In 2015, Dallas Chef Chad Houser opened Café Momentum, an upscale restaurant unlike any other in Dallas or anywhere. It was completely staffed by teens coming out of juvenile detention in Dallas County. Customers were amazed by the cuisine and the culinary skills of the youth and Momentum quickly became a downtown dining staple.
Now in 2021 Café Momentum, through its sister organization, Momentum Advisory Collective (M.A.C.), is expanding its model of culinary training and youth services to two more cities, Nashville and Pittsburgh. And that’s just the start of Momentum’s expansion. M.A.C. hopes to open in ten new markets over the next five years, spreading its model for helping at-risk and justice-involved youth across the US. Café Momentum CEO and Executive Chef Houser and his team believe there’s no time to waste when it comes to helping young people. In June, TJJD’s Barbara Kessler talked with Houser about the secret of his success and hopes for the new locations.
Kessler: Many people know that the non-profit Café Momentum offers kids in the juvenile justice system a paid internship and teaches them the restaurant business. That’s significant in itself, but the project is more far reaching.
Houser: Café Momentum is an award-winning restaurant in Dallas. We’re six years old and have been consistently ranked as one of the top restaurants in Dallas and we take a lot of pride in that because it proves that our staff can rise to whatever expectation is set for them, as long as we’re giving them the tools and resources and opportunities — and that’s because our restaurant is entirely staffed by young people exiting juvenile detention facilities.
We’re a 12-month program where, not only are the young people working in every station in the restaurant, learning life skills and social skills, and being a team player, but in addition, we also have a community services center, a case management team, a staff psychologist, education manager and career services coordinator. They’re working to build an ecosystem around our young people, so while they are learning those skills and earning an income in the restaurant, we’re also holistically addressing the issues and barriers that pushed them onto a path toward detention.
Kessler: Do the youth come every day, or the equivalent of that?
Houser: Yes. Honestly, we’re engaged with them 24/7 because of the case management element. But with our school and our restaurant, it’s more of a traditional five days a week. It’s always been important that we’re addressing all the issues, and we know that education is important. We also know that many of our youth are behind; in fact, 54 percent of everyone in our program had already dropped out of school.
We found that one of the biggest barriers to education is actually access. Schools that work with our young people are too difficult to get to because of [the lack of] public transportation. So we built our own high school. Instead of a 54 percent dropout rate, we have over a 90 percent success rate in either currently attending or have already graduated. In fact, 40 percent of our young people go on to college.
Kessler: You just created your own high school? Tell us how that works.
Houser: Sometimes I look back and I think, ‘How in the heck? What were you thinking?’ But we just realized the kids are interested in school, but they can’t access school. It’s difficult to maintain school if they cannot get there. So we built our own school in our community center: there’s a classroom, and our friends at Texas Workforce Commission and Workforce Solutions connected us with a homeschool curriculum and through that we’re able to provide a high school diploma.
The community services center actually came about after we did a study with the human center design team at SMU in the fall of 2015, and one of the results of the study was that we were creating significant impact using very minimal hours of influence. If we could increase our hours of influence, we could increase our impact. Human beings are influenced 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I would say teenagers are influenced 40 hours a day, seven days a week! And if we’re only influencing them for six or seven hours while they’re at work, then the other 18 hours they’re continuing to be influenced, even by environmental factors, like by lack of housing. So, if you can increase the hours of influence by providing them a space to engage with programming that they’re specifically seeking out, then we could increase our impact.
We built the community services center and a priority was a classroom and an education manager. We also brought on a staff psychologist and built out a therapy room. She likes to say she concentrates on individual therapy, group therapy and occasional couples’ therapy. But you know so many of them have experienced trauma and almost all of them have experienced deprivation of resources.
So, between the restaurant and the community resources center, we talk about an ecosystem of support and defined spaces. Even (to the point of) having an oversized closet where we have everything from diapers and toothbrushes and toilet paper and hygiene products all the way to suits to wear to court.
One thing that always makes me chuckle: The kids wanted a place to work out, so we were going to build a fitness center. The insurance company that had no problem with us putting knives in the kids’ hands and putting them in front of fire, said ‘Oh, no, no, no! No gym, no weights!’ So, we have a wellness center where we do yoga and we’re going to expand that into some classes.
Kessler: It sounds like you really take the holistic aspect to heart and try to provide everything the youth need to be successful?
Houser: When we first started out, people said, ‘But the kids just need jobs.’ And we’ve tried to explain that just getting them a job is like putting a band-aid on a waterfall. I mean 42 percent of the kids we work with are homeless, 54 percent are high school dropouts. The zip code that the highest number of our youth come from has the lowest earned income, the lowest graduation rate, and significantly higher crime rates and low employment opportunities. Getting them a job is just a small piece of what needs to get done.
