Café Momentum provides an ecosystem of support, community, and opportunity — empowering its interns to embark on a positive new life path.
The morning of Abillyon’s probation hearing, he wasn’t expecting to see anyone but his Granny in the courtroom. He had a plea written and was ready to promise the court that he was ready to move his life in a more positive direction.
But when he walked into the court room – he saw Chad Houser, his mentor and founder of Café Momentum – the post-release program that Abillyon had briefly joined before returning to detention. That morning, Chad testified that he could see the teen’s potential, saying that he believed Abillyon was an ideal candidate to leave juvenile detention and re-enter the post-release internship program that Chad ran.
Abillyon was released that day. He didn’t have to read his plea. His hard work and Chad’s endorsement was all the judge needed.
Abillyon wasn’t used to people sticking up for him, even his so-called friends. He once had two people supporting him — his Granny and Paw Paw — but things got bleak after his grandfather died. He hung out with a tough crowd, made poor decisions, and descended from an honor roll junior high student into a high schooler who stole cars and broke into homes.
After serving his sentence, Abillyon again had two pillars in his life: his Granny and now Chad, who sat together in the courtroom. And he had an opportunity for a fresh start. Abillyon was allowed to come back to Café Momentum: a paid, post-release 12-month culinary internship for kids reentering society.
A broken juvenile justice system
Café Momentum offers a fresh start for those caught in a juvenile justice system that isn’t designed to change life outcomes.
The current system punishes offenders without offering them a way out of the circumstances that so often get them into the system in the first place: poverty, childhood trauma, food insecurity, social isolation, housing instability, and more.
- America has the highest youth confinement rate of any developed country, with nearly 60,000 kids incarcerated.
- After being incarcerated, most juveniles revert to past circumstances and re-offend. Juvenile recidivism rates are as high as 76 percent within three years of release and 84 percent within five years — even higher than those of adults.
Upon release, the opportunities these kids’ get — and don’t get — can dramatically affect their lives going forward. And those opportunities are largely based on the community that surrounds them.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. The paradigm can be broken. And a Dallas restaurant has the model on how to do it.
Wrapping juveniles in love and support
Café Momentum’s secret ingredient: providing juveniles with an ecosystem of support, community, opportunity, and a deep belief that they can achieve their full potential.
Its interns rotate through every aspect of running a restaurant while developing life skills such as accountability, problem-solving, and self-reliance. These building blocks of self-sufficiently enable them to thrive both inside and outside the restaurant.
“These young men and young ladies can and will rise to whatever level of expectation is set for them,” Chad says. “And it really all starts with just one person saying, ‘I believe in you.’”
After his internship, Abillyon landed a full-time job with a popular Dallas food truck – Ruthie’s Fueled by Café Momentum. He’s now enrolled in college and recruits and trains other Café Momentum graduates to join the food truck team.
“Being at Café Momentum was like entering a whole new world,” he says. “I learned things like looking someone in the eye when I speak to them. I learned to set goals. I learned to take care of myself and not put friends who didn’t really care about me ahead of my own goals.”
Teaching kids to play with knives and fire
Prior to launching Café Momentum, Chad Houser was a rising star on the Dallas food scene. His life path changed after he was invited to share his culinary skills with juveniles in detention.
As he coached these young people on how to make ice cream for a local food contest, he learned about their lives and saw the incredible potential each one of them possessed. After one of his trainees earned first place in the competition, he excitedly shared with Chad his dreams of working in food service.
On his drive home from the competition, Chad realized that it would be nearly impossible for that young man to break free of his current situation and build a restaurant industry career.
“At the end of the day, he’s going to go right back to the same house, the same street, the same neighborhood, the same gangs, the same poverty, the same schools,” Chad says. “And I thought ‘It’s not fair. Somebody needs to do something.”’
He soon recognized he was that “somebody.”
Chad started small, organizing pop-up dinners where youths from a local detention facility prepared and served food. The events quickly took off, and he decided to commit fully to his vision.
“I sold my ownership in my restaurant and bet my career on taking kids out of jail and teaching them to play with knives and fire,” he says.
In 2015 — eight years following that ice cream competition and after hosting dozens of pop-up dinners — Chad opened Café Momentum.
“These young men and young ladies can and will rise to whatever level of expectation is set for them. And it really all starts with just one person saying, ‘I believe in you.’”Chad Houser, founder of Café Momentum
Healing through community support
Café Momentum specializes in embracing young people’s innate gifts. Interns have dedicated case managers to help them achieve academic, financial, and professional goals, find stable housing, and coach them through challenges that will inevitably arise in and out of the tough environment of running a restaurant.
As interns interact with the customers, stereotypes are broken, and mutual respect is born. What’s happening at Café Momentum is a special recipe for success: The kids, whom the juvenile justice system deems “throwaways,” defy the odds and stay out of the criminal justice system as they move forward with their lives. Diners receive exceptional customer service, award-winning meals and get a chance to experience each intern’s capabilities and dignity firsthand.
After the internship ends, trainees are connected to jobs with Café Momentum’s community partners, helping them secure long-term employment and achieve economic stability.
By the numbers
Interns served through Café Momentum’s program
Café Momentum interns break the cycle incarceration
A single restaurant becomes a national movement
In 2017, Café Momentum joined Stand Together Foundation’s Catalyst Community, a select group of more than 300 top-performing nonprofits working to break the cycle of poverty in America.
Through business coaching, funding, and networking opportunities provided by Stand Together Foundation, Café Momentum began to spread word of its mission and innovative model outside of Texas. In the process, the Dallas eatery transformed into a prominent force fueling a nationwide discussion on juvenile justice reform.
Valued partnerships and high-profile events
With Stand Together Foundation’s assistance, Café Momentum was able to join forces with influential groups and individuals also fighting for equality and justice.
During Super Bowl weekend in 2020, Café Momentum teamed up with the Player’s Coalition and the NFL’s Inspire Change initiative to create a pop-up dinner at game host site Miami. There, twelve previously incarcerated young people prepared and served food, as well as shared their stories, struggles, and perspectives with top business executives, policy advocates, philanthropists, NFL players, and community leaders.
Café Momentum held similar high-profile dinners in Los Angeles and Nashville, with Los Angeles Rams players attending the LA dinner and former Jets quarterback Chad Pennington and former Washington Football Team quarterback Mark Brunell participating in the Nashville event.
Other former and current NFL stars, such as Shaun Alexander and Dhani Jones discovered Café Momentum through their work with Stand Together Foundation and quickly championed their model. And wide receiver Randall Cobb wore footwear designed with Café Momentum’s logo for the NFL’s annual #MyCauseMyCleats initiative highlighting players’ favorite charities.
The pop-up dinners and player support earned TV and print news coverage, as well as extensive social media exposure, amplifying Café Momentum’s message of hope and second chances.
Creating positive momentum
In 2020, Stand Together Foundation deepened its partnership even further by investing $1.9 million to help launch Momentum Advisory, a parent organization that will create a national restaurant group using Café Momentum’s model. Two new restaurants are planned for 2021, and an additional two are already slated to open the following year in 2022.
“We’re going to continue to grow, we’re going to continue to expand, we’re going to continue to advocate at a national level,” Chad says. “There’s no question to me that this (growth) is impossible without Stand Together… It’s everything that an organization like us needs to be successful.”
With your support, we can bring this model to cities nationwide, serving exponentially more young men and women, breaking stereotypes, and transforming both juveniles and entire communities one meal at a time.
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