Café Momentum

Building Momentum, One Plate at a Time

Cafe Momentum | May 2024

The afternoon sun sets over downtown Dallas, reflecting light off steel and glass onto Thanks-Giving Square. It’s 5:30 pm, and the dinner service at Café Momentum has just begun. Looking through the window, the Café could be any top-rated fine dining restaurant—chatter and warm light spilling through the kitchen window into a dimly lit dining room, the servers dressed head-to-toe in black uniforms, and the half-dozen kitchen staff wrapped in aprons, non-slip shoes, and gingham pants. Yet, as anyone here will tell you, this is not a normal restaurant. The teens holding the door, greeting patrons at the host station, filling water glasses, cooking, plating, and serving the gorgeously arranged platters of locally sourced meats, pasta, and vegetables are all justice-involved youth.

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Exterior of Cafe Momentum in downtown Dallas, Texas. / Photo by Obiekwe Okolo

Keeping the Momentum Going

After being nominated for best up-and-coming chef in Dallas, Café Momentum founder, Chad Houser, was invited by a friend to teach youth in detention how to make ice cream as part of a culinary competition at the local farmer’s market. “The moment that I met these eight young men, I felt a tremendous sense of shame. I realized that I'd stereotyped them, judged them, labeled them before I ever met 'em, and I was wrong.”

On the day of the competition, the young men from the Dallas County juvenile detention facilities stood among their fellow competitors—culinary college students—and when the public voted, one of Chad’s guys won. His flavor was strawberry, cantaloupe, and basil. After the elation subsided and Chad returned to his car, an affecting grief fell over him. “My childhood and this young man's story—our lives were dictated by choices that were made for us before we were born because of the color of our skin, the socioeconomic class we were born in, the part of town that we were born in, and the inequitable access to education, food, medical care. At his age, I was given every opportunity to succeed, fail, try again. And he was given one chance.” This heartbreak was the beginning of Café Momentum.

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The Café Momentum pass during dinner service. / Photo by Obiekwe Okolo

Margaret Windham, Executive Director of Café Momentum, says, “Once you're aware of this population, the struggles that they experience, the lack of resources they're given, and the expectation to put them in jail, put them right back in the same situation and expect a different outcome, you can't walk away from it. Once you meet our young people, you can't walk away from it. And you are angry that they're referred to as throwaways, that they don't have the resources that my kids have, or that a diner's kids have, and that they deserve those things too.”

What started with a simple idea—“I just want to open a restaurant and let kids run it”—is now a living, evolving organism. Chad explains, “To meet any of our young people and understand their lived experience is to understand immediately that if our focus and priority were solely to open a restaurant and give them a job, we would be putting a bandaid on a waterfall. We have to be willing to meet 'em where they're at and walk alongside them in all aspects of their life and not just one.” Chad adds, “The moment they walk out [of the detention center], we want to keep the momentum going.”

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Cafe Momentum young people lead a cooking class for non-profit leaders from all over the country. / Photo by Erica Baker

The paid internship offered at the restaurant is only one part of a robust and holistic system of support. Margaret says, “The restaurant is the vehicle to give these young people a voice and a place where they gain their confidence, internal growth, and drive to become who they're going to become.”

The ecosystem of support that Café Momentum offers includes four components: workforce development, case management, mental health services, and education. Chad explains, “Workforce development is obviously going to take place in the restaurant. They're rotating through the stations, focusing on life skills and social skills, applying them to different stations, building self-confidence, all those things that can happen. The Community Services Center [or CSC] addresses those other three key components. It’s where our case management team is. It's where our school is. It's where we have a therapy room. It's also just a safe place. As we sit here talking today, there's a young man sleeping on the couch. There's another one building a model car. It's just a safe place.”

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Chef Scott Toby works in the kitchen alongside young people during dinner prep. / Photo by Obiekwe Okolo

“Those little things aren’t little”

The young people entering the Café Momentum internship have all been in the justice system within the last 12 months and are between the ages of 15 and 19, but the circumstances they come from are unique to each of them. Case Manager Tyreesh Browning explains that after a week-long orientation, the case managers conduct family visits to better understand the external conditions of their interns. “Just a lot of emotions with going into some of those homes,” she says. "Seeing the environments that these interns are growing up in, you can see why they've gotten into the trouble that they've gotten into.” Several of the participants experience homelessness and food insecurity. Some come from abuse. This is why individualized, wraparound care is so essential.

