The recidivism rate for juvenile offenders in the state of Texas is 47 percent, meaning that the odds of returning to prison after a year are a literal toss-up. And, once youth go back to jail, it is likely they will be in and out of prison their entire lives. For many, their pasts define their future endeavors. Potential employers may reject them for their records. They may suffer social isolation, trying to make it day-to-day in environments where they are told that they can’t succeed. Social inequities, trauma, and distrust run deep. Without the resources and opportunities to succeed, many will fall back into crime.
Eat. Drink. Change Lives. That’s the motto of Café Momentum, a restaurant training platform providing a 12-month paid post-release internship program for young men and women exiting juvenile facilities. The goal, says founder and executive chef, Chad Houser, with a dose of levity, is “taking kids out of jail and teaching them to play with knives and fire.”
How does it work? Over a full year, Café Momentum trains young men and women post-release in four development tiers, teaching restaurant management, life and social skills, coaching, and development. Through an ecosystem of support maintained by a case management staff, youth receive the guidance, support, and, most importantly, the opportunity to succeed.
Initially setting out to help kids develop job skills, Chad Houser quickly learned the enormity of obstacles that his interns face. The majority are homeless. Many are parents. They may have been abandoned or neglected, and many are experiencing trauma from a childhood. They all face stereotypes and stigma.
“These kids have been discarded,” Houser says. “They wear a scarlet letter on their chests.” Café Momentum works to break down the stigma laid against his interns, and also address the distrust interns may have with the community. Through the internship program, Café Momentum helps youth build confidence that they can not only succeed at work, but also in other aspects of life, such as navigating the health care system. “We advocate on behalf of our kids and we educate them as well.”
Café Momentum also offers, in addition to world-class food, something else. Customers see staff for more than just their pasts. They see youth making the most of these opportunities at Café Momentum—and making the most of themselves. Every customer that walks through the doors of Café Momentum becomes an advocate for the young men and women serving them.
Since 2011, Café Momentum has worked with over 450 at-risk youths. That 47 percent recidivism rate drops to just around 15 percent, a 68 percent decrease. Additionally, Café Momentum has saved Texas taxpayers nearly $20 million in government expenditures to juvenile detention. More than a number can capture, the personal transformation that takes place in each intern is remarkable, launching youth on an upward trajectory built upon a strong foundation.
Café Momentum is not a normal restaurant.
In the same year that Chad Houser grew his restaurant business 38 percent and was nominated for best chef in Dallas, he also taught eight kids in jail how to make ice cream. One of his students won a competition, beating culinary students. Chad believed in the student’s potential to succeed, but he also realized that institutional, social, and economic barriers would likely prevent his student from long-term success. Wrestling with how he could make a positive impact in the lives of kids, Chad decided to open a restaurant and in his words, “let the kids run it.” After 17 years as a chef, Chad sold his partnership of Parigi Restaurant to devote his full attention to the role of Executive Director of Café Momentum in 2012.
Café Momentum is a 2017 S+ Catalyst. Through participation in the Catalyst Program, Café Momentum receives training from industry experts in organizational development, branding, measurement and growth, and strategic relationships to amplify their impact and strategically expand their reach.