October 07, 2020

Café Momentum powers up for life mid-pandemic

Chad Houser started Cafe Momentum to help disenfranchised youth, who had dropped out of school, were unemployed, or headed for potential trouble with the law.

Chad Houser is practically giddy when he tells people his “momentum” is back.

His restaurant, Café Momentum, closed since March 15 because of the pandemic, reopened last month.

The café’s student-employees — many of whom are at-risk youth — are back serving the restaurant’s customers, and continuing to prepare for industry opportunities.

Houser, a longtime restaurateur, opened Café Momentum in Dallas in 2011. With assistance from angel investors and donations from the community, he started it as a way to help disenfranchised youth who had dropped out of school, were unemployed, or headed for potential trouble with the law.

He envisioned Café Momentum as a place where they could learn the basic skills needed so they could secure jobs in the industry, complete their high-school educations, and find a safe haven in which to live, learn and turn their lives around.

For nearly 10 years, Houser and the restaurant, a 501(c)(3) operation, have helped hundreds of young adults move from the juvenile system toward productive lives, achieving goals they never dreamed of.

Each student employee, or intern, works at various stations throughout the restaurant over the course of a year. They spend time as dishwashers, prep or line cooks, bussers, servers, hosts, and food runners. This process helps them:

  1. Learn new life and social skills they need to succeed in each position
  2. Learn their strengths and identify their interests
  3. Learn what it means to be part of a team even as they perform independent tasks

The 12-month program also requires the students, ages 15 to 18, to work through four tiers that increase personal responsibility and self-advocacy. Tasks such as arranging to get a government-issued ID, getting a physical, and opening a bank account are among the initial requirements. They’re paid $9 an hour as Tier 1 students, and receive dollar/hour raises as they move up through each tier.

Houser also says he runs a community services center adjacent to the restaurant staffed by case managers, a staff psychologist, curriculum coordinator, education coordinator, and program director. They are the core of an “ecosystem of support around the kids so that all issues and barriers are holistically addressed.”

As part of the program, the youth are required to attend high-school-accredited classes at the community services center, and case managers secure housing for them.

Learn about the our Educational Foundation’s Restaurant Ready program, which helps at-risk and underserved youth pursue industry jobs and careers.

Last year, Café Momentum worked with 182 kids; 42% of them were homeless or abandoned.

All of Café Momentum’s great work was threatened when COVID-19 hit, leaving its future somewhat uncertain. Despite the pandemic, Houser says 10 of the kids graduated with high-school diplomas, but the restaurant’s closure still impacted work and on-the-job training.

“We knew keeping the restaurant open wasn't an option because nobody was going to show up,” Houser says. “But we also knew we needed to provide a stable environment for the kids. It didn't take rocket science to figure out that the pandemic was going to disproportionately affect communities of color.”

The deaths of George Floyd and Brionna Taylor really affected the students and staff members. Area protests soon began, and one of the cafe’s windows was broken. Houser decided to put plywood boards up around the restaurant to protect it. He and the students decorated it with the restaurant’s logo, and post-it notes with messages about how they felt about what was happening.

“They wrote things like, ‘I feel sad’, or ‘I feel unheard,’ or ‘I want the police to treat me with respect,’” he says. “We wanted them to see that their voices could be heard.”

From frustration to activity

Out of that grew hope—in the form of a program called Momentum E.A.T.S., which Houser says ultimately provided more than 350,000 free meals to local food-insecure families.

“We flipped the restaurant into a distribution hub and got to work feeding families. We all felt like we were getting somewhere, doing something, and that was wonderful.”

Fast-forward six months, and Café Momentum is, again, open for business, but things are a bit different. The restaurant is operating at 25% capacity and will maintain that until Houser and his staff are comfortable from both service and safety standpoints.

For now, the staff takes guests’ temperatures when they arrive and only set tables minutes before they sit to maximize sanitation. Houser’s employees are trained to wash hands frequently and to sanitize high-touch areas. Everyone wears face masks. Houser also says he recently engaged a 3rd-party service to deliver off-premises orders.

Future changes

During the six months the restaurant remained closed, Houser assessed how to tweak and enhance Café Momentum going forward, including its training and education components. They will now include more virtual approaches than in the past, but in a sustainable way that enhances learning options for everyone.