“If you listen to young people, they’ll tell you what they need,” said Chad Houser. A well regarded Dallas chef and restaurateur, Houser opened a restaurant 14 years ago and began listening to justice-involved youth.
Beginning in 2011, with a busy restaurant to run, Houser began a series of pop up dinners with youth on the side. “I needed to walk the talk,” said Houser. He created work experiences for young people that hadn’t seen much opportunity in their lives. He saw young people become proud of their skills, gain confidence and become part of a team.
After 41 pop up dinners, Houser sold his restaurant and, in 2015, opened Café Momentum in center city Dallas to help 15-19 year old adjudicated youth create a fresh start.
Every meal of fresh, locally sourced, new American cuisine at Café Momentum is prepared and served by young people involved in the program under the guidance of award-winning chefs.
Restaurant work is hard. New employees at Café Momentum often start washing dishes, but Houser insists, “Dishwasher is the most important job—it impacts all of us.” Daily, he works hard to instill a teamwork ethic, “I’m going to do my best so you’re set up to do your best.”
Café Momentum is not just a restaurant, it’s a youth development system with an ecosystem of support including paid internships, education and training, and physical and mental health support.
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The year long Momentum internship starts with a six day orientation that results in a ServSafe certification. Interns are paired with case managers to identify needs and set goals. While they work their way through all areas of the restaurant, case managers help interns schedule financial education, parenting classes, and career exploration. If interns need a high school diploma, they complete it via Café Momentum Homeschool.
Successful interns graduate from the program and are placed in a job with community partners. Over 1,000 youth have benefited from the internship program.
Cafe Momentum has not only captured the attention of Dallas, but also the national community including the National Football League. Partnering with the Players Coalition during the pandemic and other pop-up events, students are able to have meaningful conversations with a variety of advocates.
To provide opportunities for youth across the county, national expansion is underway. Sites in Nashville and Pittsburgh will open later this year. They are raising funds to expand to Denver, Boston, and Baltimore.
Houser launched the Momentum Advisory Collective (MAC) in 2020 to scale the Momentum Model nationwide. The capacity-building nonprofit will open new Café Momentum restaurants and programs offering living wages, culinary job training and holistic support to young people that have engaged the justice system.
MAC has a big TAM (total addressable market): more than 60,000 youth under age 18 are incarcerated in U.S. juvenile prisons on any given day. About four times that many youth are placed on probation each year. And most of those young people aren’t receiving education and training, work experience and holistic support.
Next year, MAC will work with a pilot cohort of 10 chefs restaurateurs to provide best-practice resources that will set them up for success.
Café Momentum is a great example of a new pathway for underserved youth. It combines paid work, training and support. It starts with listening.