New cafe in Manhattan staffed by neurodivergent workers

  • Family
  • Sunday, 07 Apr 2024

(Left to right) Bucaille-Lanrezac with employees Troy and Rachel from the US, Sebastiao from Portugal, Olivia from Belgium, Victoria and Anne from France and Cafe Joyeux Portugal CEO Filipa Pinto Coelho, pose for a photo in Times Square, New York. – Photos: TIMOTHY A CLARY/AFP

A new French cafe is hoping to break into New York's notoriously competitive food scene while also offering opportunity to people with mental and cognitive disabilities.

Cafe Joyeux is an "inclusive" chain of restaurants staffed by workers with autism and Down syndrome that has made a mark in France and other European countries and is now targeting the Big Apple.

The company's newest branch, Cafe Joyeux Lexington, has picked a cheery corner in the bustling Midtown business district for the company's American debut.

Officially inaugurated on Thursday in parallel with World Down Syndrome Day, founder Yann Bucaille-Lanrezac told AFP he is "arriving very humbly" to Manhattan.

The social entrepreneur from Brittany opened the first Cafe Joyeux in Rennes, in the west of France, in 2017 with his wife Lydwine Bucaille. Since then, the company has opened 14 other restaurants in France, four in Portugal and one in Belgium.

The chain has hosted some high-profile visitors.

The Parisian restaurant on the Champs-Elysees was inaugurated in 2020 by President Emmanuel Macron, while the Lisbon branch opened in 2022 with a visit from Macron's Portuguese counterpart, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa.

Thursday's Manhattan opening is not expected to feature comparable luminaries, but the 21st Cafe Joyeux is hoping to leave a mark.

Gideon serves customers at Cafe Joyeux's Midtown location in the Manhattan borough of New York City.Gideon serves customers at Cafe Joyeux's Midtown location in the Manhattan borough of New York City.

Non-profit model

Though his company currently employs a total of 169 team members in Europe with disabilities, Bucaille-Lanrezac is clear about not wanting to "lecture the Americans."

He described the New York offshoot of Cafe Joyeux as "an American project" established in a very American setting: among the businesses, banks, law firms, insurers and hotels located about 10 blocks north of Grand Central Station.

"We got help from specialists in inclusion, neurodivergence and cognitive disability, in particular AHRC and Autism Speaks, which have been active in New York for decades, and are helping us to support our employees," explained the Frenchman.

It took more than two years to set up a local nonprofit organization to receive philanthropic support through tax-exempt donations, a model typically employed in the United States.

In one of the most expensive cities in the world, Cafe Joyeux has been "loaned" a retail unit for ten years at no cost by the real estate developer Boston Property Group.

The space, with capacity for about 30 guests, was decorated by French designer Sarah Lavoine and is now a place to enjoy Italian coffees and simple dishes created by chef Thierry Marx -- at New York prices, of course.

To gain a foothold in the fast-casual food market, which is still experiencing a labor shortage in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, Bucaille-Lanrezac recruited a non-disabled director and supervisors who will manage a team of 14 staff members with autism, Down syndrome and cognitive disabilities.

These include Peter Anderson Jr., a waiter, dishwasher and barista in his twenties who pointed out that "in a lot of places, you don't have any jobs that can support people with those types of disabilities."

But "we have equal rights as (any other) person should be treated in working a job," he added.

Cafe manager Shray Campbell (left), with chef Ariel and assistant manager Sarah greet customers at Cafe Joyeux.Cafe manager Shray Campbell (left), with chef Ariel and assistant manager Sarah greet customers at Cafe Joyeux.

Many excluded from employment

According to official statistics, there are seven million adults in the United States with mental and cognitive disabilities. Some 80 percent are excluded from the job market.

While describing herself as autistic, Rachel Barcellona holds a university degree and won the Miss Florida pageant in 2023.

Nonetheless, "it's very hard for us to find a job," Barcellona told AFP. "Usually people won't hire us no matter how qualified or over-qualified we are. If you just say 'I have autism' or 'I have Down syndrome' people won't hire (us) ... we are just seen as a burden and that's not fair."

Bucaille-Lanrezac said his team in New York "has a chance to progress, to demonstrate that in the heart of a city with a very demanding and very busy clientele, they can create value and bring a good product and a high quality service."

Early supporters include customer Giovana Mullins. The 30-year-old, who works in the disability sector, complained about impersonal service at large coffee chains dominant in New York. Cafe Joyeux has a different vibe, she said.

"As a customer walking in, even if you don't know what this coffee shop is all about, you come in and you feel the energy and you feel the joy" she said. – Nicolas Revise/AFP

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