Café Momentum is, financially speaking, operating at a deficit of about $40,000 to $50,000 each month. But there’s a lot more to the not-for-profit restaurant that began as a series of Sunday pop-up dinners around the Dallas community and soon was being sold out in 15 minutes at $100 a seat.
The restaurant, which partners with the Dallas County Juvenile Department, serves as a culinary training facility for adjudicated young men, hoping to transform the lives of at-risk youths and reduce a state recidivism rate that is nearly 50 percent for juvenile offenders. Not to mention, serving New American cuisine that led to the restaurant being named the Best New Restaurant of 2015 by the Dallas Observer.
The five-part program at Café Momentum features a paid internship, which rotates the kids through every job in the restaurant and concentrates on helping develop leadership, social, and vocational skills.
“We spend a lot of time addressing our interns’ needs and getting into their lives,” says Darian Thomas, chief program officer for Café Momentum. “As this program grows, you begin to realize there are so many things we can do for these kids—secure healthcare, spend time in court with them, work with their attorneys, and help them assimilate back into the community by creating a very loving and nurturing work environment.”
Thomas says the youth work anywhere from 30 to 40 hours a week and get paid $10 an hour. Chad Houser, who serves as executive director and executive chef, created the restaurant after an experience teaching eight youths at a detention center how to make ice cream. The event touched his heart and broadened his perspective.
“From the moment I met them, I realized I had always stereotyped these kids,” Houser says. “I was wrong. Every single one of them called me sir and looked me right in the eye. I had spent 18 years in the kitchen and I was called many, many things in several languages, and sir was not one of them.”
Thomas says the Café Momentum experience makes an impact on diners and interns alike. “Our guests see the kids for who they are, not what their past has been. They hug the interns and offer their support and encouragement.”
The restaurant was five years in the planning stages and began with a series of pop-up dinners held at various Dallas restaurants on Sunday nights when those businesses were closed. The first dinner hosted 50 guests at $50 apiece and brought in eight youths from juvenile detention to work in the kitchen and service. By the time the 41st dinner was held, more than three and a half years later, tickets sold out in 15 minutes and went for $100 each.
Opened in January 2015, Café Momentum is open three nights a week for dinner only and is located on Thanks-Giving Square in downtown Dallas. Private events are also a big part of the operation when the restaurant is closed.
Best-selling dishes include Smoked Fried Chicken for $21, Butter Poached Shrimp with Risotto for $25, and Kung Pao Pork Cheek for $20. Tickets at the 83-seat restaurant average $55 and nightly covers number between 150 and 160.
“When people come in who are familiar with our mission, they assume we are going to dumb down the food, but that is counterintuitive to everything we want to do,” Chef Houser says. “We strive to keep the bar very high. We want the kids to prove to themselves they can do this. People will try the restaurant once for the cause, but if the food sucks they will never come back.”
The restaurant is dependent on contributions and corporate sponsorship from groups such as Citi Foundation and the Texas Bar Foundation, but Chef Houser says donors are getting a high return on their investment.
“We are working with about 50 kids a day and have found our program drastically reduces the rate of recidivism. Instead of 25 kids going back to jail, only five are,” he says, explaining the program’s results from the restaurant’s first year in operation.
Houser adds that the Texas recidivism rate for juvenile offenders is 47 percent, which means roughly half of the kids who go to jail will return within 12 months. Houser’s program, however, has reduced that average to 11 percent.
He explains that typically, “incarcerating a youth between the ages of 15 and 18 costs taxpayers $125,000. And, if they go back to jail, it costs an additional $125,000.”
Moving forward, the restaurant plans to take female interns as well. But Houser’s goals are even more ambitious. Ultimately, Houser would like for Café Momentum to be duplicated in other cities, and he hopes to develop a grab-and-go concept using the social enterprise model.
“Our ultimate goal is to become scalable and have multiple locations,” he says. “Right now we are working with about 50 youths, but there are 6,500 who go through the Dallas Juvenile system in a year. Our goal is to prove this program really works, and we very much want to help more kids make a new start.”