Café Joyeux, Joyfully Inclusive

Providing real service-industry jobs for people with learning and developmental disabilities is the winning recipe cooked up by Café Joyeux, a restaurant chain founded in France by Yann Bucaille in 2017, which just opened a branch in the United States.
© Café Joyeux

A coffee shop like no other has just opened in the heart of Manhattan, on the corner of Lexington Avenue and East 52nd Street. In this corporate district near Rockefeller Center, Café Joyeux’s careful furnishings and peaceful atmosphere are in stark contrast to neighboring eateries, which tend to emphasize speed of service and a minimalist decor. But the main difference in this new French chain is above all human. Diana, Malik, Troy, Rachel, and the nine other team members serving customers at the counter, in the dining room, and in the kitchen all have Down’s syndrome or autism. Four managers – restaurant professionals trained to work with them – are tasked with supervision.

Developing a network of cafés-restaurants to provide jobs and visibility to people with learning and developmental disabilities is at the core of Café Joyeux. First launched in Rennes in 2017, the concept has grown at an impressive rate. Some 20 cafés have already opened in France, Belgium, and Portugal, and six more are planned for 2024, not counting the one in New York City. This rapid growth is a reflection of immense need. “In France, more than 700,000 people are affected by autism or Down’s syndrome. The vast majority of them can’t work because they’re different. They don’t perform as well, so companies don’t want them,” says Yann Bucaille, who founded Café Joyeux with his wife, inspired by the idea of creating “a form of social capitalism.”

His lightbulb moment came during a sailing trip in 2014. At the time, the fifty-something boating enthusiast and practicing Catholic had moved to Brittany with his family after ten years managing and developing the Emeraude group, a company founded by his father. At the time, his days were spent either designing the Castelbrac, a luxury hotel in Dinard, or sailing the catamaran owned by his company’s charity, Emeraude Voile Solidaire, which had been fitted out to welcome people with illnesses, disabilities, or suffering from social exclusion. One day, a 20-year-old with autism asked him if he, the boss, had any work to offer. “I told him I didn’t have any,” he says. “And he got really angry.”

Rennes, Paris, New York City

Marked by this exchange, Yann Bucaille hired a young man with Down’s syndrome, Vianney-Marie, at his hotel in 2016. “It was his first job and he still works there today. When we saw that the arrangement was a success, my wife and I decided to open the first Café Joyeux in Rennes.” For the inauguration of the second space in 2018, near the Paris Opera, the founder was supported by a neighbor from Brittany, Nicolas Hulot. The former French TV star, then Minister of the Ecological and Solidarity Transition in Edouard Philippe’s government, personally cut the ribbon alongside Secretary of State for People with Disabilities Sophie Cluzel, and Brigitte Macron. “This drew attention from the whole disability community,” says Yann Bucaille. “We received so many requests that we ended up moving back to Paris to develop Café Joyeux.”

The French company is owned by a non-profit foundation, the Fonds de Dotation Emeraude Solidaire, and all profits are reinvested to open new cafés. “Generally, it starts with people finding a location and raising money from donors. We use this funding to finance the renovation and fitting, before recruiting and training the teams who then ensure the economic sustainability of the project through their work.”

© Café Joyeux

This model enabled Café Joyeux to cross the Atlantic, at the request of French and American families living in New York City. “We said no at first, but they kept trying to persuade us and we eventually set up a foundation, Joyeux U.S., under American law. They did an exemplary job of helping us and bringing together a team over there.” The project took two years to set up, and the 13 team members were recruited through links with local organizations working with people with autism and Down’s syndrome. “They thought the project was a pipedream. We had to convince them that if we could do it in France, we could do it here too.”

Coffee, Tea, and Croque-Monsieur, “Served from the Heart”

Set up in a former Starbucks, New York City’s Café Joyeux has adopted the aesthetics and cuisine of its founding branches in France. The name, logo, and large black-and-white photos of team members are the same, while the slogan, Servi avec le cœur, has been translated as “Served from the heart.” As in France, the predominantly yellow and black interior design was entrusted to Sarah Poniatowski, the founder and designer of the Maison Sarah Lavoine design studio. Meanwhile, the main dishes (such as croque-monsieur, savory tarts, and salads) are crafted by renowned Parisian chef Thierry Marx. “I’m an entrepreneur; I like service and I like quality,” says Yann Bucaille. “Our aim is to give our team members a workplace that they can be proud of. The message is that we don’t want to make people feel sorry for us, even though compassion is a beautiful thing. Above all, we want our cafés to make people hungry!”

This branding strategy is also reflected in the line of teas and coffees sold on the company’s website and in Carrefour grocery stores in France. “This is the first mass-market coffee that is entirely charitable, as all profits are used to finance the opening of new restaurants,” says the entrepreneur. In 2021, the foundation also launched the Centre de Formation des Apprentis Joyeux, a school providing its employees with a two-year polyvalent hospitality diploma, recognized by the French government. “We awarded our first diplomas last year, to seven team members who had left school between the ages of 10 and 15 because of their disability. In terms of impact, it’s colossal.”

In just five years, the Rennes-based café has become a small but “inclusive and supportive” multinational employing 280 people, 180 of whom have disabilities. To date, two of them have found jobs in the restaurant business outside Café Joyeux. “It’s not much, but the diploma program will certainly help. The business world needs to get a grip on integration, but change is slow.” In the meantime, the Café Joyeux model is continuing to expand, even if Yann Bucaille refuses to set long-term objectives. “We’ve grown very fast, but that’s nothing compared to what the future might hold. To date, we’ve received 1,500 requests to open new branches!”