And the path we follow is the kids themselves. A lot of times they will tell you exactly what they need.
Kessler: What are some of the other components of your program’s success, such as mentoring and trauma-informed care?
Houser: All of our staff goes through trauma-informed care training, de-escalation training and anti-racism training. So, we’re all in sync and on the same pages. Our case management team are all degreed social workers, and their approach is very clinical. Our restaurant team were raised in restaurants and their training is very different. Going through the trainings is a way to build out systems of reward (for the kids) rather than systems of punishment.
We want our young people to understand we’re going to hold them to a high level of expectation, and we believe they can achieve that and we’re going to walk every step of the way alongside them.
We also believe in compassionate accountability. They don’t need to be told they’re dumb and they don’t need to be told they’re bad–that’s happened plenty of times in their lives. They need to focus on what they’re good at and what they excel at and feel proud of themselves.
Kessler: That can be a new approach for the adults, to be consistently positive and focus on what’s right and not so much on how a young person has erred.
Houser: We do want to provide a lot of grace for the kids, understanding that life happens and for a lot of them there’s stuff going on at home that’s out of their control and can affect their ability to show up for work and show up on time. So we’re mindful of that, but at the same time, having systems of reward and having what we call natural consequences.
We have a tiered system that we call “Tiers of Success” and each is designed for accountability at work but also things they’re doing outside of work. Like in Tier One, they’re having to show up on time X percentage of time, but also go get a government ID and a physical and a dental exam and vision exam.
And we incentivize the tiers with money, so in Tier One, they make $9 an hour and in Tier Four, they make $12 an hour. It’s designed for accountability, but it’s really designed for self-advocacy.
It’s also a different conversation to have with a young person, because if they’re not advancing in their tiers in an appropriate time, they’re going to have to start the program over. And starting the program over is very different from ‘kicking you out’. We’re saying, ‘Look, we’re going to start over and put those things in place that we, not you, are going to help make sure you’re successful’.
Again, it’s a very different conversation than saying, ‘Sorry, if you don’t show up, you don’t have a job.’
In the world of parenting, we say, use intrinsic motivators, and this is the same thing: use the things they’re interested in and motivated by to make good habits.
Kessler: Life does work that way, with incentives and rewards. Your youth fulfill their responsibilities and they can get to a higher tier and make more money. What else?
Houser: There’s even reward in communication. So, if something’s going on at home, just communicate it. It’s really simple: if you have childcare issues, just communicate it. And once you communicate, we’re here to help you solve that problem. If you’re a teenager and you stayed up all night playing video games and didn’t show up for work, we’re going to sit down and solve that problem too!
The communication is a key.
Kessler: How many kids have been through your program?
Houser: Over a thousand.
Kessler: And in that number, you’ve had very little trouble with the kids not getting through the program?
Houser: That was a reason for the tiers. As we were building the program people would always ask, ‘What is your graduation rate and your attrition rate?’ And (he would think): ‘You don’t understand where these young people are coming from, if you did, you’d never ask those two questions.’
We’re dealing with a young lady who started our program at 16 and she just finished it at 20 and by her own accord she thought she was going to be dead in the next 6 months when she first started our program.
So the idea that she kept showing up was a HUGE victory. And that passion and accountability has pushed her to where she is today, helping run one of our food trucks. She’s a mom now and a wonderful mom. But if you knew her story and what her life was like when she started our program, it’s astonishing.
We have a young man that was in our program for four months and called on a Saturday to say, ‘Hey, want to let you all know I’m moving to Mississippi.’ There were severe issues at home and he was moving in with his uncle to a more stable household. He was using his self-advocacy. That’s a victory.
This is why we’ve tried to focus our attention on things other than recidivism. I’ll never forget sitting at a table with 10 people, every one was either the head of a juvenile department or a judge and we asked them to define recidivism and they all started laughing. The definition varies from municipality to municipality and state to state. It’s also completely wrong to define a child’s success only by their ability to stay out of jail.
We focus on things like education, like housing, that are truly going to show long term impact and are building a foundation for their potential in life, whatever that potential looks like. That’s where we’ve been pushing ourselves.
We got a lot of interest from folks when we started out, because our recidivism rate is low. But I always said in the grand scheme of things, it’s irrelevant, because if all these other things are happening, you don’t have to worry about the alternative, you’re just focused on success and an upward trajectory.
Kessler: We can agree that defining recidivism has issues.
Houser: It does. Not to say it’s not well-intended. But the way Dallas County and Tarrant County measure it, it can be different. It becomes too difficult; you have 75 asterisks.
Also we know that a probation violation can be different in different counties.
Kessler: What can you tell our audience, people in Texas county probation departments and at TJJD, about how your program, in whole or aspects of it, could be replicated in other cities in Texas?
Houser: That’s a perfect segue into our expansion, because our intent is to build programs to serve young people, and to show our model as a new model for juvenile justice.
