Skip to main content

Coffee, Pizza, Pastries, Pins: Francis Almeda Does It All, Uplifting Other Artists and Artisans Along the Way

Daniel Hautzinger
Francis Almeda and Ty Banks stand in front of their cafe, Drip Collective
Francis Almeda and Ty Banks recently opened Drip Collective in the West Loop. Credit: Derrick Koch, courtesy Drip Collective

Get more recipes, food news, and stories by signing up for our Deep Dish newsletter.

Many entrepreneurs in Chicago would probably jump at the chance to expand a brand into the culinary and retail hotspot of the West Loop. Francis Almeda, the owner of Side Practice Coffee, was a bit more uncertain. When the owners of a glassy building just off the commercial stretch of Randolph Street reached out with an offer to open another Side Practice in their space, he didn’t want to franchise his successful coffee shop.

“This probably makes me a bad businessman, but Side Practice to me is much more of a cozy, [single] shop,” Almeda says. “I just didn’t want to make another Side Practice. I felt like that brand and that shop is for Ravenswood, and Foster and Damen.”

So he did what he often does, and turned to associates to help them to realize their own ideas. He brought Side Practice’s Director of Coffee Ty Banks on board as a co-owner and launched a new coffee shop tailored to the West Loop, naming it after one of Banks’ projects, Drip Collective. It opened at 172 N. Racine Avenue in February.

“I do what I do best and make things happen and build businesses and make them grow,” says Almeda. “But it’s the people around me that really, really put in the time and detail and attention to make them special and what they are.”

That’s an ethos that powers Almeda’s wide-ranging work. It’s why he’s helping Justin Lerias, who bakes pastries with Filipino flavors under the name Del Sur Bakery, continue to expand his pop-up business. It explains his involvement in Novel Pizza, a tavern-style pizza pop-up started by Almeda, his cousin, and a friend that is in the process of opening a pizzeria in Pilsen and in residence at Drip Collective in the meantime. And it’s the reason that Side Practice and Drip Collective are more than just coffee shops, hosting artisans, artists, and other creative people to showcase and sell their work.

Almeda “is not a no person,” says Lerias, who last year started making pastries for Side Practice regularly thanks to Almeda’s encouragement. “His whole thing with his businesses has been looking for people that he can trust – he doesn’t have to be there everyday.”

Not that he doesn’t do plenty of work, from ordering supplies to scheduling staff to cleaning the bathroom. “I guess I’m more the producer of sorts, who just makes sure things actually happen, if that makes any sense” Almeda says with a laugh. “I kind of like this, because the goal for me was to not be able to explain what I do in life.”

Before he became an entrepreneur with numerous interests, Almeda was a graphic designer. His first venture was a custom pin business called Reppin, and he also continues to do some graphic design work. Although he had never worked in coffee, when he saw a cafe available not too far from his house, he decided to try taking it over. Working as a freelancer out of coffee shops, he always loved how they “felt as a community and as a space and as a place you could go to and really be creative – and who doesn’t love coffee?”

He opened Side Practice in early 2020. Lockdown for COVID came within a month, a blessing in disguise that allowed him to talk to other people in the industry and actually learn how to run a cafe. The pandemic also led many people to dive into creative pursuits and in some cases try to turn them into a business. Almeda had already wanted to “showcase the people around me and the people that I’ve met along the way” through traveling to craft fairs and maker shows for Reppin, and now there were even more talented people doing interesting work to spotlight.

“Side Practice became known as this space to be able to have a platform to shine and showcase what you’ve been working on on the side,” he says – hence its name.

If you squeeze past a bus shelter and descend the few steps to the studio-apartment-sized corner space that is Side Practice, you might find someone selling hot sauce, ceramics, jewelry, or soap next to a line of cartoonish prints for sale, while a customer drops off film to be developed before ordering a pandan matcha latte.

Drinks like that were dreamed up by Ty Banks, who is a co-owner of Drip Collective and the director of coffee for both it and Side Practice. His involvement with Side Practice began as, well, a side practice: he wasn’t working much because of the pandemic and decided to take an opening as an on-call barista for the cafe, filling in when needed. He was eventually promoted to director of coffee “because he’s amazing at what he does,” Almeda says – another instance of “showcasing and uplifting” a creative person within Almeda’s orbit. 

Drip Collective’s more central location allows Banks to showcase his unusual drinks and coffee program to a wider audience and try out more “experimental” lattes, like a burnt honey drink that includes the Korean flavors of spicy gochujang and toasty sesame oil. Uniquely, all of Drip Collective’s drinks can be made with matcha or espresso. “This is definitely a higher standard and approach to coffee service,” Almeda says.

The shop’s name comes from a group of baristas that Banks runs as an “outlet for the coffee community in Chicago,” Banks says. When he was initially getting into coffee, he enjoyed attending latte art competitions but was “one of a handful of Black and brown competitors consistently going,” he says. “I wanted to see, if the event looked different and was more lively, would there be more Black and brown baristas that came out to these events.” 

Now those “Thursday Night Throwdowns,” as well as other events, can be hosted at Drip Collective the coffee shop, and some of Banks’ barista friends might show up to jump behind the counter. The space is much larger than Side Practice and has a DJ booth and stadium seating, in addition to a retail wall and artist space. Almeda’s Novel Pizza is running an “R&D lab” there on Fridays and Saturdays while they set up their brick and mortar location. Pastries are available from Allez Cafe and Brite Donuts. Eventually the cafe might be open at night – on Saturdays it’s currently open until 6 p.m. – to “offer something different to the public,” Banks says, like a listening room where people can enjoy coffee, tea, or even cocktails while records play.

He and Almeda are still imagining possibilities for Drip Collective – and since the ever-entrepreneurial Almeda is involved, there’s sure to be plenty of creative ideas unfolding there.