What does it take to get recognized on the same level as Bill Clinton, Elvis Presley and Wayne Newton? In a nutshell: passion, service and a commitment to social entrepreneurship.
In 2015, Café Momentum Chef and Executive Director Chad Houser was recognized as one of the 10 Most Outstanding Young Americans by the United States Junior Chamber. Here’s his story about living a life with purpose.
Houser is a renowned chef, and prior to launching Café Momentum he was chef/co-owner of the very successful Parigi (a French bistro in Dallas). Houser wanted to get more involved in the community, so six years ago he taught eight young men from the Dallas Juvenile Detention Center how to make ice cream for a competition at the Dallas Farmers Market.
At first, Houser stereotyped the young men. But they immediately impressed him by making eye contact, calling him “sir”, and by their enthusiasm. Many of these men had never eaten raspberries, which tasted like candy to them. Imagine how proud this group was, when two days later they stood next to college culinary students. At the end of the competition, one of Houser’s protégé’s won the entire contest.
As Houser recounted at Black Box Intelligence (formerly TDn2K)’s Global Best Practices Conference, the young man came running up to him and said, “SIR! I just love to cook! I just love to make food and give it to people to put a smile on their face!”
Having grown up with a traditional Sunday night dinner at his grandparents, who also had a garden and greenhouse, Houser understood that enthusiasm. He knows that food creates the perfect platform for bonding and togetherness.
In his heart, though, Houser knew that he’d probably never see the young man again, and that no one was helping him or the other kids. These were “throwaway” kids, — children who’d been discarded by their family, streets, neighborhood, government and schools since the day they were born. He wondered, “How can you be mad at everyone else when you’re not doing anything?” Houser decided not to get mad, and instead to do something about the situation.
Testing Through Pop-Up Dinners
In 2011 Houser started working with the youth more regularly through Youth With Faces, a non-profit that facilitates programs inside several Dallas County juvenile facilities. Then he took the young men into the best restaurants in Dallas. He knew that it was essential to teach the community that the men could rise to any level of expectation that was set for them.
The dinners had a simple formula. The restaurant’s chef wrote a four-course meal, and the young men assisted in plate preparation and service. Although Houser and the rest of the group organizing the dinner worried about ticket sales, they needn’t have worried: the dinner immediately sold out beyond their expectations. Houser knew he was onto something when every diner either shook his hand or hugged him and said, “This could have been my son.”
Over the next several years, Houser led a total of 41 dinners with 172 youth offenders who were incarcerated. According to statistics, 47% of them should have gone back to jail within 12 months. And, if they went back to jail a second time, they would likely spend their life going in and out of prison as a career criminal. In Texas, it costs $125,000/year to incarcerate a juvenile. That means that it costs between $1.7 – 2 million over the cost of their lives just to lock them up. This doesn’t include the cost to victims or their families, and unfortunately this cycle repeats over and over.
Houser’s pop-up dinners proved that by cooking with the youth for just one night, the program reduced recidivism from 47% to 11%.
Chef Houser realized that his true calling was to work with these young men on a full-time basis. So, he sold his interest in Parigi, and launched Café Momentum as a non-profit restaurant.
Café Momentum opened in January 2015 at its permanent space in downtown Dallas. As they cut a baguette at the grand opening, Houser related these statistics and told Dallas Mayor Rawlings, “You owe me $7.75 million dollars.” Imagine the taxpayer’s money that could be saved if we diverted that money so Houser could open an additional seven restaurants in the DFW Metroplex. More importantly, imagine how we could unleash the potential of young offenders and help them become role models for their community and children.
Café Momentum’s tagline is “Eat. Drink. Change Lives.” The restaurant serves as a training ground for these young people to learn all aspects of the restaurant from washing dishes, to cooking, to waiting on customers. In summary, they learn the life and job skills that they need to be able to embark on a successful career in the restaurant industry and beyond.
Talented visionaries always seem to make hard work seem effortless. But don’t underestimate the amount of time, the passion and the work that’s gone into creating this non-profit. Houser knew that no matter how great of a charity he created, patrons wouldn’t return if the restaurant wasn’t clean and delivered excellent food and service.
The team had to focus on fundraising while also developing a selection process, structure and curriculum for the interns who have spent time in juvenile facilities. The leadership team also needed to figure out how they could serve the interns’ needs in a very holistic way.
The location serves both local diners and the staff. Since it’s downtown and across from a major public transit area, interns can utilize the light rail and bus system to get there. The restaurant’s classroom space is also used to teach courses on life and job skills ranging from anger management to parenting classes.
Café Momentum originally only served young men. Dallas County recently opened a juvenile detention center for young women, who are now also eligible for internships and will be joining the Café Momentum team in the coming months.
The Café Momentum interns are paid $10/hour (tips are treated as donations). This goes a long way in supporting themselves and their families, especially since many of the interns are already parents.
Since launching, Café Momentum was recognized as the Best Restaurant of the Year by the 2015 Dallas Eaters Awards. If you happen to be in town, make reservations and remember that the restaurant is only open Thursday – Saturday for dinner.
Diners will be impressed by the food. The smoked fried chicken is a top seller, but the restaurant has an ever-changing sophisticated menu. Fans are constantly monitoring its Facebook page for updates on the 2016 spring offerings.
But it’s the young men who really set this restaurant apart. Sure, there’s plenty of ink on display, but these people exude pride. Recognition plays a key role in the restaurant. There’s a wall where diners can leave feedback for interns, and it’s fun to interact with the staff about the comments. Patrons are also encouraged to fill out a short survey for each server.
Interns are reviewed weekly during the 12-month internship. As they rotate through the different restaurant stations, they learn the life and social skills that each job requires. Houser and his team focus on rewarding and recognizing accomplishments instead of punishing bad behavior. This is key, especially since most of the interns have been told they’re “bad” their whole lives.
The next time you’re wondering where to grab dinner in Dallas, give Café Momentum a try. You’ll enjoy an amazing meal, but experiencing the mission and interacting with the interns will leave you inspired forever.
Liz D’Aloia is the founder of HR Virtuoso, a mobile recruiting company based in Dallas, TX. She is an HR professional, employment attorney, speaker, and blogger. Prior to launching HR Virtuoso Liz worked at national transportation companies and at a global retailer. Connect with Liz on LinkedIn and follow her at @hrvirtuoso.