The Dallas Cafe La La Land’s TikTok Videos and the Power of Complimenting Strangers

More Than Likes is a series about social media personalities who are trying to do positive things for their communities.

Hazel Villareal looked out the car window, spotted her target and pressed the megaphone to her lips.

“Excuse me,” she said, as the man on the Dallas street corner turned to face her. “I just want to say you’re beautiful.”

The man smiled. Another man, standing to his side, placed his palms on his chin as his jaw dropped. “You’re the most beautiful — thank you!” the first man replied. Ms. Villareal thanked him back and, as the car drove away, left him with another message: “I love you!”

A video of the interaction, the first installment of La La Land Kind Cafe’s “Drive-By Kindness” series, uploaded to TikTok in November 2020, has racked up more than five million views. La La Land, a coffee shop chain, has posted more than 80 installments of the series in the years since — building its TikTok following to over 6.6 million in the process, and building on what its employees refer to as the company’s “kindness mission.”

Though giving random compliments to strangers might seem odd, or even creepy, it’s impossible to argue with the reactions from those receiving them: “You just made my whole life,” one woman said. And after being told he looked handsome, a man responded, “We need to spread some more kindness and love.”

“It proves how powerful simple acts of kindness are,” said Francois Reihani, La La Land’s founder and chief executive. “You don’t need to do the biggest thing in the world. It’s as simple as complimenting someone.”

La La Land’s first cafe opened in 2019 in the Lower Greenville area of Dallas, employing 10 young people who had aged out of the foster care system and might otherwise have had a difficult time finding work. These days, foster youths make up a smaller portion of the staff across the 11 cafes — eight in Texas, three in California — though they still represent a key part of the company’s ethos.

Mr. Reihani, 27, grew up in Rosarito, Mexico, with parents who frequently reminded him and his two sisters that they were loved. He started the coffee chain with a goal to spread those values in an increasingly polarized society. Those divisions became increasingly stark during the pandemic, he noticed, and with fewer customers because of Covid restrictions, La La Land had fewer opportunities to spread kindness.

“For us, it’s always been about kindness first, coffee second,” said Ms. Villareal, La La Land’s lead creative designer.

So one afternoon, Mr. Reihani, Ms. Villareal and Jeremiah Sabado, the company’s content creator who was working as an intern at the time, hopped in Mr. Sabado’s gray Subaru Forester and dished out compliments to pedestrians. Mr. Sabado, who is keen on documenting behind-the-scenes company moments, started to record.

It was a difficult time for Ms. Villareal, now 30. A random driver had recently told her to “go back to China.” (Ms. Villareal is of Filipino descent.) She was also new to the company and still adjusting to Mr. Reihani’s style. When he would tell Ms. Villareal that he loved her at the end of the day, she would simply reply: “All right, see you.”

But on the day of that first video, with the megaphone amplifying her voice, something shifted.

“La La Land changed my perspective of not being scared anymore,” Ms. Villareal said. “Whenever I do see someone who looks like me, I tell them they’re beautiful.”

Though the videos bring in revenue through collaborations with sponsors, like Sam’s Club and Fossil, the “Drive-By Kindness” videos are not framed as explicit advertisements for the coffee shops: La La Land is never mentioned as part of the compliments or included in the video captions — a deliberate choice, Ms. Villareal said.

“I love the fact that we’re not throwing a product into your face,” she said. “We’re doing this just to generally make people’s day.”

Mr. Reihani noted that karma was a big part of the company ethos: “When you do the right thing, magic happens.”

Mr. Sabado, who is responsible for filming, editing and posting the videos, grew up in an environment similar to that of Mr. Reihani. His father worked as an auditor, so the family moved around a lot, from the Philippines to Saudi Arabia and then to the United States. Love was a sustaining force amid the uncertainty, appearing in words, hugs and authentic Filipino food.

When he got older, he realized that not everyone grew up in a family like his. Some people never heard “I love you” from their parents. With “Drive-By Kindness,” Mr. Sabado believes La La Land can create a ripple effect with far-reaching consequences.

“It’s important for people to know they are loved,” he said.

At the bright and airy cafes, incoming customers are treated to a custom compliment and an “I love you” after completing their order. Even departing customers are left with the message: The shops’ bright yellow to-go cups carry messages of positivity, including “be kind,” “just be nice” and, of course, “love you.”