2023 Alumni Fall/Winter 2023

Normalizing kindness one coffee cup at a time

If you walk out of a La La Land Kind Cafe satiated by the bet coffee of your life, the cafe’s founder and CEO will say, “That’s an utter failure.”

Certainly, Francois Reihani, the 27-year-old entrepreneurial visionary behind the café chain – with 11 stores spanning Texas and California – wants customers to enjoy their sip of choice. However, it’s kindness over coffee that he and his dedicated team aim to brew from the heart.

“We really truly believe [that] when you do the right thing with the right intention, magic happens,” Reihani says.

When Reihani arrived in Dallas in 2016 to study business at SMU after transferring from the University of Southern California, he says he was “focused on building something – I saw opportunity.”

Reihani co-founded a poké restaurant in West Village, and while the business found success, he realized something was missing.

“The human connection is so important,” he says. “And at the end of the day, all we were doing was serving raw fish.” Reihani’s guiding question became:“How do you normalize kindness?”

His answer: La La Land Kind Café, a café committed to, in addition to spreading kindness, hiring and mentoring foster youth. The first location opened in 2019 in a 100-yearold house on Bell Avenue in Dallas.

“From the moment we opened, the people proved the concept,” he says.

In four years, the café’s growth has exploded, now boasting 11 locations, including Houston and Los Angeles, with plans for more on the way.

Notably, the spike in stores occurred during a global pandemic and, perhaps even more impressive, all that growth has been achieved without the company ever paying for a single ad.

A worthwhile investment

In June 2023, La La Land Kind Café announced it had received a $20 million investment from two SMU graduates: John Phelan ’86, cofounder and chairman of Rugger Management LLC, and Andy Teller ’86, a private investor.

The path to such a significant investment – which is expected to yield expanded operations and new locations throughout the United States – all began, ironically, with a cup of coffee. In 2022, Teller began receiving frequent notifications on his phone showing that his daughter, Cameron Teller ’21, ’22, was a devoted La La Land customer; he was clued in by her credit card transactions linked to his phone. Curious to see what could be so special to warrant his daughter’s repeat business, Teller visited the location on West Lovers Lane in Dallas. As he was leaving, he received a call from his son, Preston Teller ’21 – who was friends with Reihani when both attended SMU.

When Teller casually mentioned where he was, Preston informed him Reihani was the man behind the café chain. This led to Andy Teller and Reihani being engrossed in a three-hour conversation.

“Andy was so passionate about our mission,” Reihani recalls.

Prioritizing what matters

Given La La Land’s surge of success, Reihani says he has fielded many investment offers, including amounts higher than the $20 million investment now in place.

“This business has never been focused on the numbers,” he says. “We didn’t want big venture capitalists to come in with their normal tactics. … We never wanted to be controlled, being told what to do away with this and do away with that. Those offers were rejected immediately.”

Teller introduced Reihani to Phelan, and the three engaged for several months, threaded by the “cool bond,” as Reihani calls it, stemming from the Mustang connection.

“La La Land Kind Cafe is raising the standard of what we should expect from companies,” Phelan said in a statement. “A business can give back, care about the community and serve high-quality products while being profitable.”

The café chain also weaves in another passion of Reihani’s: the nonprofit he founded in 2016, the We Are One Project, whose mission is to provide the right tools for businesses to come together and employ foster youth. With La La, which funds the nonprofit, he is able to fully realize his vision to empower youth and young adults who have aged out of the foster care system and provide them job training and employment, and especially, a kind community to feel secure.

“We’re building to make something special – not building to sell,” Reihani says. “It’s about how we, as a brand, can deepen human connection.”