Let me first start off by introducing Francis Almeda as my cousin who is more like a big brother and role model. I learned a lot over the years just by watching him work and get things done. He always says "talk less, do more" which has stuck with me to this day. He's a guy who you have to respect and admire for everything he does, and it's a lot.
Francis is a graphic designer/art director, serial entrepreneur, pizza maker and occasional design instructor at DePaul University in Chicago. He started his career as a designer in advertising and still works as a full-time designer to this day while operating his own businesses. His first business is Reppin, an enamel pin brand where he makes his own designs and custom work for brands and people around the world. His second and most recent endeavor is Side Project Coffee, a coffee shop in the north side of Chicago that strives to be much more than just a coffee shop.
He is a prime example of what Coursework represents in living a life doing what you love and learning by doing. In this interview, we get a glimpse of who he is, what he's learned and how his work has shaped him.
Side Project Coffee located at 5139 N Damen Ave, Chicago, IL 60625
How do you describe yourself and what you do?
The way I answer this question has recently changed. Just a couple of months ago, I would quickly reply with “Graphic Designer”, “Art Director”, or “Creative Director”. Today, I don’t feel like those titles really describe who I am anymore. I’m more in line with someone who you’d call an Entrepreneur. Here’s the thing, I don’t like the title, “Entrepreneur”. Kinda sounds douchey, no? There’s a little too much ego behind the title Entrepreneur. It’s like “look at me, I own a ton of businesses and I’m so busy!”–I don’t want to be known as this kind of person. I guess this is a long-winded answer to me saying that I don’t really know what to call myself. I’m a problem-solver who enjoys taking on new projects. I’m an extremely curious person who always wants to learn new things. I’m just a creative person who loves bringing ideas to life.
Your first venture into entrepreneurship started with making enamel pins. Why pins? Did you ever think it would get as big as it did and lead to you the places you've been?
I launched Reppin in 2016 for a couple of reasons:
- I wanted to launch something… anything.
I wanted to learn Business. Instead of spending a ton of money getting an MBA. I figured... why not launch a business and learn hands-on. I learn by making mistakes and adjusting accordingly.
- I needed a creative outlet.
As a graphic designer, I was constantly making things for other people. It was time to just make things for myself again. Reppin was a way to do that.
- Why pins?
Because they were easy to design, easy to ship, and easy to make. All secrets to a successful e-commerce business (you’re welcome).
In 4 years, Reppin has brought me all over the nation. It’s also sold in stores in the US and all over the world. I’ve also collaborated with some of my favorite artists and brands. I had no idea that it was going to become what it is today… but, I’m going to continue to ride this wave for as long as I can.
Reppin x Coursework Pins
I love the story of how you came about owning the coffee shop. You called me one day and said something like, "I think I just bought a coffee shop.". How did that all happen?
Opening a coffee shop has been a dream of mine for a long time. I’m a coffee nerd, but have never worked in a cafe. I reached out to as many cafe owners I could - just to pick their brains about opening a cafe. I read books, listened to a lot of podcasts, and took classes on coffee. All with the hopes of opening a cafe one day.
Then, one slow day at work, I googled “Coffee shops for sale” (because that’s what you obviously do on a slow day at work). A shop popped up that was less than a year old. At that time, I just finished a project (for the new Las Vegas Raiders, that story another day) and I was taking a Masterclass on Negotiation (I’m a terrible negotiator). With some money in my pocket and newly learned negotiating skills – a month later, I got the keys to my first coffee shop.
Can you tell us about what the concept of Side Project Coffee is and what it is you're trying to do with the shop?
Side Projects have been a huge part of my life. At every place I worked, I hopped on any opportunity to take on pro-bono projects, help others with their side projects, or just come up with fun projects to work on for the hell of it. I wouldn’t be here today without side projects. Also, this coffee shop is technically a side project! I’ve met so many people who are like me – that I wanted a place to showcase everyone’s side hustle. I wanted a place that would inspire and motivate… all while serving the best coffee on this side of Chicago.
You seem to be someone who is passionate about giving back and helping others from family, myself, and now the community with their own side projects. Where does this quality about you come from?
