Update on March 19, 2019: This story has been updated with the opening date of La La Land Kind Cafe: March 25.
Francois Reihani is a 23-year-old Dallas man who says he "came from nothing" but always seemed to be working on something.
Reihani's third restaurant venture in less than three years is expected to open March 25. And this one has a heart, he says.
La La Land Kind Cafe is a coffee shop near Lower Greenville in Dallas that will employ foster kids who are "aging out of the system," Reihani says. At La La Land, young employees, ages 17 to 23, will learn to be baristas, cashiers and chefs — at a time when coffee shops are more popular than ever in Dallas.
Reihani wasn't a foster kid himself, but some of his friends were when he was growing up in Mexico.
"You have a friend for a year or 6 months and then they disappear," he says. "As a young kid, I didn't really understand."
He's now an advocate for Dallas' foster-care system after volunteering at events for Dallas CASA, a nonprofit that helps abused children.
"I've never been more passionate about anything in my entire life," he says.
For visitors to La La Land, it'll be a coffee, tea and matcha shop selling empanadas and sandwiches made with organic ingredients. Seats inside and outside will offer a laid-back scene seven days a week. For employees of the shop, like assistant team captain Celestine Aubrey Garcia, it's a real job for kids who struggled for much of their childhood.
"In the society we live in, there's no way but down — unless they want more for themselves," Garcia, age 20, says of the foster-care system. As a kid, she lived in four foster homes and two shelters, and she was shuttled across Texas each time.
"I had to decide I wanted to be different, that I was not going to be a product of my environment," she says.
Reihani's experience in restaurants in Dallas had been focused on younger audiences before, but never disadvantaged ones. At age 20, Reihani and Brandon Cohanim opened Pok the Raw Bar, an early-to-market poke shop from two guys who were, at the time, college students. Their target audience seemed to be young foodies like themselves. From there, Reihani helped redo Bar Stellar on Henderson Avenue in Dallas, making it "Snapchat- and Instagram-worthy," notes a story from SMU's The Daily Campus.
Reihani says La La Land will pay its foster-care employees $12 an hour — well above Texas' minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, and above the living wage for a single adult in Texas of $11.48 an hour. La La Land will find foster youths with the help of CitySquare, an organization that fights poverty in Dallas.
"We haven't had an employment partner who was this dedicated, ever," says Madeline Reedy, senior director of the TRAC (Transition Resource Action Center) program at CitySquare.
Reihani says his employees will be mentored at the restaurant and encouraged to do therapy and volunteer in the community. The effort is reminiscent of an already-launched program at Cafe Momentum, where founder and executive chef Chad Houser hires non-violent juvenile offenders to work in his downtown Dallas restaurant.
La La Land is located near Bell and Greenville avenues, just north of Trader Joe's on Lower Greenville. The cafe inhabits an old home, one of several on that block. Jon Hetzel of Madison Partners says more houses near La La Land will eventually be turned into "funky retail" businesses serving the M Streets and Lakewood neighborhoods in Dallas.
Reihani and his team are currently hiring foster care youths in Dallas.
"I am so excited for Francois, and so glad that his contact with Dallas CASA has inspired him to make a difference in the lives of youth in foster care," says Becca Leonard, chief development officer for Dallas CASA.
Reihani's role as La La Land founder has become more like a big brother to foster-care youths, he says: "It's become very personal for me. I go to church with them. I talk to almost all of them every day."
For Garcia, she believes Reihani has started "a movement."
"I feel like this is the first of its kind," she says, "and I feel like it's going to be making a difference."
La La Land Kind Cafe is expected to open March 25 and is located at 5626 Bell Ave., Dallas.