Nestled in posh Santa Monica, La La Land Kind Cafe may appear from the outside to be yet another bougie coffee shop. Its ceremonial grade matcha drinks feature lavender, beetroot and rose saffron. Lattes in shades of baby blue, lavender and sea-green boast butterfly pea flower, CBD and cardamon.
But there’s a key ingredient at the cafe affectionately known as La La: Many of the young people making and serving the rock candy and bamboo teas and toast with white truffle burrata have grown up in foster care, childhoods that often lack the guidance and support needed to make it in the world of work and independence.
The company, which has four cafes in southern California and Texas, has built its business model around nurturing often-neglected aspirations, providing the former foster youth with a specially tailored eight-week internship to launch their career paths.
“We’ll be the employers who are patient enough to help people with very complicated and traumatic pasts be very successful in the employment world,” said Abigail Myers, a clinical psychologist who developed and oversees La La Land’s internship program.
This approach has earned La La Land national media attention. In recent months, the cafe’s young workers have appeared on “The Kelly Clarkson Show” and NBC’s “TODAY” show. It has also inspired some of the nation’s largest retailers to reach out to the small chain of cafes to ask how they can replicate the model. Those interested include Walmart and Public Storage.
The needs of foster youth are baked into the very design of the cafes, such as how they are staffed and how newcomers are trained — accommodating environments where interns can work through any challenges and become better able to succeed in the workplace.
The internship program takes into account, for example, the unique challenges foster youth face as a result of years of housing instability and childhood upheaval.
The cafes are fully staffed so they don’t depend on interns’ labor, taking the pressure off youth who may struggle with transportation, or need to juggle mental health appointments and conflicting priorities like school, court appearances and second jobs. The company’s motto “to normalize kindness” drives hiring. Employees selected must first pass the kindness to others test. Secondary are their skills on the espresso machine or customer service. Those can be taught.
As a result, when the foster youth interns do arrive at work, the environment is positive, and supportive.
Los Angeles native Amber Payne completed the internship program in September and is working Sundays at the cafe while in school at West Los Angeles College. She said skills she’s learning on the job — customer service, communication, “making sure people feel comfortable, loved and wanted” — are helping her pursue a career goal of working in mental health and substance abuse treatment.
The 26-year-old said learning to prepare the complicated drinks has been difficult for her, but that she’s excelled at her cleaning duties. She said the cafe’s ethos of serving “kindness first, coffee second” creates an environment where people can learn at their own pace and thrive.
“I feel like I’m communicating with people better than I was before because people are more friendly,” Payne said in a recent interview with The Imprint. “Sometimes it does take time for people to heal and actually learn how to be friendly to others because there’s a lot of people that have, you know, been through trauma in their life.”
Payne said she spent her early childhood in a home marked by mental health struggles, and was placed in foster care from age 15 through 18. As a result, she has a hard time trusting people.
But she’s been able to build strong bonds at La La Land, she said. One coworker recently met up with her on their days off to help Payne with her statistics homework.
After completing the eight-week program, participants can work at any La La Land location. If their ambitions lie elsewhere, Myers and other program staff will help with resumes, write letters of recommendation, and get them connected to other job opportunities. Mindful of the foster youths’ needs for steady and committed support, even well into young adulthood, employees continue to check in monthly to make sure the former interns are doing well and have the resources they need to support themselves.
The model was created in 2017 by Francois Reihani, a Dallas restaurateur. Reihani founded La La Land after learning about the monumental challenges youth face when they age out of foster care without a support network. He talked with young people who told him that what they most needed was help starting a stable career.
No one wanted to hire young people with no work experience, Reihani said, and the employers who were willing to take them on weren’t providing conducive enough learning environments.
“The workplaces were not patient to teach the youth basic skills they need to grow,” Reihani said. “They just need them to be basically a piece of the chain.”
His hope is that La La Land cafes can serve as a launching pad for young people to learn marketable skills in an emerging industry while building a network of supportive adults.
Though still young and troubleshooting, the unique business model is showing promise. While the coronavirus pandemic has shuttered thousands of restaurants across the country, La La Land opened three new locations in Dallas and Los Angeles, with another three slated to open in Houston in the coming months.
They’ve built a sizable following online, too, with 3.5 million followers flocking to “drive-by kindness videos” of La La Land baristas hollering compliments at passersby.
Reihani and Myers said the ultimate goal is to see the model replicated. That’s why they’ve opted to run it as a business rather than a nonprofit. They are already talking about taking the company public in a few years.
“We want other businesses to see us and say, a company can be kind,” Myers said, “and they can be profitable.”