Simply put, we’re losing the fight in juvenile justice every year in this country, and we have for decades and decades, because it doesn’t change. I don’t blame the people running the system, they didn’t build it. The folks that run our local Dallas juvenile system are amazing. They want to do what’s best for the kids.
But what we’re showing (at Momentum) is that when you put together a different system, one that builds that ecosystem of support around them, it completely changes. It gives these young people a new trajectory and they get to choose a new path. So that’s a lot of the excitement.
Kessler: Tell us more too about why you decided to expand your concept nationally.
Houser: Part of expanding was twofold. One was to do pop-ups around the country and bring in stakeholders for a dinner that the youth are cooking and preparing, and the idea was for us to build relationships and learn as we go into these different communities.
The other thing we did is launch an advisory to oversee our expansion efforts, Momentum Advisory Committee, or M.A.C.. One of the board members, Heidi Mueller, director of the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice, came out last August and said she was shutting down all her youth facilities by 2030 and she pointed to our model and said, ‘because we can do this.’
And I have yet to find a young person we’ve worked with that was just ‘bad.’ And granted we’re not working with young people who’ve committed murder. Most of the young people I’ve worked with, any criminal activity they’ve engaged in has been based around survival. It’s been around accessing food or accessing money to get food or in some cases, getting money to buy medicine for their siblings or to help their mom pay the electric bill, not heinous acts. In my completely unexpert opinion, that’s the significant majority of young people who are entering the juvenile system every year, from county to county and state to state. In fact, we know there’s 720,000 young people that enter juvenile systems across the country every year and that’s our idea, if we can show this model works in different places other than Dallas, then it does change the conversation.
How does a place like Temple or El Paso or Kilgore begin to implement these thematic elements? Trauma-informed care and therapy is not rocket science. But facilitating all of them in a constructive and uplifting environment all at the same time (is the challenge).
I always say is one of the biggest things we do is just keep the dots connected. You have attorneys and judges, and it could be, bail bondsmen — you have all these things that could be contributing factors to what is happening at any given moment in young people’s lives, and there’s no level of communication across any of them.
There’s no advocacy across those channels. So, in a lot of cases, just a probation officer being able to call us and ask, are they showing up for work on time? What’s going on? And us being able to reach out and very easily communicate across the school and program and even home. Having someone who can facilitate all that – that can ease a lot of anxieties for these young people.
But it’s not a zero-sum game. If Temple could just incorporate one element and try it out. We’re not trying to do anything other than be a resource for something different and something effective. How it can be built out is at the discretion of the municipality.
Kessler: That’s what I would ask you – in another setting, it could be just a food truck in a community or a pop-up café housed in a restaurant?
Houser: Yes, but there are key elements here. There’s employment, there’s case management, there’s legal advocacy and education advocacy. If you have an umbrella focused on all those elements, instead of something over here, over here or over there, it changes things for that young person.
And not to sound cliché, but the original way is to say (to the youth), you’ve got to handle this because no one else has it for you. And our way is to say, WE’VE got this. It’s not you, it’s we.
I’m agnostic as to how that manifests itself in each municipality, because it should manifest itself how it best fits that community and the needs of the youth in that community.
We came up with the name Momentum in the first place because of the idea of taking, in some cases, the momentum they receive when they’re in detention and continuing that out. A lot of young people talk about resources afforded them in detention that they didn’t have access to before, whether that be food, bed or school. Conversely a lot of them talk about the trauma they received, and there is trauma in being isolated and detained.
And so, it’s not a one-size-fits-all for us. We just want to continue to show our model is effective and inspire others around the country to adopt our model as they see fit.
Kessler: With Momentum expanding to Nashville and Pittsburgh, there must be tremendous effort behind that. Will you hire chefs in these cities? Are you going into existing restaurants to start?
Houser: No, we’re building from scratch. In Nashville we’ve identified an executive director and we’re sending her an offer letter. We’ll continue to simultaneously fundraise and build out a team that will resemble what we’ve put together here in Dallas. But yes, we’ll need a chef and a team, and we’re looking for people who have an excellent resume in restaurants, but also a passion to work and learn.
It takes a lot of training to teach them de-escalation and trauma care. A lot of times kids, for instance, will come in in a really bad mood and you don’t know what’s put them in that mood, so you just have to ask them if they’re OK. That’s all different (from simply running a restaurant).
Kessler: I understand that you’re networking with nonprofits across the country and also working with an NFL player and have secured some $1.9 million to help launch M.A.C.?
Houser: We’ve been working a lot of with Shaun Alexander, who played for the Seattle Seahawks and the Washington Redskins. He was MVP in 2005 and through an organization called Stand Together, that’s how we met him. He and his wife Valerie just took to our organization and our work, and through pure passion and heart, he started connecting us with the NFL and it has created a lot of opportunities and opened doors for us.
