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6 degrees of Francis Almeda, whose Ravenswood coffee shop has become a launch point for small businesses

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 2/15/2022 Grace Wong, Chicago Tribune
Soap Dev soap, top, and artwork by Ash Miyagawa are on the shelves at Side Practice Coffee. © José M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/José M. Osorio Soap Dev soap, top, and artwork by Ash Miyagawa are on the shelves at Side Practice Coffee.

Side projects have always been Francis Almeda’s thing.

A graphic designer who worked at a number of advertising agencies, Almeda was always the office’s go-to guy to discuss entrepreneurial dreams because he’d find a way to help bring them to life. Now, he’s continuing his passion of helping people with their side projects through Side Practice Coffee, his cafe in Ravenswood that showcases small businesses through pop-ups and collaborations.

“I didn’t want to open up just any coffee shop,” Almeda said. “Side projects were a huge part of my life, and I owned a business already and created this community, so why not showcase the people I already had in my network and give them a place to share their work?”

He wanted to own a place where people could dream up their next big idea. While riding high from a MasterClass on how to negotiate, he did a quick Google search on coffee shops for sale and found one just down the street from his home. He took the plunge.

He got the keys to Side Practice Coffee in February 2020, a month before the city locked down in the face of the then-new COVID-19 pandemic. While some may have seen this as a stroke of bad luck, Almeda realized he was given a gift. He was new to coffee, and he could dedicate his time to learning everything he possibly could and renovate the space to look the way he wanted.

During lockdown, he reached out to coffee shop owners across the city and learned from anyone who would offer advice. Then, he’d go home and make coffee in his basement with his wife, Ann Almeda, whom he credits with always pushing him to pursue his side projects. The two of them practiced roasting beans, steaming milk and creating menu items for when Side Practice Coffee eventually opened, in July 2020.

The works of local artists and designers are displayed at Side Practice Coffee in Chicago's Ravenswood neighborhood. © José M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/José M. Osorio The works of local artists and designers are displayed at Side Practice Coffee in Chicago's Ravenswood neighborhood.

“A normal person would think I’m an idiot to open a business during quarantine, but the beauty of coffee is it allowed people to leave their homes, pick up a coffee or something they really loved and walk back home without having to spend time inside,” Almeda said. “A coffee shop was a perfect business to start in the pandemic.”

He wanted to kick things off with a bang, something that would force people to notice the small cafe, so the couple decided to center the opening theme around ube, the purple yam found in many Filipino desserts. They served ube doughnuts, iced oat milk ube lattes and an ube matcha named Manila Matcha that became a permanent drink on their menu.

“If you say ube, every Filipino will come by and support whatever it is,” he said with a laugh. “I remember opening the blinds that weekend, and there was already a line down the block. This was a point in our lives when no one went out to do anything anymore, so to see a line with everyone with masks on and social distancing was just incredible.”

Side Practice Coffee in Chicago's Ravenswood neighborhood on Feb. 3, 2022. © José M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/José M. Osorio Side Practice Coffee in Chicago's Ravenswood neighborhood on Feb. 3, 2022.

That summer, every weekend featured a different maker. Word spread of the small coffee shop on the North Side that featured side projects and a person who offered advice and support, all at no charge. Almeda’s inbox started to overflow with emails from people who wanted in.

“People just wanted to share their side projects with me, and it’s such a beautiful thing because I want to listen,” Almeda said. “This is what gets me excited, hearing people’s ideas and seeing whether or not I could help them execute it or launch it.”

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To find small businesses to feature, he tapped both his personal and his professional networks, leaning into the local creator community he joined through his other company, Reppin Pins, an enamel pin brand. His cousin was friends with Lily Wang, who not only worked in the beverage industry and gave him advice on developing coffee drinks, but also ran Nine Bar, an Asian-inspired food and beverage pop-up concept out of her parents’ restaurant, Moon Palace in Chinatown.

