Café Momentum: Helping Young People Find Skills, Housing, Healthcare, Hope

Café Momentum trains adjudicated youth for careers in the culinary industry — and so much more. This story is part of a series on the innovative ways that 2015 Youth Opportunity Fund grantees are supporting innovative and scalable programs that increase the employability of young people and connect them to economic opportunities in their cities. The $3 million Fund is led by the Citi Foundation and America’s Promise Alliance.

Now 19, Tony says he was a happy kid.

He was involved in sports, close with his mom and stepfather, and spent his Saturday mornings watching cartoons and eating cereal. But when his step-dad went to jail, he says he felt abandoned and confused. In middle school, he fell in with the proverbial wrong crowd. Soon, he started to feel like getting in trouble was the only thing he was good at.

(left to right) Cafe Momentum Executive Director Chad Houser with graduate Tony Mitchell and Board Chair Corey Admire

“I was on the streets, you know? I didn’t have any guidance,” he said. “I didn’t have anything motivating me.”

At 15, he also had the challenge of supporting a son. “Trying to be on the streets and be a father at the same time was hard,” he said. “There weren’t too many people hiring 15-year-olds.”

By the time he was 16, assault and robbery charges brought him to Youth Village, a juvenile detention center for boys and young men in Dallas, Texas. When he thought about his future, he imagined a life in and out of jail. “Am I gonna be just like my daddy?” he wondered.

But then he met Chad Houser, the founder of a nonprofit restaurant that provides culinary training to young people who have served time for nonviolent offenses. When it first opened, Café Momentum functioned almost like a catering company, hosting “pop-up dinners” around Dallas, and Houser employed young men from Youth Village to host, serve and bus tables for the events.

After Tony had worked a few of these dinners, Houser told him, “Call me when you get out and I’ll get you a job.”

“Anybody tells me that, I’m gonna hop on it,” Tony said. And he did. Tony got out of Youth Village on November 1. He was working for Houser two days later.

Café Momentum offers a formal, year-long, paid internship program, in which young adults learn how to work every part of the restaurant, from hosting to helping out in the kitchen. At Cafe Momentum’s first official graduation in April of this year, Tony was one of the first nine graduates. Like the others, he got a lot more than he bargained for.

From Pop-Up to Permanent

Already an established chef, Houser got the idea to create Café Momentum at the Dallas Farmers Market in 2009, when he taught eight young men how to make ice cream for a competition. To his surprise, one of the young men won, beating even the culinary students.

“They were so eager to learn, so enthusiastic about doing a good job,” Houser said in an interview with theChristian Science Monitor. “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.”

For three and a half years, the restaurant worked with 172 young people through pop-up dinners. It opened its own permanent location in downtown Dallas in January of 2015, adding another 170 young people to the program.

Since the restaurant’s creation in 2011, the program has worked with young men only. But last year, Café Momentum received a grant from the Youth Opportunity Fund, which helped open up the internship to young women too. The grant has also allowed staff to offer more formal education instruction and hire more case managers to help the students navigate and remove other barriers that stand in their way.

Young adults who become interns at the Café get both a job and job training. Interns rotate shifts working every part of the restaurant: hosting, serving, assisting the chefs with cooking, bussing and washing dishes.

Job training is just a piece of the big picture, though. For many of the interns, Café Momentum provides holistic social services that empower them to create a new and positive path in life — a way to start over.

When they’re not working, interns are in the restaurant’s classroom, where they learn life skills like financial literacy, anger management, communication, parenting and math.

For most young adults at Café Momentum, the internship leads to full-time employment. Houser has been a chef for more than 19 years, and he and fellow staff members work their industry contacts to make sure there are jobs waiting for interns once they graduate. Café Momentum had its first formal graduation in April of this year, and each of the nine students, including Tony, went on to full-time work.

The majority of interns at Café Momentum have experienced varying levels of trauma and challenges in their lives. Many have experienced violence at home or on the streets. Some have been homeless. One witnessed his father’s murder.

To help the interns cope with a variety of challenges, Café Momentum partners with the Parkland Memorial Hospital to treat interns when they’re sick. And the Café works with the Dallas Housing Authority to help interns find affordable housing. Before each shift, the staff has a family-style meal, a safe space to talk about what’s going on in their lives.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly for their futures, the program offers legal advocacy.

“We can teach them how to cook all day, but if they’ve got a felony at 17, it doesn’t matter how well they can cook or serve,” said Darian Thomas, Café Momentum’s chief program officer.

In Texas, 17-year-olds are treated as adults, which means that a 17-year-old intern who comes to Café Momentum with a felony for theft or stolen property will have a significantly harder time finding a job or housing even after completing the program.

Removing Barriers with the District Attorney

The key municipal partner for Café Momentum’s innovative program is the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office, which established the Achieve Inspire Motivate (AIM) program. Café Momentum partners with the D.A. to help nonviolent offenders get their records expunged, provided they meet the requirements, which include enrolling in and completing a program like Café Momentum’s.

Cafe Momentum’s first graduates (left to right): Rocky Coronado, Thomas Guandique, Shun Handy, Emmai Killion, Khalil Miller, Tony Mitchell, Abisai Montes, Malik Runnels, and Romeo Sneed

Out of the hundreds of young people who have worked at Café Momentum, 89 percent have continued on a positive path and improved their lives, leaving the juvenile justice system behind them. Among the interns who received intensive social services along with their job training, 96 percent continue to thrive.

“The restaurant isn’t just giving interns a skill set,” Thomas said. “We’re out there seeking to remove barriers.”

Changing Perceptions

Arissa, Café Momentum’s first female intern, heard about the program when she was at the Letot Residential Treatment Center, a facility for girls.

At first, she says she was drawn to Café Momentum because of the stipend. But after she started working a few of the pop-up dinners, she realized she enjoyed it, that it was a place she could actually feel safe.

“Some of us grew up in not-too-good environments,” Arissa said. “Café Momentum is a place for us to come to for shelter and support. When we come to Café Momentum, we don’t have worries.”

Torie Reid worked with Arissa at Letot, and she’s now the case manager for female interns at Café Momentum. Reid says she hopes to help young women envision a different life for themselves.

“We focus a lot on the future,” Torie said. “Because they don’t always see it. Their biggest barrier is a lack of hope for what they can become.”

Tony’s future looks good. He’s now working full-time at another Dallas restaurant. “I’ve learned that life is more than just the block where I grew up,” he said. “[But] you still got other kids out there that are still getting in trouble, that don’t have anybody to talk to, to guide them,” he said.

“Café Momentum, they gave me and many others someone to turn to.”

The Youth Opportunity Fund is part of the Citi Foundation’s Pathways to Progress U.S. commitment — a three-year, $50 million investment to give 100,000 low-income youth in the United States the opportunity to develop the workplace skills and leadership experience necessary to compete in a 21st century economy.

To learn more about nonprofits working to place low-income young adults on a path to success, check out Three Powerful Strategies that Prepare Youth for the Workforce.