There’s a lot of excitement with athletes participating . . .. These teams have such a large platform and when you’re talking about being a new model for juvenile justice in the country, that’s quite a large platform to broadcast on.
Kessler: You must be so excited about all this, to be taking this model to new places.
Houser: Excited is one word, anxious, scared are other words. They always say the second restaurant is the hardest one to open. I feel hypersensitive about it, about doing right by our young people. There are lives at stake and we take that very seriously.
Kessler: Why you? What made Chad Houser so empathetic and concerned about these issues that he’d devote his life to helping kids coming out of detention?
Houser: Well, how long have you got? You’re familiar with Dallas, right? You know the landscape. My mom was raised in Pleasant Grove and graduated from W.W. Samuell High School in 1972 and I was born in 1975.
Samuell became among the first high schools in Dallas to be de-segregated. So as a child growing up and by the time I was 5-years-old, all the white families were moving out and the people of color were moving in. But my (white) family stayed and I spent all my weekends at my grandmother’s house, in the backyard in the garden or with my mom sewing and eating together with my aunts and uncles and the entire family practically every Sunday.
And I remember walking around the streets and seeing people of color and also seeing the poverty — even my grandfather sometimes hooking up to the water hydrant to get water…
I also grew up in Allen and went to high school there. That community is very white, and I think it provided a unique experience that didn’t totally make sense to me when I was a kid.
Fast forward a few years, and I’m walking through a mall with a black friend and being followed and knowing it wasn’t because of me.
And then in 2008, I worked with eight young men – for an ice cream making contest at Dallas Farmer’s Market. And I realized I had stereotyped them before I had even met them and I was wrong about them. So, I developed a humility and I just listened. These young people told me who they were, and I learned.
Anyway, I was a chef judging the contest, and they were competing against college teams, and two days later one of them wins the whole thing! He was a young black man. He asked me where he should apply for jobs starting out (as a cook or chef).
He said, ‘Where should I work first, a Wendy’s or a Chili’s?’ and I remember driving home and thinking, he’s never going to make it to a Wendy’s or a Chili’s, he’s going to go home to the same school and the same neighborhood. The more I thought more about it — I thought about 16-year-old me and 16-year-old him — I realized our lives were created by circumstances and choices made before we were born.”
In 2008, I was just shy of 33. I was chef and co-owner of Parigi in Uptown Dallas. I remember thinking, ‘If that’s the way the world is, that’s not the world I want to live in.’
Kessler: In today’s vernacular, you were realizing you’d benefited from white privilege?
Houser: Yeah sure, I was realizing my white privilege and the role it plays and how it affects people of color. Though in 2008 terms like white privilege and institutional racism weren’t household terms like now.
I mean we live in a country where one of four black males born in this country will go to jail, and I don’t think one of three black males were born criminals. Part of the problem is it’s all designed so people like me don’t see it. For me it was that moment that I saw it, and I’m going to either turn away and go on with my life or I’m going to learn and listen and do more.
Kessler: I understand better now why you created Café Momentum the way you did. You wanted it to be a top-level restaurant serving New American cuisine. You aimed big because you wanted that for the youth, is that right?
Houser: When I first started talking about the concept, people would ask, ‘What if the kids start stabbing the other kids in the kitchen?’
They’d also say, ‘Those kids don’t want to work, they just want to collect a check’ and ‘Those kids don’t know how to cook that food.’
At the time, I’d been nominated three times as (D Magazine’s) “Best Chef in Dallas” — I joke I’m the Susan Lucci of that contest. And I thought a lot about what these people were saying.
I thought, ‘If this is who the community tells these kids they are, then why would they believe they’re any different?’
And the other part of that is, how are they ever going to do anything if that’s how they see their opportunity? In order to break those stereotypes and bring hearts and minds, I hosted a series of pop-up dinners. The first one was in 2011. We organized this dinner for $50 a ticket. We posted a write up about the dinner and we sold 68 seats in 24 hours . . .. The idea was to have a four-course dinner on a Sunday night in a top restaurant when we were closed for the night and bus in the help from the juvenile facilities. . ..
Every single person told me before they left that dinner, ‘This could be my son.’
We did 41 of those pop ups over three years. In the summer of 2012, I told my business partner at Parigi, ‘I need to walk the walk’. My head and my heart told me, the only way was to go all in.
Photos: Top to bottom, Chad Houser works with youth preparing and plating dishes at Cafe Momentum in Dallas; Youth interns create pastries at Cafe Momentum; A youth serves salads at the award-winning restaurant; Houser and interns at an event in Nashville where the Momentum Advisory Collective plans to open Momentum’s next location; Chad Houser, CEO, head chef and founder of Cafe Momentum. All photos courtesy of Cafe Momentum.