It’s no secret that formerly incarcerated adults often gravitate toward the restaurant industry, and in fact restaurants like Hot Chicken Takeover explicitly aim to hire employees from at-risk backgrounds. But what about young people who have been through the juvenile detention system? Café Momentum — a nonprofit training organization and restaurant — was founded in Dallas with the mission of training formerly incarcerated youths in year-long restaurant work programs to help them to transition to a better life.
The idea began more than a decade ago as chef Chad Houser was visiting a juvenile detention center in Dallas to teach a group of young men how to make ice cream and compete in an ice cream-making competition with culinary students. After the group of youths Chef Houser taught won the competition, he said that he learned not to judge people by their past criminal records and instead look to their potential for the future. Houser then spent the next three to four years raising funds for incarcerated youth and germinating his idea of opening a nonprofit restaurant with helping these kids in mind.
“Going around telling people that I wanted to open a nonprofit restaurant working with justice involved youth, I was told, ‘what are you going to do when those kids stab each other in the kitchen?’” Houser said. “I was told repeatedly that those kids don't want to work, they just want to collect a check. I was told repeatedly they have never been to a nice restaurant and they can't cook your food. To go from that doubt to opening […] one of the top ranked restaurants in Dallas […] is pretty surreal.”
Currently, Café Momentum only operates its flagship in Dallas with 80-100 formerly incarcerated teens aged 15-19 who work a 12-month program, working each shift and station in the restaurant, from waiting tables to being a line cook and running food. Then, once they graduate from the program many move on to one of several employment partners Café Momentum works with.
“They previously used their strengths to survive, and it ultimately got them in trouble, but here they’re learning to embrace their strengths and take pride in them,” Houser said. “[…] They’re learning what it means to be part of a team […] We also have a community services center that provides 24/7 case management to address issues like food insecurity, housing, and facility legal advocacy, medical support, we also have a therapist that provides mental health services in the forms of group therapy and individual therapy. And then we also built our own high school […] so they can be on track to graduate.”
Café Momentum is not going to stay just a Dallas institution for much longer — the organization is opening new locations in Pittsburgh (opening March 1) and Nashville with other programs in the pipeline in Atlanta, Denver, Houston, Boston, and Baltimore. The Nashville location has actually been in the works for several years now, following a popup dinner that Café Momentum hosted with former NFL running back Shaun Alexander and Stand Together Foundation in 2019. That was Café Momentum’s first foray into the organization’s partnership with the NFL. The organization had its first popup food truck at a Super Bowl in Jan. 2020 right before the pandemic shutdowns.
Now for this year’s Super Bowl in Arizona, Café Momentum is returning to serve hot honey chicken and biscuits to Eagles and Chiefs fans in the days leading up to the big game on Sunday.
“We’re building these programs to increase the conversations about youth justice and we're launching in these other cities using Dallas as a proven model to do so,” Houser said. “The opportunity to come to the Super Bowl and do a food truck activation with Shaun and Anquan Boldin and other members of the NFL Players’ Coalition is the opportunity for us to build that conversation into a movement to change the way that we think about justice in this country.”
Contact Joanna at [email protected]