Dr. P, or Porshia Haymon, is a clinical psychologist and has been on staff as Director of Mental Health Services and later as Chief Program Officer for six years. She is immediately disarming, and it’s obvious why so many young people say she changed their lives. Because she oversees all programmatic components of the ecosystem she gets a lot of face time with the young people. Café Momentum’s internship program is built on tiers of success. “It's teaching them all these little things that put them on the same path as a typical 18, 19-year-old who hasn't had all these setbacks.” Checkpoints within the tier system include resume building, mock interviews, station completion at the restaurant, opening a bank account, getting an ID, and more. The successful completion of each tier results in a pay raise. “We do it in a way that they just think, ‘Oh, I'm just checking boxes so that I can move up to the next tier’ without realizing that they’re growing and becoming more prepared.”

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Young people plate and finish dishes during dinner service. / Photo by Obiekwe Okolo

The young people also participate in ‘give-back hours’. Dr. P says, “It's important to us that they begin to feel like they can contribute to their community and also that they're a part of their community. When you've been an outcast, you could continue to be an outcast, but if you feel like you're a part of something, you're more likely to not want to damage that thing, this community.”

Though the programming is very systematic, it is still entirely unique to each student. Through an evaluation of interest, Dr. P and case managers can guide participants into a future that is both exciting and sustainable for them. “When they leave us in tier four, they're placed with an employment partner… a lot of our youth are not interested in continuing in the food and beverage industry. And so this information helps me find something related.”

Tristyn, a former intern, says discovery is a huge part of the experience. “We go on field trips, stuff like that. They open the doors and show us different experiences, things outside of our neighborhood.” Dr. P calls this the enrichment element. Whether it is a trip to a museum, or watching the Hamilton musical, she exposes them to something that they may like, but would otherwise find inaccessible. “They get in there and they're asking questions like, ‘Who controls the lights?’ Or ‘Where's this music coming from?’ Now they’re thinking, ‘This is something that I could do.’”

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Tristyn participates in a group art installation at an event in Denver catered by Cafe Momentum in 2022. The prompt of the art installation was 'what cycles of dysfunction are you working to break in our country?' and Tristyn chose to write Gun Violence. / Photo by Erica Baker

Isaiah is a current intern and says the staff’s guidance makes all the difference. “A lot of juveniles, it's just the thing of, ‘Can I do it? Do I want to do it? Who am I doing it for? Who am I? What is my purpose?’ That's really it. I think they give us a purpose.”

While these conversations happen casually, Dr. P also provides counseling for participants. She says that, for many of the young people in the program, therapy has a connotation of punishment—forced compliance in reaction to bad behavior. Dr P. breaks down those barriers. Students will often engage her in conversation, not because she is a mental health professional, but because she is a safe adult that they trust. “They later come back like, ‘Wait, you're a therapist? So we can just sit and talk about my problems and you don't tell anybody? I didn't know this is what therapy was like!’”

Tristyn, a 20-year-old who has long been under the care of Dr. P, is able to reflect on her life with a poignancy few adults possess. “I am compassionate, but it's not to the point where I'm getting taken advantage of how it used to be. I have a sense of self now.” Her relationship with her mom has been fundamentally changed for the better as she has explored generational and childhood trauma. Tristyn is a mother too, and sees an opportunity to reshape the course of her familial history. “There's a lot of things that I know I can go about differently. There's a lot of things that I did with my son that I wouldn't do with my daughter, just because at the time I was still surviving.”

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Cafe Momentum is a space in constant bustling motion. / Photo by Obiekwe Okolo

Dr. P says, “One of the ways that we are building this as a safe place is that our young people are free to make a mistake if they screw up. If they are not the best version of themselves today, they come in tomorrow and we're still here, right? That's new for some of them.”

“I think the key is just letting them know I see you,” says Tyreesh, “One of the basic universal needs is being seen. Just letting them know, I'm here for you.”

“Being able to see the smaller things, and understand how big small things are for our young people, that's huge,” says Dr. P. “I want the world to know those little things aren't little. We had a young lady take her first GED test yesterday and she passed. Without this program, she wouldn't be in school. She wouldn't be taking a GED. There's this amazing ripple effect that's happening here, and I get to be a part of it.”

Bubbling Over

Aaron Collins, Café Momentum’s Chef de Cuisine, says the restaurant environment is the perfect place for young people doing this inner work. “You don't have to be polished to work in a kitchen. You can be yourself. You can be a little rougher on the edges and you're welcome here.”

Aaron, obviously, is a chef. He does not come from a background in social work, but after eight years with Café Momentum, he cannot imagine a better gig. “The kids seemed happy to be here. The adults seemed happy to be here. And the positive energy seems to be feeding each other. And it's like a sourdough starter just bubbling over.”

