Chef Houser shared a compelling story with us. He is a renowned chef, and launched several restaurants, including the very successful Parigi (a French bistro in Dallas which he co-owned). While at Parigi, he began to give back to the community by working with young offenders in the Dallas Juvenile Detention Center. He taught these young men how to unlock their passion and interest in food.
What Chef Houser didn’t anticipate was the impact that these young men would have on him. He was blown away by how excited the young men were about cooking and food. After spending time working with them through Dallas County Youth With Faces Program, 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.
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. It’s true that Chef Houser and his team have transformed their mission into a delightful dining experience. But please don’t underestimate the amount of time, the passion, and the work that’s gone into creating this non-profit.
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 restaurant started as a pop-up in 2011, and eventually found a permanent space in downtown Dallas, which opened in January 2015.
As with many start-ups, it was a blessing in disguise that it took a while for the restaurant to find a permanent space. This gave Chef Houser and his team the time to really understand all of the elements that would go into making Café Momentum successful. And, let’s face it: these young men didn’t become juvenile delinquents overnight. The leadership team 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.
Sometimes it’s hard for us to understand how juveniles can get in so much trouble that they end up in a detention center. These statistics from the US Census Bureau give us insight into the economic challenges faced by Dallas County residents.
- 19% of Dallas County residents between 2009 – 2013 lived below the poverty level.
- This equates to about 472,500 people.
In 2013, the Dallas Morning News reported on a study that revealed that nearly 30% of Dallas County children are growing up in poverty. In the study, poverty for a family of four was defined as an annual income of $23.550 or less. In other words, that’s expecting a family of four to live on $64 a day or less.
These are hungry kids, who often don’t have the right role models at home. Jobs aren’t often valued in the homes that they come from. There are other distractions, too, including drugs, alcohol, domestic violence, and gangs.
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.
So now let’s imagine Chef Houser’s challenge in working with these young adults.
Chef Houser and his team put the young adults through a screening process. They’re looking for passion and commitment. There’s a lot of pressure to perform in the restaurant, so they’re also looking for coping skills.
The interns get to rotate through all areas of the restaurant. A team of professional chefs and managers guides them. Some of the mentors are themselves former inmates.
Don’t forget that once they’re released from the detention center, many of the interns return to the same difficult living situations. Chef Houser related a story where some of the young men were acting up while prepping food. He took them aside, and asked them what the problem was. He soon discovered that they were simply hungry. Chef Houser gave them granola bars and lesson in delayed gratification (since a family meal was a few hours away). This story has gone viral, and it’s not unusual for patrons to bring boxes of granola bars to the restaurant.
Also, consider the challenges of training interns who have no prior experience in fine dining. Not only do they need to learn about the food and service, but they also need to learn about some things we take for granted. For example, Chef Houser told us that one of his customers asked for black coffee. The intern informed the customer that they only had regular and decaf.
After hearing Chef Houser speak, I couldn’t wait to visit Café Momentum myself. I discovered that this isn’t a spur of the moment adventure. The restaurant is only open Thursday – Saturday for dinner. And it’s popular, so reservations are definitely a good idea.
My friends and I were really happy to find that the wine was affordable and tasty. The menu was varied and the appetizers were big enough to share. Dessert was great, too. My advice: don’t miss the shrimp and grits beignets, and definitely try the smoked fried chicken.
But what we really enjoyed was the experience. Sure, there was quite a bit of ink on display, but there was also a lot of pride. Recognition plays a key role in the restaurant. There’s a wall where diners can leave feedback for interns, and it was fun to interact with the staff about the comments. We also were encouraged to fill out a short survey for our server when we paid.
I later learned that beyond the dining experience, interns are reviewed weekly during their 12-month internship. As they rotate through the different restaurant stations, they learn the life and social skills that each job requires. Chef 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.
Now for the big question: Is all of Chef Houser’s hard work paying off? The answer is a resounding YES.
Remember, once they’re released these young adults go back to the same homes, gangs, communities, schools, family dysfunction, and other circumstances that led them on a path of crime.
The recidivism rate in Texas is 47%. This means you can flip a coin on the chances that a juvenile inmate will become a repeat offender. If they go back to jail a second time, it’s highly likely that they will spend the rest of their lives going in and out of jail.
Thus far Chef Houser and his team have worked with more than 160 young adults over the course of 3½ years, and their recidivism rate is 11%. This equates to almost $8 million in savings for Dallas county taxpayers. That’s almost $130 million in deferred lifetime savings by preventing the interns from becoming career criminals.
These interns used to be “throwaway” kids according to a term used in the juvenile detention industry. Chef Houser has changed this dynamic and has created a family from these interns. For many of these young adults, this is the only real family they’ve ever known.
So, a big thank you, Chef Houser. I will gladly eat and drink with your family any time. I want to celebrate all of my milestones with you and your family – and change a few lives along the way.