At a typical restaurant, one would not expect to see an employee hug his or her manager at the end of a shift and say “I love you.” However, Dallas-based Café Momentum is not a typical restaurant. At the end of any given shift, 30 or so young team members hug the Café’s founder, Chad Houser, on their way out the door and tell him how much they love him. As Houser explains, “I really don’t know how to put that feeling into words.”
What makes Café Momentum so special is not the food — despite the restaurant’s rave reviews and critical acclaim — it’s the mission. Café Momentum is a nonprofit restaurant that provides 12-month, paid, post-release internships for juvenile offenders. The café doubles as both a top-notch restaurant and a culinary, job, and life-skills training program for at-risk youth.
Program interns learn employment, life, and social skills while working through all stations in the restaurant, while the Café Momentum case management team addresses urgent needs such as homelessness, hunger, healthcare, and lack of access to running water, electricity, and hygiene products for each intern. Additionally, the case management team provides resources such as financial literacy training, parenting classes, introduction to community activism, and behavioral counseling — creating an ecosystem of resources, love, inspiration, encouragement, and mentorship so that each intern can fulfill his potential.
The idea for the mission-driven eatery came to Houser in 2009 after spending the afternoon teaching eight young men who were in a detention center how to make ice cream at a competition at the Dallas Farmers Market. Houser recalls, “I was blown away by these young men, and embarrassed that I had stereotyped them before having met them. In fact, one of the young men actually won the contest, beating the college kids. I left there knowing that I really couldn’t be mad at anyone for not helping these kids if I wasn’t willing to do something myself.”
As for the results, statistically, 47 percent of youth in Texas who are sent to detention will return again within one year. Over the course of three and a half years prior to the restaurant’s opening, Houser and team hosted 41 monthly pop-up dinners (one-time dinners hosted at another restaurant on a day that the restaurant is closed). Of the 172 young men who participated in hosting those dinners, only 11 percent went back to detention. That decrease in recidivism saved Dallas County taxpayers $7.75 million. The $1 million investment put into opening the pop-up restaurants created a 675 percent ROI in less than four years.
In addition, data indicate that these juvenile offenders would otherwise typically make less than $3,000 per year in income after their release. An intern working 40 hours a week at Café Momentum earns $10 per hour, making more than $20,000 per year. This is significant; a majority of the restaurant’s interns are expected to be financial contributors to their households and are able to contribute much more to the economy on the whole.
It’s an amazing model for decreasing recidivism. As Houser explains, “Society in general initially judged our kids in the harshest ways possible without ever having met them, learned about them, or given them a fair chance. They have proven all doubters wrong and inspired everyone that dines at the restaurant.”