessary to describe myself. I question the idea of authority, and I’ve learned that being a leader in a space doesn’t mean you have authority over people, it just means you have the authority of overseeing that space. I used to think that all of the solutions had to come from me, and all of the questions had to be answered by me. That was a disgrace to the business in the beginning. Now, we’re a team. 

We’ve been really zooming into that team mentality, especially now with the pandemic. We have a lot of different fresh herbs in the restaurant, like peppermint, lavender, and soursop. As much as it’s for our customers, it’s also for in-house usage. There are some days I come in, and I make my team tea before we start the day. If anyone feels a little drained, or just needs an extra energy boost, I’m giving out ginger shots and making sure everybody has some alkaline water beside them. I want my team to know that they can jump out and eat when they need to. The overall motto is, “You have to sustain yourself before sustaining anything else.”

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