Credit: Hayley Grimes

By all appearances, Sol Café is a product of gentrification, a prime example of the businesses that arrive in neighborhoods to accommodate newer, wealthier residents. It definitely stands out from its neighbors on Howard Street, which include long-standing family-owned restaurants, payday lending services, a minimart, and a pair of shoe stores. Inside the sunlit storefront, baristas sling specialty lattes amidst dried flowers, plants for sale, and a golden disco ball, which floats just above the register.

But Simone Freeman, the owner of the cafe, which opened its doors more than six years ago, is acutely aware of its place and identity within Rogers Park.

“With my staff’s input, I am constantly checking myself and the business to make sure we’re improving in a way that makes people feel like they can be customers,” says Freeman. “I want people to be able to make Sol their own.”

Freeman, 30, owned a coffee stand while she was still a student at George Washington University, and she wanted to continue the operation when she moved back to Chicago after graduation in 2011. At the time, property developer Jay Johnson was looking for a coffee shop to fill a space in the historic Howard Theatre building. When Freeman heard of the opening, she jumped at the opportunity. Sol Café opened in 2012. It has transformed several times since then, adding a kitchen, baked goods, and plant sales, but the core of its mission remains firm: to provide a quality product to all who want it, not just to people who can afford it.

Accessibility and community are central to Sol Café’s philosophy, and those tenets are made visible through their community engagement programs. Each month, the café chooses a nearby organization to work with, sponsoring events and matching customer donations to organizations such as the Howard Area Community Center, Gale Community Academy, and the after-school program Family Matters, among others.

“[Sol Café] has led other businesses in realizing you don’t just come to a community. You have to actually engage,” says I. Ashaki McClain, director of the Teen Girls Program at Family Matters. Last year, Sol Café helped sponsor a camping trip to Richard Bong State Recreation Area in Wisconsin for the Teen Girls Program. After fundraising, Freeman and Sol staff member Emmi Greer volunteered to chaperone the trip. “That’s a different level of engagement,” McClain says.

Credit: Ryan Edmund

This ethos of community engagement inspired the Sol Supper program, a series of themed community dinners. Started in September 2018 and recurring every four to six weeks, the events are a microcosm of everything the café does in Rogers Park.

The Sol Suppers allow their 40-45 attendees to engage with one another through open seating and family-style sharing. Appetizers are placed in strategic locations around the cafe, encouraging people to walk around the space and mingle with other diners. Nearly every part of the meal seeks to build camaraderie among the participants, chefs, and staff; Freeman has observed that many people enter as strangers but leave as friends. Freeman does what she can to keep the event open to residents with a range of needs: the menus are often vegetarian, and the day of the week changes each month to accommodate people with atypical work schedules.

“It’s fun to watch people become more open as the night progresses,” Freeman says. “[The experience] asks you to step outside your comfort zone to share food and talk with strangers.”

Over the months, Freeman and her team have honed the Sol Supper experience to incorporate new concepts, flavors, and experiences that highlight professional and recreational Chicago chefs (who have included Rafael Esparza and Daniel Speer from Finom Coffee, John Hagedorn from Elizabeth, and Jeremy Leven of Sweet Home). The menu and price change each month, but Freeman keeps the four-course meals below $40 to allow as many neighborhood residents to attend as possible.

The neighbors seem to enjoy the events too. Nearly every Sol Supper has sold out.

Although Sol Café still offers boutique- priced fare—sandwiches are $8-$10 and a specialty drink runs close to $5—Freeman is mindful of keeping some items on the menu at accessible prices. She’s constantly searching for ways to make her products more affordable, like introducing free bagged lunches (made from leftovers and extra food) and “$1 Coffee Mondays” to welcome the neighborhood into the space.

“We don’t want to turn away anyone who is hungry or thirsty, or anyone who can’t afford something here,” Freeman says. “I’m trying to find diverse sources of income so I can put less financial burden on the customer and our employees. That’s a huge reason why I started the suppers and plant sales.” (The houseplants are sourced from Damiane Nickles, the Brighton Park gardener behind the Instagram account @notaplantshop.)

Freeman says she never thinks Sol’s work is done.

“If there’s anybody who has an idea to bring the community together in some higher capacity, I fully welcome it,” says Freeman. “I want the neighborhood to know that Sol is really, truly for everybody.”   v