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Chad Houser cooked up a café to give young offenders a second chance

At Café Momentum in Dallas former juvenile offenders learn valuable life skills.

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    Chad Houser (r.) founded Cafe Momentum to teach former juvenile offenders, such as intern Malik Runnels (l.), life skills. They'll work at his nonprofit restaurant in Dallas.
    Courtesy of Santon J. Stephens/Cafe Momentum
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If Chad Houser were to describe the purpose of the restaurant he soon will open in downtown Dallas, it might go something like this: “I take kids out of jail and teach them to play with knives and fire – and make the community better.”

So far, that basic spiel – bolstered by a polished presentation, a detailed business plan, and a generous serving of passion – has netted the Dallas-based chef and entrepreneur more than $1 million in donations from both small and large individual donors, philanthropic organizations, an innovative crowdfunding campaign, and a series of pop-up dinners.

When Café Momentum opens in December, its staff will be composed mainly of boys and young men who previously served time at the Dallas County Youth Village, a detention facility for nonviolent juvenile offenders. During a 12-month, post-release internship they will earn $10 per hour (well above the local minimum wage) while gaining experience in all aspects of the restaurant business, from preparing food and assisting the chefs in the kitchen to waiting on tables, busing, and washing dishes.

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The restaurant will also include a classroom where the interns will receive instruction in skills such as financial literacy, anger management, art, and social media.

“It’s not just about giving these young men a job,” Mr. Houser says. “It’s about creating a holistic environment where they can be immersed in all the tools and resources they need to be successful in life, which extends far beyond working at a job.”

The restaurant will seat 85 people and employ 30 to 35 youths at a time. Houser will serve as executive chef, developing the menu and overseeing the operation, with a chef de cuisine and a sous-chef running the kitchen daily. It will be open to the public only for dinner, but will be equipped with a projector and screen and available for breakfast and lunch business meetings, presentations, and corporate events. Catering will also be offered.

The seed of Café Momentum was planted in 2009 when Houser was serving on the board of an organization that supports the Dallas Farmers Market. A fundraiser for the market included students from culinary schools in the area, who were invited to compete in an ice-cream-making contest.

Among the participants were eight boys from the Dallas County Youth Village. Though enrolled in the culinary program there, they had never made ice cream before, so Houser was asked to give them a lesson. A trained chef and co-owner of a popular local bistro at the time, Houser says that before he met with the boys he held stereotyped, highly negative assumptions of how juvenile delinquents talked and acted.

“When I actually met the kids, I was blown away by how wrong I was,” he says. “These boys all looked me in the eye when they spoke. They called me ‘Sir.’ They were so eager to learn, so enthusiastic about doing a good job. It was pretty obvious that, for a lot of these kids, making this ice cream was the first time in their lives that they had been able to do something they could be proud of.”

One boy in particular was especially proud, as he took first place in the contest. After collecting his $100 prize, he ran up to Houser and said, “Sir, sir! I just love making food and putting a smile on people’s faces.”

That encounter changed Houser’s life.

“I drove home after the contest knowing that I could either pat myself on the back for making this boy feel special or I could do something more,” he says. “I could do something to really effect change and help these kids.”

Houser spent the next year talking up the idea of starting a nonprofit restaurant staffed by former juvenile offenders, but the concept gained little traction. He found that most people he talked with held the same negative stereotypes that he had previously. So he came up with an innovative way to both counter those clichés and to forward his restaurant idea: a series of pop-up dinners.

Tapping into his extensive connections in the local restaurant scene, Houser asked the top chefs in Dallas to open up their restaurants for a one-seating dinner, usually on a Sunday night; write a four-course menu for the occasion; and have eight boys from the Youth Village help prepare the plates in the kitchen and serve the food in the dining room.

Dubbed Café Momentum, the first pop-up dinner was held in June 2011 at the Milestone Culinary Arts Center. Unsure how the novel venture would be received, Houser hoped to get 50 people to pay $50 each to enjoy a gourmet meal for a good cause.

If necessary, he thought, he could hit up family and friends to fill some of the seats. He posted a notice about the dinner online and, a day later, before he could remove the link, he had sold 68 tickets, none of them to people he knew.

The dinner was a huge success, so much so that Houser raised the price to $100 and has held 40 more pop-up dinners since then. Most sell out within minutes and typically bring in $8,000 to $10,000 each in ticket sales and donations.

Patton Robertson has hosted two of the dinners at Five Sixty, a Wolfgang Puck restaurant located at the top of the city’s landmark Reunion Tower, where he is the chef. He has nothing but praise for the boys who worked the dinners.

“They are gracious and attentive, and very willing to listen and learn,” Mr. Robertson says. “They also understand the dynamics of the kitchen, which is not always the most pleasant place to work. It’s hot and it’s fast, and sometimes people raise their voices. These boys don’t take anything personally. They don’t need to be coddled.”

Houser’s goal was always for Café Momentum to be a full-service operation, and in September 2012 he sold his stake in the restaurant where he was the co-owner and chef to devote all his time to his goal. He found an empty restaurant in downtown Dallas and raised almost $1 million for extensive remodeling. He also secured the first investment given by GroundFloor, a program of United Way of Metropolitan Dallas that invests in start-up businesses focusing on social impact.

Financial support and business mentoring from United Way enabled Houser to complete his growth plan for the pop-up dinners and turn them into a full-scale restaurant that will serve more youths, refine his measurement of Café Momentum’s impact, and secure larger grants from major philanthropic organizations in the area.

“Chad is exactly what you look for when you are looking for a social entrepreneur,” says Kate Knight, director of GroundFloor. “He’s found a way to marry his skills in the restaurant industry with his passion for helping these boys. It’s really remarkable what he’s been able to accomplish in such a short time. It speaks not only to that business skill and passion, but also to his ability to rally supporters around him.”

In addition to helping turn around the lives of at-risk youths, Café Momentum, which is privately funded and doesn’t receive a single dollar of government money, has been a significant boon to the community.

With help from the GroundFloor grant, Houser determined that the social benefits of the pop-up dinners – reduced recidivism and savings on the cost of possible future incarceration among the 164 youths who have participated – translate into a savings to Dallas County taxpayers of almost $8 million.

Another great benefit of Café Momentum, according to Houser, is that it brings together people whose paths most likely would never have crossed.

“We’re breaking down stereotypes,” he says, “on both sides of the table.” 

• To learn more about Café Momentum, visit www.cafemomentum.org.

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