“I’ve been told every reason why it won’t work — everything from ‘these kids won’t show up…’ To ‘these kids can’t cook this food…’ To ‘restaurants constantly fail…’ If I had a nickel for every time I’ve been told no, I’d have a restaurant in every state.”
Those words kick-off a powerful video detailing the remarkable story of Chad Houser’s Café Momentum. And though he lets a laugh sneak through after finishing that sentence, it’s clear that when it comes to transforming lives, the restaurant’s Founder, CEO and Executive Chef means business.
Café Momentum is currently participating in Stand Together’s Fall 2018 national Catalyst Program cohort. Their story is so inspiring and their impact so impressive that we would be remiss not to share it with you.
An Appetite for Change
Based in Dallas, Texas, Café Momentum is equal parts restaurant and culinary training facility, providing a positive environment in which youth who’ve spent time in juvenile facilities learn culinary, work and life-skills, and receive the intensive mentorship and support needed to achieve their full potential.
The inspiration for Café Momentum first came to Houser in 2008 when he was volunteering with Dallas County Youth Village. The experience deeply moved the successful Dallas-based chef and restaurateur, though he quickly realized that one afternoon wasn’t enough to create lasting change. So, he and a group of like-minded leaders began crafting their vision for a paid internship program that could help juvenile offenders find productive and prosperous career paths after release.
Café Momentum has since grown to become much more than an internship, in part, because their participants’ circumstances demand it. From growing up in violent homes and impoverished neighborhoods to getting caught up in crime and gang life, each child brings a unique set of challenges through the restaurant’s doors.
That’s why the 12-month program begins with a 8-week orientation, during which interns are connected with case managers who provide transitional support during the critical weeks and months after release. That support includes access to mental health services, like therapy for anger management and trauma recovery, as well as financial literacy training, parenting classes, educational assistance and career exploration opportunities.
With a solid support system in place, the interns then begin working their way from the kitchen to the front of house and everywhere in-between, studying each facet of the restaurant business and learning invaluable soft skills along the way. After 12-months, successful interns graduate from the program and are placed in a job with one of Café Momentum’s community partners.
Those employment opportunities not only help individuals overcome the stigmas that once defined them to live happy, healthy and productive lives, they’re also making an impact on society at large. In fact, Houser reports that keeping these young men and women out of the prison system has saved taxpayers more than $19 million in differed lifetime savings.
“Think about all the lives that could be changed, all the good that can be done in this community with that money,” he says.
Of course, the benefits of Café Momentum expand far beyond the financial world.
Recidivism is without a doubt one of the most significant challenges facing young people after release, and it’s one of the hardest to combat. That’s largely because most kids return to the same neighborhoods they were living in when they first offended, which means going back to the same social networks, same broken homes and same negative influences that drove them to crime the first place.
Houser says that, in Texas, the recidivism rate is an astonishing 47-percent. “Which means,” he continues, “that when a kid walks out of jail, you can flip a coin to determine whether they will be back within a year.” And if they go back a second time, they’re almost guaranteed to spend the rest of their lives going in and out of the system.
By utilizing their partner network in concert with a deeply empathetic and committed staff, Café Momentum is having a huge impact on those numbers by replacing — or at least supplementing — the challenging environments kids are used to, with one that values reward over punishment. So, rather than implementing the same punitive systems participants are used to, Café Momentum evaluates interns based on metrics rooted in positive reinforcement and constructive criticism.
“We don’t need to tell them that they’re bad anymore — they’ve been told that their whole life. All we need to do is tell them ‘you can do it’ and ‘you’re good’, and reward them for being good.”
And it’s working. “We’ve worked with nearly 500 kids… And the recidivism rate is 15-percent,” says Houser.
From their innovative approach and collaborative model, to the nuanced care and services they provide, Café Momentum truly embodies the principles of both Prime 5 and Stand Together. And though they won’t be directly involved with our other Prime 5 Catalysts day to day, we know there will be some amazing opportunities for us all to work together throughout the next year.
That said, while Houser’s vision for Café Momentum is sure to be met with plenty more skepticism along the way, he clearly sees that resistance not as obstacles, but simply more nickels he can turn into real change.
“When you see these kids succeed, that’s why you don’t ever give up. Because somebody’s gotta believe in them… might as well be me.”