Francis Almeda at his coffee shop, Side Practice Coffee, in Chicago's Ravenswood neighborhood on Feb. 3, 2022. © José M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/José M. Osorio Francis Almeda at his coffee shop, Side Practice Coffee, in Chicago's Ravenswood neighborhood on Feb. 3, 2022.

Nine Bar popped up at Side Practice in August 2020, serving up dirty chai made with Chinese five-spice powder and hot dogs inspired by okonomiyaki, Japanese savory pancakes.

“He really puts in 110% to lift up everyone around him and provide them with the tools that they need,” Wang said. “He wants to see everyone succeed and offers a space for people who have been working out of their houses. He really tries to do what he can in his capacity to help them have the best chance of success.”

Almeda’s willingness to share expertise and knowledge is particularly noteworthy, adds Joe Briglio, beverage director of Nine Bar.

“Francis has that magnetism and a way of pulling people in and trying to bring everyone else with him. He’s a force that fosters a sense of community,” Briglio said. “He wants to share what he knows, which I think is the opposite of how people operate. People like to guard knowledge, and he’s an open book.”

Michael Williams II, owner of Indiana-based Salamat Cookies!, which he runs with his Filipino mother, said he felt the sense of inclusivity.

“One of the most pivotal parts of a business is the start,” Williams said. “You don’t know if people are going to come out, if you’re doing it right. (Side Practice Coffee) really set it up so you feel no matter how scared you are or how nervous you are that you got some family here hosting you and supporting you in any way they can.”

When Filipino American History Month came around in October, Almeda exclusively featured Filipino makers and artists. Milky Milky, run by Jojo Ybe out of Ravenswood, was strictly an online business at that time, selling ice cream locally to friends and family. But after a pop-up at Side Practice, she started seeing orders come in from all over the city and suburbs. The pop-up gave her physical space to meet customers and make a connection, and “blasted the doors open for folks to be familiar with Milky Milky.”

“It takes a village to get to where you want to go and where you want to be, and seeing his crew support him and him support other crews to do what they want to do is really awesome,” Ybe said. “It’s really awesome to see that kind of connectivity and that kind of commitment. I’m really proud of what Francis has created for his neighborhood and Chicago folks who just want to start something.”

“Start something” is the motto of the shop, and Almeda hopes it will inspire people to pursue their own side projects, even if the projects are not perfect, because there’s always the option to adjust along the way. He built this concept into staffing Side Practice Coffee, making sure each team member had their own side projects in addition to working at the shop. At the shop, you can find vegan baked goods from Gingham Baking, created by former barista-turned-food program manager Branden Leon, and ceramics for sale from art curator Emily Beck.

“I didn’t want Side Practice to be another part-time job,” Almeda said. “I wanted it to be a place for them to grow their side passions and if I could help them, if the cafe could be the place to highlight them, I 100% supported them.”

His connection to the Filipino community through his pop-ups and his personal life helped build bridges to other Asian American makers. At the shop, you’ll find local brands like Yishi Foods, which makes oatmeal cups with flavors inspired by its founder’s Chinese background like taro bubble tea and toasted black sesame, and national brands like Sanzo, which makes sparkling water inspired by Asian flavors like lychee, calamansi and mango.

“Representation is important,” Almeda said. “There’s a lot of folks out there not getting the attention they deserve, so using the cafe as a way to do that has been a rewarding experience for me … there’s a little community of Asian makers and entrepreneurs and I love being a part of that network. I hope it continues to grow and more people get inspired to do their own thing.”

He briefly reflected on the rise of anti-Asian hate during the pandemic, saying he hopes seeing these products stocked at a coffee shop can be a point of pride and a show of support for the Asian American and Pacific Islander community.

“It’s such an important time for us to showcase who we are and where we come from,” Almeda said. “Let’s put it out there and not be shy about it.”

Grace Wong is a freelance writer.

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