Recruiting from At-Risk Demographics

Café Momentum Intern Malik Runnels with Chef Chad Houser.
Café Momentum Intern Malik Runnels with Chef Chad Houser. Stanton J. Stephens

From Dallas to D.C., chefs and restaurants are taking constructive actions to help formerly incarcerated individuals succeed in foodservice careers and life.

Even at the highest level of fine dining, silver spoons aren’t given out for free in this industry. It’s for that very reason that restaurants embody the classical ideal of the American Dream: where the ladder to success is accessible to anyone who has the drive to start climbing and the diligence and work ethic to hold on.

At least, that was the ethos that Mikeal Padres says changed his life.

Padres was 17 when he got out of juvenile detention. He had never had a job. He had never had a silver spoon. When he got off the bus leaving juvie, he didn’t even have a pair of socks.

And with the frightening recidivism rates facing the 688,000 Americans leaving prison each year—largely due to the social alienation and slim employment opportunities available to men and women with a criminal record—it was likely that this wouldn’t be the last time Padres found himself in a situation like this. In fact, in his home state of Texas, the recidivism rate for juvenile offenders holds close to 47 percent.

The odds improved significantly for him when his path took him to see Chef Chad Houser, the founder of Café Momentum in Dallas, and a resident of a very different side of town.

Padres’ first judgment calls about Houser: nice guy; good intentions; a little naive; just another white guy out to make some money off a do-gooder project.

Chef Houser, though, withheld his judgments—he had made that mistake before. Instead, he saw potential in Padres as a future chef, waiter, or restaurateur.

So rather than making assumptions, he gave Padres a pair of socks with shoes to go with them, along with a bed to sleep on. Now, nearly a year later, Chef Houser is prepared to give Padres a full-time restaurant job, cooking and teaching other young men coming out of the criminal justice system everything they need to know to be gainfully employed and take care of themselves both monetarily and emotionally.

Café Momentum’s yearlong paid internship program is split into five parts, rotating each participant through different jobs within the restaurant to give interns a holistic education relating to a career in the hospitality industry.

However, in the years before he opened Café Momentum, juvenile delinquents weren’t top-of-mind on Houser’s hiring list at Parigi, a modern, Parisian-inspired bistro where he worked as a chef partner.

It was chance, more than anything, that led him to teach a group of boys from the local juvenile detention center how to make ice cream. The result was a new appreciation for the career potential within a group of young adults who plenty of other employers (and potential mentors) immediately write off.

At the end of that day, Houser knew that he was going to have to figure out a way to help incarcerated kids not just for that day, but for the rest of their lives.Thus, Café Momentum was born.

Well, that is, after doing extensive research and fundraising $250,000 in seed money, then Café Momentum was born.


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