I get the “helping” part from my mom. She’s one of the most helpful, compassionate, and caring people I know. I was just born with it… so it’s in my blood.
On the other hand, I tend to constantly remind myself with the line, “Memento Mori”. It means, “Remember Death”. It sounds morbid, but I don’t look at it that way. When I’m on my death bed, do I want people to remember me by the cool logo or website that I designed? Of course not. I want to be remembered as someone who was always there to help… and someone who set an example through his actions. Someone who inspired and motivated others.
Your tagline for Side Project is "Start something". Why is it important for you to have side projects?
- Life’s short. Why do one thing your entire life?
- I believe that curiosity and constantly learning something new are secrets to happiness in life.
- For those of you with a 9-5 job, it’s a way to escape. It’s a way to stay sane and feel like you’re doing something for yourself–not just for a boss or client.
You never had a background in coffee before opening this shop. What has opening up this business taught you so far?
A lot of people told me that opening a cafe was “hard work”. The phrase “hard work” didn’t scare me one bit. I’ve worked hard all my life. I’ve juggled multiple things on my plate… no problem.
Let me tell you... They were right. This is fucking “hard work”.
Tell us a bit about your love affair with pizza and what you're trying to do with it. How did you learn how to make it and are you doing anything different?
I grew up on pizza. It’s my favorite food. I also love to cook. As mentioned, I’m a very curious person–and when I want to learn something–I dive in, head first. I read books, scoured blogs, watched videos, and baked and baked again. My cousin, Ryan, had a side project idea of opening his own pizzeria. Naturally, I wanted to help him. With our powers combined, we created our own pan-style, detroit-inspired, sicilian-esque, pie. One day, Ryan will talk about Alico :) I’ll leave the pizza talk to him.
The Thrilla in Manila Pizza. Francis's take on a Filipino inspired pizza created by Chicago Paulie Gee's owner in Logan Square.
Is there any overlap from advertising, design, making pins, pizzas, and coffee? How have these things shaped you as a creative and individual?
That’s the beauty of all the things that I do. Everything overlaps. The name, Side Project, opens itself up to not only all my ideas – but everyone else’s ideas. Currently, Side Project Coffee has only been open for about 4 weeks, and it already feels bigger than whatever it is I was trying to do. I’m just learning to stay out of its way and guide it to become something very special.
How do you manage it all? Any advice on time management?
Wake up early. Lately, I’ve been up at 4:30am/5am. With a cup of coffee, 10min meditation, and no distractions – I can get 8 hours worth of work done in 3. I understand that some people aren’t built this way. This is just what works for me. You do you, boo boo.
Also, the one thing that I’m working on now is maintaining Energy. The cafe closes at 2pm, and in the beginning, I was exhausted. I was beat, man. However, I had more things to do... and I want to be a good husband, family member, and friend. I needed more energy to do this. I’m still working on this–but I rely heavily on getting good sleep, exercise, and nutrition. It sounds like a broken record, but read up on successful people and their habits. I guarantee you learn that they’ve incorporated those 3 things in their daily routine.
What would you like to contribute to the Chicago community? What's missing for you?
With Side Project Coffee, I’m just looking to bring that word back: Community. Unfortunately, I think the term, community, is hard to find right now… and Side Project is just doing its part to bring a little positivity in a very difficult year.
Collaboration is what’s missing for me in this city. I think there’s too much ego in the creative scene right now. There are too many people who only want to work with who they feel are cool people with a lot of IG followers. Fuck that, I’m too old for that. If you have 200 followers, have a brilliant idea, and you’re a good human being? Come over to SPC, I’d love to hear about your project.
What is Coursework to you?
Coursework means to constantly be learning. Coursework means to stay curious. Coursework means to put in the work.
Find out more about Francis and his businesses from the following accounts:
If you live in the Chicago area come by Side Project Coffee for a visit and a coffee drink or two. You can now shop select Coursework items at the coffee shop located at 5139 N Damen Ave in Chicago.
The side project wall where you can now find Coursework items as well as projects from around the Chicago community.