From campus coffee kiosk to community hub
Insights from Simone Freeman, Sol Café (Rogers Park)
Simone Freeman, the owner of Sol Café, knows how to bring people together.
It all started when Simone was a student at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. searching for a job near campus. She couldn’t find a single opening that wasn’t at a large-scale, chain corporation. A frequent customer of a hot-dog-stand-turned-coffee-kiosk near campus, she befriended the Tunisian man who had owned the café for the last 15 years. She soon became his first student employee, and helped transform the kiosk into a thriving community fixture. But the coffee stand had one of the most unfortunate locations near campus: across from one of the largest Starbucks stores in the city.
In Simone’s mind, the kiosk was a staple for the George Washington community, but it was a staple that the owner could no longer manage. Competition was heavy, and the upkeep of the shop was becoming an unenviable task. Despite the obstacles, when Simone found out that the stand was to be sold, she refused to abandon it. She was in the middle of trying convince the owner not to sell when he posed a defiant, rhetorical question: “Well, do you want to buy it?” This question changed her life.
“It was just kind of amazing, the community that we could bring together. Otherwise, [George Washington] was really fast-paced, a little bit sterile, people are so focused on their futures, getting somewhere… [The kiosk] kind of created an environment where everyone could calm down, and just take a second, have a conversation and a coffee break.”
Over the next few years at school, she transformed the stand into a thriving hub for student engagement: as she describes it, the perfect safe space. From employing students to watching strangers interact for the first time, most of her favorite memories come from that original Sol Café.
Simone knew that she wanted to use her ability to bring people together for something meaningful. As a Chicago native, she moved back to the city and jumped at the opportunity to create another community space.
“The community had been wanting a coffee shop for a number of years. I think every community should have [one].”
Within Sol’s four walls, a sense of community engagement can be seen in every poster, painting, and person that’s found a home at the cafe. The Sol Café team is a family, and it shows in Simone’s interactions with her staff.
Because she understands the difficulty of being a young woman in any field--let alone starting her own business--Simone acts as a mentor to many of the women who have come in and out of the Café. She’s learned not to be apologetic and not to back down, from her clashes with George Washington University in Sol’s early days to disputes with landlords and builders. “Don’t ever apologize. You don't need to be ‘cutesy’ or whatever, you don't need to take anyone who says anything about your appearance… Stand up for yourself."
Even little things can have layers. She tells her female employees, “Just even writing emails, avoiding exclamation points… I very much try to mentor them and learn from what I’ve learned.” Sol Café is a community where she guarantees equality without compromise.
Today, Sol Cafe is housed in the historic Howard Theater Building, repurposed to fit its needs. For the past month, the artistic installations have been a celebration of Sol’s fifth anniversary: they’ve printed out every picture they could find, dug through old sketches and floor plans, found newspaper clippings, and gotten old artwork, posters, and t-shirts. Every artifact is now plastered to their walls, telling the remarkable story of the first real coffee shop in the neighborhood. Simone also makes it a priority to feature local artists in order to honor the history and values of the surrounding community in every decoration.
Simone has given Rogers Park a community staple. Sol Café is a pre-teen hangout, an adult workplace, a local study spot, and most importantly, it’s a safe and welcoming environment for anyone and everyone.
“[A coffee shop] is a hub. It brings people together, it’s a safe space… There should be a place for people to go that’s independent.”