Restaurant Hospitality's inaugural Power List this year focuses on restaurant operators who use their businesses to change the world in big and small ways. We call them Change Agents. See the full list >>
Restaurant: Café Momentum, Dallas
Change: Providing job training and life skills to at-risk teens
Café Momentum in Dallas serves not only a delicious menu but, more importantly, a large helping of aspirations and possibilities for young people coming out of juvenile detention centers.
“We’re not just serving great food,” said Chad Houser, the former co-owner of Parigi Restaurant in Dallas and founder of the non-profit restaurant. “We’re serving hope and opportunity to some of our most marginalized youth.”
Launched in 2015, Café Momentum serves about 150 post-release juveniles a year, about 50 at time, with a 12-month paid program in which they rotate through various restaurant jobs. They also get a curriculum to develop social and life skills.
“We’re building out an ecosystem of support,” Houser said. The 15 full-time Café Momentum employees help the juveniles get schooling and arrange for them to attend community college for free.
The results are dramatic. Café Momentum’s participants over the past four years have a 11.2 percent recidivism, or reincarceration, rate. That is less than a quarter of 48.3 percent one-year recidivism rate for incarcerated juveniles for all of Texas.
It all began in 2008, when Houser volunteered to work with eight incarcerated teens.
“I had an opportunity to teach eight young men inside a Dallas County juvenile detention facility to make ice cream for a competition at the Dallas Farmers Market,” Houser recalled. “From the moment I met them, I realized immediately that I’d stereotyped them before I met them — the way they walked, the way they talked: hood, thug, gangsta. I was pretty upset with myself. I thought I was a better person than that.”
But Houser was impressed. “They all looked at me in the eye and called me ‘Sir.’ They were all eager to learn to do something they could be proud of,” he said.
The ice cream contest pitted the juvenile detainees against culinary college students, and one of Houser’s protégées won.
“That young man told me that he wanted to get a job in a restaurant when he was released and asked my professional opinion on whether he should work at Wendy’s or Chili’s. I professionally told him: ‘Whichever hires you first.’ I drove home that day realizing he’d never make it to Wendy’s or Chili’s. He’d go back to the same house, the same street, the same neighborhood, the same poverty, the same schools — all of these things that had pushed him on his current path,” Houser said.
Now, with Café Momentum, Houser aims to change that path. And the opportunities are growing.
Houser hopes to take the model to other areas. And Café Momentum in downtown Dallas will soon open a community center, and a generous supporter has donated a food truck to the cause.
“We’re going to use that food truck as Café Momentum 2.0,” Houser said. “We have some kids who finished the program who aren’t quite emotionally ready to leave here, especially among the women. This is the first safe place for them. The food truck will afford us to increase their responsibility and training.”
Next: Jehangir Mehta
Previous: Joe and Lisa DeLoss