“I want to make every American fall in love with poutine, like I did when I was 13 years old,” says Thi Tram Nguyen.
Born in Vietnam during the Vietnam War, Nguyen fled the country by boat when she was just eight years old. Separated from her parents, Nguyen briefly lived in a refugee camp in Thailand before moving to France with her aunt and uncle. Within a few years, however, she was reunited with her mom and dad in Montreal. It’s here where Nguyen fell in love with poutine.
“Poutine was part of my life for many, many years,” she says. “When I moved to the U.S. 10 years ago, I couldn’t find it anywhere, and at some point I was like, ‘Why don’t we open a restaurant?’”
Nguyen now lives in the Chicago suburb of Naperville, where she’s on a mission to get more Americans to love and eat her favorite Canadian comfort food. This past summer, she opened Chez François Poutinerie. But poutine is far from where Ngyuen’s mission begins and ends.
Nguyen specifically designed the restaurant to provide employment opportunities to developmentally disabled individuals, like her son Francois, currently a senior in high school. With the help of her team, Nguyen plans to take the business model from Naperville to locations nationwide.
“Francois is low functional, verbal but not communicative, and is always going to need a job coach,” says Nguyen. “When he turns 22 [years old], he’s going to age out of the system, and I knew no one’s going to hire him, and I knew he’s not the only one.”
So she started a restaurant to solve that challenge. Francois comes three times a week as part of a training program through his high school.
“When he puts on his uniform, he’s super happy. He knows he’s going to the restaurant, and when he gets there, he goes straight to the sticker station,” says Nguyen.
Nguyen currently employs 10 other developmentally disabled individuals, all at a rate of $15 an hour. Dozens of others are enrolled in the restaurant’s front-of-house training program. We chatted with Nguyen to learn more about how the operation works and her goals for the future.
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Prior to opening, I read you had an immediate influx of applicants with developmental disabilities. I’d love to hear more about the roles played by those you’ve hired.
Poutine is fries, cheese curds, and gravy sauce, and then you can add anything you want. It’s an easy concept. So I gathered a team. My partner is a restaurant guy. I had a concept. He had the experience. Then I gathered another associate – she used to be a special ed teacher for 35 years at Naperville Central High School, [my son’s high school], and took care of the whole program.
When I started, with our budget, we were able to hire 20 employees in the kitchen. It’s like Chick Fil A – you order at the counter, and then you can sit down. So there’s a dining room and a kitchen. We wanted to hire special needs to work in the back, but they cannot work alone. They need supervision. So we came up with the same idea as in high school, where they have a peer buddy. You have a typical kid with a special needs kid. So in the back, we have 10 high-functional special needs [individuals] and 10 regular employees, on the same salary, $15 an hour.
The special needs prep, do dishes, and cook. Some of them can do all of it. Some of them only do dishes. Everyone with a disability has different talents. Some kids don’t do dishes because they don’t like touching water, but you have other kids that love washing dishes. You have another one that can’t take orders because of memory [challenges]. You have someone who might not be able to use a knife because of safety issues. My partner, associate, and I sit down with each person, and we see right away where they should go. And they’re very direct. They have no filter, so when they don’t like something, they say it right away.
For the front, we have 45 interns. I didn’t know my program would be so popular. I run a restaurant. Labor is the most expensive asset in the restaurant, so I told the parents, I don't have the money to pay everyone. But I could create a training session for lower-functioning kids like my son. So we have 45 kids in the front training with a job coach. When they graduate from the training, we transfer them to another business, or if we have a position in the restaurant, they come work for us.
How old are the people that you’re hiring?
All ages – 15 [years old] to 45 years old. Most are people who aged out of the system that no one wants to hire. We have one, Anthony, who applied to over 100 places and no one wanted to hire him. We were able to train him, and now he can open the restaurant, and do the line by himself. He’s a rockstar.
What does the front of house training program look like?
They’re learning to greet the customer, run food, clean the tables, make sure the bathrooms are clean. Some of them have anxiety, OCD, so they love to clean. I’ve had customers who say, “I don’t like to go to public bathrooms, but your bathrooms are flawless”.
Every individual is different. Some are done training after two weeks. Some can take a year to master a task. We have a list of criteria, and if they check all the boxes, they’re ready.
The front of the restaurant is run by a nonprofit, Friends of Francois. We just started that two months ago and created a board. All tips generated by the restaurant are transferred to the foundation, and then we have personal donations. We’re going to start asking for funding.
The goal is to take the program to anywhere we want. This can apply to places like Barnes and Noble and just so many other businesses.
Employing 20 people in the kitchen sounds like a major cost. How are you handling those costs?
The 20 employees don’t work at the same time. Some of them only work three or six hours a week. Special needs cannot work more than 20 hours a week, or they lose their [government] benefits. So some of them only work one shift or two shifts.
[For scheduling], we have an app. We put three- or six-hour time slots on there, and they sign up on their own, and we always make sure we have one high-functional special needs with one regular employee.
And there’s high demand for these positions.
I posted on social media, and I had 80 applicants. Some of them left because I told them I don’t have money to pay the kids right now. I only have money to pay 20 people in the back. There’s a demand. A lot of them don’t have jobs, so they stay home and do nothing.
But I am very surprised by the response. People move to Naperville for the services for the special needs. These kids have the best program until they’re 22 [years old]. But after 22 [years old], it’s like a dead zone.
The system does a lot for our kids, and now as a community, and as a business owner, it’s our turn to do our part. If every business just hires one [person], we wouldn’t have that problem. There’s a bad perception that they’re not capable of work. But you just need to train them. I have one guy that’s nonverbal but the way he cleans the table, he’s faster than anyone, and he loves doing it.
Since creating the concept, now a lot of businesses are reaching out. They’re ready to hire. So when I see that a person’s ready, I’ll send them with a job coach. When you age out of the system, the government pays a job coach to go with the special needs that are low functional.
Can you share some of the ways this process has felt rewarding for you so far?
Right now I’m not taking any salary. I just want the restaurant to survive, to pass the first year. If I can pay everybody, I’m happy. I’m not here to make money. I’m here to build something for the community, and I know it’s going to benefit everybody. Some people will come for the cause, others for the poutine. And that’s all I want.
I want people to be aware of the population that nobody sees after they graduate. They’re cute when they’re in school. In high school, they’re prom king. But then after high school, they just stay home, and no one sees them anymore. I want people to see them. They’re good people, good workers. They have a lot to give, but nobody gives them a chance.
Are there any challenges you’ve faced that you weren’t necessarily expecting?
Traffic has been good, but not good enough. We’re in downtown Naperville, and the rent is super expensive. There’s a lot of businesses around me that have closed down after five months. But I wanted to be downtown because we have the college, high school, and the foot traffic. But we need more traffic to expand.
Right now, we’re able to pay everyone, and I’m working very hard on the marketing. My role is to go out there. Some days are slow. I take the special needs with me and we knock on business doors. We hand out flyers downtown. They don’t want to just sit there and do nothing.
How do you see this concept growing moving forward?
I want to franchise the restaurant. It’s not only because I employ special needs. The food is really good. You look at Wendy’s, Panera – we can be as big as them, we just need to change the concept to Americans that poutine is good. One day it’s my goal to have these all over the country. There are needs for jobs for special needs everywhere. And I know we have a quality product and a quality service.
Grace Dickinson is a reporter at Back of House. Send tips or inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.