Monday, February 6, 2023 Feb 6, 2023
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Food & Drink

La La Land Aims to do Nothing Less Than Change the World

Opened by a 24-year-old SMU dropout and bar owner, the coffee shop on Lowest Greenville hires foster children aging out of the system.
By Sarah Hepola |
ciara moton watley
Owen Jones

On a rainy evening, I stepped into the white house with the white picket fence off Lowest Greenville. The cafe was bright and breezy, an interior made for Instagram, with yellow mugs lining the shelves and black baseball caps on display that read “Make America Kind Again.” At the far end of the counter, a bookcase swung open to reveal a hidden stairwell, like one of those secret passageways in children’s books where you leave the ordinary world and enter another dimension.

“Do you know the story behind this place?” asked the young woman ringing up my order. I braced myself for a hashtag or a frequent buyer card. “This place hires foster youth aging out of the system,” she said. A flyer mixed in among menus listed grim statistics—only 3 percent of foster youths graduate college; half wind up unemployed—along with a mission to mentor foster youths toward a more self-sufficient path. I’ve seen a lot of consumer bait-and-switches in my time, but this was a new one. So you lure me in with lavender lattes, a friendly staff, a darling social media aesthetic, and this whole thing turns out to be—making the world a better place?

“That is so cool,” I told the young woman, and a smile lit up her face.

“I know,” she said.

La La Land is the brainchild of Francois Reihani, a 24-year-old SMU dropout whose previous business ventures include Pōk the Raw Bar and Bar Stellar. The broken foster care system may seem an odd cause for a hustling entrepreneur too young to rent a car, but Reihani’s early experience led to an epiphany that money alone would not bring him happiness. Growing up in Mexico, he had friends in the foster care system, but it wasn’t until a few years ago, during a visit to Dallas CASA (a program that appoints advocates for children caught in the court system), that he began to see how intractable the problem was in America, too. He watched as one juvenile offender after another described a trail of temporary beds and adults who failed them. Reihani comes from a tight-knit Persian family; he was appalled to learn how little support these kids were getting, how they were drop-kicked into a job market without training. He started a nonprofit called We Are One Project to help them find employment, but there was one problem: nobody would hire them. So he hatched his next business venture. If other companies refused to employ a foster care population, he’d show them how it was done.

Such do-gooder capitalism feels distinctly Gen Z, the group of under-25s that has already brought us Greta Thunberg fighting climate change and the students from Parkland rallying for gun control. Kids today: apparently they want to change the world. While fast-food restaurants have long supported charities, like the Ronald McDonald House or the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption (named for the Wendy’s founder), placing the mission so front and center, as part of the branding, seems appropriate for a moment when young people do not see consumerism and social consciousness as mutually exclusive.

The broken foster care system may seem an odd cause for a hustling entrepreneur too young to rent a car, but Reihani’s early experience led to an epiphany that money alone would not bring him happiness.

“Kindness will change our society,” he told me, speaking in a voice animated by passion and possibly caffeine. “Imagine what would happen if every business set out to solve a little problem or give back.” People tell him he’s insane. It’s OK; he doesn’t mind.

Back when I was in my 20s, in the slacker ’90s, a coffee shop was a place of ironic detachment and fashionable cynicism, but La La Land was something like its inverse, a place of radical sincerity and fashionable activism. The (recycled) cardboard sleeve on a (recycled) to-go cup reminded people: more than half of aged-out foster youths end up homeless. And yet, the vibe of the place wasn’t glum; it was sweet and happy. When I mentioned this to the young woman behind the counter on that first night, she said, “Maybe it’s because some of us never had a stable place to live. So this is like our home.” Not all the employees at La La Land come from foster care backgrounds, but she had.

One afternoon, I sat down with that young woman, a 20-year-old named Ciara Moton-Watley, to hear her story. She had long, twirling blond hair and a moon face and a kind of sunshine-y disposition that was nearly contagious. As she spoke, it was hard to connect the bubbly demeanor with the childhood of abuse and neglect.

“I spent most of my life an unwanted puppy,” she said. Ciara was 18 months old when both her parents went to prison. “All my family were drug abusers, criminal backgrounds on both sides,” she said. Her grandfather raised her, and things were fine for a while, but after a nasty divorce, he turned alcoholic and abusive. One night, she ran to the neighbors for help, bloodied and bruised, and that’s when Child Protective Services intervened. When her father got out of prison, a year later, he was given custody. It was a bad sign when he turned to her the first night and asked if she wanted to drink with him. She was 14. Sexual abuse followed, and she spent the next years shuffling between an emergency shelter, a foster family, and a group home. “It’s like I gave up on myself,” she said. “I just didn’t see the point in any of it.”

The name La La Land evokes a fantasyland of bliss and innocence, but Ciara’s tale was a reminder of a harsher truth. I asked if sharing such intimate details made her uncomfortable. “I want my story to be told truthfully,” she said. “I want people to know things like this happen. This is life.”

The foster care portion of her past is the part she remembers least. She thinks it was the overmedication. She has seen pictures from that time, and she can’t even recognize that person. At 17 she ran away from the group home. When I asked how she found the coffee shop, her eyes sparkled. “Awesome. This is my favorite part.”

Her foster sister told her about La La Land, but she wasn’t interested at first. Foster care was a horrible time. Why would she go back? Then she lost her job, lost her car, and she became willing to try. She figured it would be another job. “But after six months, I was like, This is what I want to do.” She had found a place that fit her. She didn’t mind being known as a former foster kid, either. Actually she loved it. “Maybe my purpose is to help other people going through what I went through,” she said. “I want to be the light at the end of the tunnel that reminds people they can overcome anything.” Soon after she said this, the Spice Girls came on the speaker system, and she snapped her fingers and wiggle-danced in her chair.

La La Land has been open for nearly a year, and a second Dallas location is coming soon. Reihani is eyeing markets outside Texas. He has also spoken with Hilton and the Texas Department of Transportation about how to employ aged-out foster care youths, and he hopes to work with veterans at some point. “I don’t want to be here on the planet and just die a coffee shop owner,” he said.

On a sunny weekday afternoon, the cafe had a chummy neighborhood buzz. The MacBook brigade lined a counter, a couple chatted on the couch, mothers wearing puffy jackets and yoga pants pushed strollers. I was meeting a friend for coffee, and we sat near a fireplace with logs stacked on top of each other, and she made a noise of satisfaction as she bit into a slice of toast slathered in strawberry jam and cream cheese and drizzled with honey, and I sipped hot butterfly tea in a beguiling shade of cobalt blue (I recommend). If La La Land were only a coffee shop, it would be a good one. It happens to be more.

“Do you know the story behind this place?” I asked my friend, and she shook her head, and when I told her, her eyes went wide. “That’s so cool,” she said, and I smiled. “I know.”

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