Chad Houser began dreaming of cooking professionally when he was a teen. His parents supported him in whatever career path he chose, but no matter the path, college – and graduating – was mandatory. With the knowledge that Houser was going to be a chef no matter what, his dad suggested the culinary school at El Centro. Houser agreed and graduated from the Dallas community college with a degree in food and hospitality service.
Houser, ambitious and in love with cooking, had one goal: own his own restaurant and become an executive chef. “In 2007, I sold my house, took all the equity out of it, took out a loan, and bought into a restaurant called Parigi. Then the economy tanked. But I grew the business 38% in my first year of ownership and was nominated by D Magazine for best up-and-coming chef,” Houser said. The combination of passion and ability in the field of food allowed Houser to become successful at a quick rate.
In 2008, Houser had the opportunity, through the Dallas Farmer’s Market, to teach eight kids in juvenile detention how to make ice cream. The kids were learning to make ice cream so they could participate in a competition held by the Farmer’s Market. “The moment I met these kids, I realized that I had stereotyped them before I had even met them. And I knew I was wrong. All eight of them looked me in the eye when they spoke, all eight of them called me ‘sir.’ I’ve cooked for 20 years and I’ve been called a lot names in a lot of languages in a lot of kitchens, but never ‘sir,’” Houser laughed.
As they went through the steps of making the ice cream, Houser observed how eager the kids were to learn and do something they could be proud of. “That was the first time they thought, ‘I’m proud of me,’” Houser said. Each of the kids made their own ice cream, and two days later competed against college culinary students. One of Houser’s students won.
“[The student] came running up to me, knees bent, arms cocked, screaming at the top of his lungs, ‘Sir! I just love to cook!” and I just screamed right back at him, ‘Sir! Me, too!’ and the kid said, ‘I just love to make food and give it to people and put a smile on their face,” Houser remembered.
Houser left the Farmer’s Market that day and realized he would never see that boy again. Houser also realized that boy was going back to the same house, same street, same school, same poverty, same neglect. He thought to himself: “this isn’t fair.”
“This boy’s life is defined by choices made for him, not choices made on his own. I didn’t choose to be white, to be middle class, to have an active dad. He didn’t choose to be black, to be poor, to go to a school that didn’t have textbooks, to live in a high crime area. He didn’t choose any of that. But it defined the trajectory of both of our lives,” Houser said. But Houser didn’t stop there. Though the current truth was bleak, Houser recognized that this boy – and kids like him – deserve the choice, the opportunity, the right to success.
For about a year following this moment, Houser worked to figure out what it would look like to work with kids in vulnerable populations. “This wasn’t a feel-good for me, it was a do-right. I just thought, ‘this situation is criminal, and something’s got to be done,” Houser said.
One day, Houser was discussing the idea with his business partner. In that discussion, she challenged him to finally do something about this desire he had to work with kids like his student at the Farmer’s Market. Instantly, Houser said, “I’m going to open up a restaurant and let these kids run it.” Café Momentum was born.
As Houser spent the next year pitching the idea, he faced a sizeable amount of pushback. Unfortunately, Houser recalled, people said things like, “what will you do when those kids stab each other in the kitchen?” or, “those kids don’t want to work. They just want a check.” The stereotypes were disheartening – but Houser knew they were incorrect.
In the spring of 2011, Chad Houser began presenting pop-up dinners at $50 a seat to raise money, awareness, and break through stereotypes. The team was skeptical that people would show up, so Houser and a friend of his posted links to purchase tickets on their personal Facebook pages. Within 24 hours, they had sold 68 seats (18 too many by accident, as they hadn’t shut down the link in time to cut it off at 50.
“That night, 68 people shook my hand and said, ‘this could be my son or daughter,’ and I knew the stereotypes had been broken through,” Houser said.
Altogether, there were 41 pop-up dinners. That summer, they doubled the price of a seat. By the spring of 2012, the dinners were selling out in 15 seconds. In the summer of 2012, Houser sold his ownership in Parigi back to his business partner and dedicate himself full-time to Café Momentum. “I wanted to show the kids that I was willing to bet my career on them,” Houser said.
After three years of more pop-ups and continual fundraising, Houser opened the doors of Café Momentum as an official restaurant on January 29, 2015.
Café Momentum is a restaurant and a nonprofit. It is structured as a 12-month paid post-release internship for young ladies and men exiting the Dallas County Juvenile Detention Facilities. Over the 12 months, each intern will work his or her way through all the stations of a restaurant: dish washer, cook, busser, server, host.
The interns practice social skills and learn life skills they haven’t learned previously. They learn to disagree appropriately, show up on time, and organize themselves. Each station teaches those skills in a different way. Through this, the interns also learn about their own strengths and interests. They get to think about what their next steps will be. In addition, working as a team teaches each young adult that their efficiency affects their coworker, and vice versa.
The restaurant employs a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) and case managers who create, as they call it, “an ecosystem of support” around the interns. The LCSW and case managers holistically address issues and needs of the interns on an individual basis, working through stabilization and clinical services.
Stabilization of an intern includes proper housing, healthcare, education, and addressing hunger, to name a few. Clinical services include diagnosing any undiagnosed issues, uncovering underlying trauma, and providing therapy if needed.
Interns at Café Momentum work through “tiers” as they progress through the yearlong program. The first tier includes dedicating him- or herself to five give-back hours and has a payment of $9/hour. The final tier includes dedicating him- or herself to 20 give-back hours and has a payment of $12/hour. Their responsibility level also goes up as they grow through the tiers. By the fourth tier, they must be at work on time 80% of the time. At the end of their time at Café Momentum, interns have help creating a resume, purchasing interview attire, and applying for jobs.
Nearly 500 young people have participated in the Café Momentum program. The recidivism rate of Café Momentum interns and alumni is 15.2%, in stark contrast to the 48.3% recidivism rate for the state of Texas as a whole.
Upon arrival, new interns are sometimes skeptical. They have been let down by so many authority figures in the past that they don’t know if they can truly trust anyone. “In order to build trust, I simply follow through on my word. When I say I’ll do something, I do it,” Houser said.
Demondric Pratt, a current intern, said he was unsure of Houser upon their initial meeting. “We got to talking a lot and building up our friendship, and now he’s like my best friend,” Pratt said.
Pratt trusts Houser because Houser is so open. “He was willing to listen to my problems. I could see that Chad would listen to me and try to understand because he wants to help the best he can,” Pratt said.
Shun Handy, a graduate from the first year of Café Momentum’s program, visits Houser every week to “check on him.”
“The program changed my view on living – I had a new perspective on everything. I can accomplish way more than I thought I could before,” Handy said.
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Story and photos by Hunter Lacey.