Nearly six years after opening its brick-and-mortar restaurant, Cafe Momentum is, improbably, back where it started: doing pop-up dinners. The organization, which employs young people who have been incarcerated by the juvenile justice system to run a fine dining restaurant, got its start hosting local pop-ups at venues across the city before landing in its own home in Downtown Dallas in 2015.
Founded by chef Chad Houser, who got the idea for Cafe Momentum after working alongside incarcerated youth at an ice cream fundraiser in 2011, the organization has demonstrated a proven model for both running a restaurant and positively impacting the lives of systems-involved youth, or young people who have been involved with the juvenile justice or child welfare systems. Since its first pop-up dinners in 2011, the organization has seen its interns beat the odds that are thoroughly stacked against them.
Cafe Momentum, even in its most rudimentary format, has never been just a restaurant. Originally started to provide a path to economic independence and job training for formerly incarcerated youth, the organization now offers a host of social services and other resources for the young people that it employs. It helps its workers apply for assistance, find public transportation, and, in many cases, provide for their families. In 2019, Cafe Momentum even launched its own high school after recognizing that the young people it served were struggling to find a place in the public school system. This year alone, even during the pandemic, the school has graduated more than a dozen students.
Now, despite COVID-19, Cafe Momentum is planning to go national. The plan is to bring its acclaimed internship program, which provides paying jobs to systems-involved youth and a host of social services, while teaching them to work in the service industry. During their 12-month stint at Cafe Momentum, interns rotate through virtually every job in a restaurant, from dishwasher to cook to front-of-house staffer. Compared to the broader population of formerly incarcerated youth, the 1,000 or so young people who’ve passed through Cafe Momentum’s doors over the past nine years are dramatically less likely to end up in the system again.
To this end, Houser spent almost all of 2019 traveling to introduce the country to the Cafe Momentum model. After teaming up with the National Football League, the organization hosted dinners in Nashville ahead of the 2019 NFL Draft, working with systems-involved youth there to showcase how much of a difference the organization can make in just a few days of work with young people. “We had the opportunity to showcase the public-facing component of our model,” Houser says. “People walk in and have one of the best meals of their entire lives, and it changes them.”
Later, Houser brought Cafe Momentum interns to Miami to cook at events surrounding Super Bowl LIV. The dinners are a Trojan horse of sorts, using delicious dishes like smoked fried chicken and coffee-rubbed strip steak to make philanthropists, policymakers, and potential donors care about the futures of the program’s participants.
“It’s been a great reminder of who we are, what we stand for, and why we’re here,” Houser says. “It reminds me of the very first pop-up we did in 2011, when everyone was just awestruck at what these kids could do. Seeing that same reaction across the country has been amazing, and invigorating.”
To bring its unique approach to both operating a restaurant and juvenile justice reform nationwide, Cafe Momentum has teamed up with the Stand Together Foundation. Established by Charles Koch in 2003, the organization functions as a funding and expertise network for nonprofits like Cafe Momentum, which focus on what executive director Evan Feinberg calls a “bottom-up” approach to center the autonomy of those who are experiencing poverty, homelessness, or incarceration.
“Most well-intentioned people out there that are administering programs like this have the wrong mental model about people who they’re trying to serve,” Feinberg says. “They have the wrong opinion of people who are experiencing poverty or have been affiliated with the criminal justice system. Their belief is that individuals are broken, they’re deficient, they’re in need of expert help from someone on the outside. Cafe Momentum doesn’t work that way.”
And amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which has shuttered or stymied most of the country’s restaurants, Cafe Momentum has charged forward with its plans to bring its proven model to cities across the country. “This work was crucial to begin with because of the dysfunctional way that juvenile justice works all over the country,” Houser says. “But coming through a global pandemic that is disproportionately impacting communities of color, that makes our push to expand that much more important.”
The young people that Cafe Momentum employs are, often, forgotten and failed by the institutions that are intended to serve them. They’re children who have been incarcerated, experienced extreme poverty, and are likely behind several years in school.
“The system officially calls these kids throwaways, and insists that the only option is to lock them up over and over again,” Feinberg says. “What’s so different about Cafe Momentum is this deep belief in the people they serve. They’re trusted to run one of the best restaurants in Dallas, and they’re able to take great pride in that incredible accomplishment. The problem is that there are so few programs across the country that take that approach.”
Like the original Cafe Momentum, future outposts of the restaurant will offer the same suite of services, ranging from anger management training to financial literacy education and career advice, to teens in new cities. The organization will bring its near-decade of experience partnering with systems-involved youth, its deep understanding of what works best for them on a human level, and its restaurant operations training method for young people who don’t have a typical culinary background.
To bring those practices to life in new cities, Houser and his team will work with local chefs and community organizations to improve the lives of systems-involved youth. The organization will share its wealth of knowledge, best practices, and systems with people interested in starting their own restaurants like Cafe Momentum, while the Stand Together Foundation will help these fledgling restaurants secure funding and build relationships with donors in their communities.
It’s not clear exactly what these new Cafe Momentum restaurants will look like. Maybe they’ll have slightly different names, or serve a cuisine that is a better fit for their city than what works in Dallas. But what will remain the same is Cafe Momentum’s commitment to proving that these young people are just as capable of turning out high-quality food and exceptional service as any other worker in the restaurant industry.
“We’re flexible enough, but one of the defining characteristics of Cafe Momentum, and one of the things we’re not willing to compromise on, is that the people we work with can and will rise to whatever expectation is set for them,” Houser says.
For now, Houser isn’t quite ready to say where the next Cafe Momentum will be, but he’s got big plans for the future, some of which are already in the works. The organization recently launched some virtual programming for young people in Nashville, and “active talks” are underway to bring the restaurant to multiple cities across the country in the coming months.
“Our goal is to change the narrative,” Houser says. “We want to rebuild the conversation about what juvenile justice should look like, and what kinds of opportunities these young men and women deserve.”