How a Dallas restaurant became a national youth development system

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“If you listen to young people, they will tell you what they need,” said Chad Houser. Renowned Dallas chef and restaurateur, Houser opened a restaurant 14 years ago and began listening to young people involved in justice.

Beginning in 2011, with a busy restaurant to run, Houser launched a series of pop-up dinner parties with young people by his side. “I needed to keep up with the chops,” Houser said. He created work experiences for young people who had not seen many opportunities in their lives. He has seen young people take pride in their skills, gain confidence and be part of a team.

After 41 pop-up diners, Houser sold his restaurant and, in 2015, opened Café Momentum in downtown Dallas to help young people aged 15 to 19 get a fresh start.

Every meal of fresh, local New American cuisine at Café Momentum is prepared and served by youth involved in the program under the direction of award-winning chefs.

Restaurant work is difficult. New employees at Café Momentum often start doing the dishes, but Houser insists, “Dishwashing is the most important job, it affects all of us. Daily, he works hard to instill a teamwork ethic, “I’ll do my best so you’re ready to do your best.”

Café Momentum isn’t just a restaurant, it’s a youth development system with a supportive ecosystem including paid internships, education and training, and physical and mental health support.

The one-year Momentum internship begins with a six-day orientation that culminates in a ServSafe certification. Interns are paired with case managers to identify needs and set goals. While going through all areas of the restaurant, case managers help interns plan financial education, parenting classes and career exploration. If interns need a high school diploma, they complete it through Café Momentum Homeschool.

Successful interns graduate from the program and are placed in employment with community partners. More than 1,000 young people have benefited from the internship programme.

National momentum

Cafe Momentum has not only caught the attention of Dallas, but also of the national community, including the National Football League. Partnering with the Players Coalition during the pandemic and other fleeting events, students can have meaningful conversations with a variety of advocates.

To provide opportunities for young people across the county, a nationwide expansion is underway. The Nashville and Pittsburgh locations 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 restaurants and Café Momentum programs offering living wages, culinary skills training and holistic support to young people who have engaged the justice system.

MAC has a large TAM (total addressable market): more than 60,000 young people under the age of 18 are incarcerated in American juvenile prisons every day. About four times as many young people are placed on probation each year. And most of these young people do not receive any education or training, work experience or holistic support.

Next year, CMA will work with a pilot cohort of 10 restaurant chefs 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.

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