'Poutine with purpose': Naperville restaurant employs adults with disabilities

ByJordan Arseneau Localish logo
Tuesday, May 2, 2023
Chicago area restaurant employs adults with disabilities
Thi Tram Nguyen fled Vietnam to Canada, and fell in love with poutine. Her restaurant in Naperville hosts job training and employs adults with disabilities like her son, Francois.

NAPERVILLE, Ill. -- Thi Tram Nguyen describes herself as the "American Dream."

She said her experience as a Vietnamese refugee gave her the courage to become founder of Chez Francois Poutinerie and nonprofit Friends of Francois in Naperville.

"I think I'm a survivor, so nothing scares me," said Nguyen. "It's like me going on the boat. You take a risk."

Friends of Francois, named after Nguyen's son, who has autism, is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization committed to providing free job and social skill training to individuals with disabilities.

Chez Francois Poutinerie hosts the organizations training program, where its participants learn how to prepare food, clean surfaces and serve customers with the hope of future job placement.

"What's good about adults with disabilities, is they love repetition," said Nguyen. "They love that when they come. They know what to do."

Nguyen fled Vietnam in 1979 on a boat bound for a refugee camp in Thailand. She said her mother placed her on a fishing vessel with other family members because of threats to her parents' business from communist leaders. She eventually relocated to Montreal, Canada, where she spent the remainder of her childhood.

"Going to school was a challenge, but my refugee friends, we had a goal," said Nguyen. "We needed to go to school and get the degree."

After college, Nguyen said she spent many years working as a pharmaceutical sales representative before marrying her husband and starting a family. Around a decade ago, they relocated to the Chicago area and settled in Naperville.

Nguyen describes Francois' autism as low-functioning, and said she was concerned about his future prospects as he aged out of the school system.

"We cannot just sit and complain, because nothing's going to happen," said Nguyen. "I wanted to give a place where people are going to see them, that they are a part of the community."

Nguyen and her husband took their life savings, and with the help of many others, started Chez Francois Poutinerie to provide a place for individuals with disabilities, like her son, to be employed.

She said she also wanted to introduce Naperville to her favorite Canadian street food: poutine. The restaurant serves many tasty variations of the dish, which consists of fresh-cut French fries and cheese curds topped with gravy.

"We work and we give our time for the love of the kids because nobody's making money," said Nguyen. "We do it because we believe in the mission."

Zoe Koulos is the general manager of Chez Francois Poutinerie and the president and program director for Friends of Francois. She said the nonprofit is more than just a job training program.

"Our goal is to get these individuals jobs in the community," said Koulos. "We want to change the culture in Naperville and eventually all over so that people can see that individuals with disabilities are capable."

The restaurant was a buzz of activity on the day of taping. Employees Joseph Andresano and Zhacary Warren prepared food in the kitchen, while Anthony Longo cut potatoes and served trays in the dining room.

Nguyen said she had seen a sea change in her workers as they've developed their skills, and she's proud that her customers are able to see them in action.

"They are the best employees," said Nguyen. "They need more love and they need more coaching, but when they master a job, they're going to do it, because they love what they do."

For more information on Chez Francois Poutinerie and Friends of Francois, visit chezfrancoispoutinerie.com.