Part of the joy is being able to expose young people to foods and skills they have never encountered before, and having a hand in a changing relationship to both flavor and nutrition. Plus, the work is fun. Johanna, a current intern with contagious energy, loves the kitchen. “I'm always myself. Even on days I feel like I don't want to do it. I always walk in and be like, ‘Man, I'm going to turn this place up.’” Confidence builds behind the counter, and it’s Aaron’s favorite change to watch. “Last night we were hanging out and one of the kids had made the chicken flour. And he was tasting little bits of it and he's like, ‘Man, this chicken's really good.’ It was just a cool moment in the kitchen, him taking pride in his job. And then the kids are like, ‘Man, that's really good.’ The kids kind of become part of it and that's when it becomes a lot of fun.”

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Chef Aaron Collins coaching during pre-shift. / Photo by Obiekwe Okolo

The interns are the enduring magic of the operation. Olivia Cole, Chief Strategy Officer and the Senior Vice President of Partnerships and Innovation, says, “What makes Café Momentum different is that the community is invited into a space where [the interns are] the hosts, they're comfortable, they get to be their best selves, they get to do things that make them feel confident, that challenge them, that teach them different things and the community gets to see it. The community is now being exposed to something that is strategically, systematically pushed out of view. I had no idea. You don't really see anything about juvenile justice in the news. You hear about carjackings or these stories that have great headlines, but you don't really get to hear about the human and how they're treated when they do make a mistake.”

When Olivia first dined at the restaurant, she met Rose, a vibrant young woman serving Olivia’s table that night. After the meal, Rose gave Olivia her phone number, saying she liked to surround herself with powerful women because she wanted to do something big in her life. On the way home, Olivia wondered what happened to Rose, what circumstances put her in a situation that got her into trouble. “It just didn't make sense that a young person that was full of potential could have ever been put away. I still feel that way because every young person you meet at the restaurant is just like Rose.”

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Rose (center) serves on the catering team with Cafe Momentum on a trip to Denver, Colorado in 2022. / Photo by Erica Baker

Some relationships are much slower to build, especially when so many of the young people have experienced trauma. Aaron says that feeding kids when they showed up hungry was an obvious way for him to connect with them. “A lot of them were coming early because they didn't want to be at home.” Even so, he says, “We've worked here long enough to know that some of these kids haven't had a good experience with [middle-aged white men]. And I know that, and I'm that guy. Here, you go, ‘I'm ready when you're ready.’”

Tristyn loves Aaron, who she calls “Fuzz.” Still, she acknowledges that love had to be earned. “Being biracial and my dad not being present, I never really had positive male figures around me.” She says John and Jordan, two other staff members, took her under their wing. Johanna agrees, “I see these men as uncles and dads.”

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Tristyn serves on the catering team with Cafe Momentum on a trip to Denver, Colorado in 2022. / Photo by Erica Baker

Isaiah, too, has “big brother energy.” It’s not uncommon for older interns to adopt leadership roles, mentoring the younger interns. Isaiah calls Terrell his little brother. “The things that he's going through at the moment, man, I did it so many times. I’m trying to get him to understand there are bigger and better things for him.” Isaiah notes that, with help from the staff at the CSC, Terrell graduated from high school at 15. “It's crazy, the intelligence. There is a lot of intelligence in the hood.”

The Café Momentum staff believe this. Olivia says, “We recognized that in this goal of national conversation, the voices that need to be heard are the youth, [so] we built the Momentum Ambassadors program. … They're the ones who are traveling with us and speaking.” These speaking engagements include the Superbowl, where five young people spoke to the media alongside Shaun Alexander and Dhani Jones about their vision for a more just and equitable country. “We did just get our youngest ambassador, Lucci, who just completed the Café Momentum Program in December.”

Lucci is Isaiah’s cousin and referred him to Café Momentum. Most interns are referred by their peers, so the ambassadors try to reach them too. “We visit youth centers or detention centers whenever we travel and we get to talk to youth,” says Tristyn. “This is what it can be if you invest in yourself and have a community surrounding you that can give you the opportunities that you need.”

From its inception, the leadership of Café Momentum has been advocating for justice reform through their programming, working with the Office of Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention, the National Juvenile Justice Network, and the Council for Juvenile Justice. Olivia explains, “We want to be in rooms that can influence change.”

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Isaiah poses for a portrait outside of Cafe Momentum. / Photo by Obiekwe Okolo

“If you want this, I want it as bad as you”

In a colorful classroom at the back of the CSC, decorated with university pennants and heroes of black history, Ms. Merry can tell the life story of every student on a wall of graduation photos. “She was pregnant during this picture.” She points to a photo, “His mom was in jail while he was in school. She got out to see him graduate.” She smiles at another image, “He called me ‘the general.’” She remembers them all.

Since 2019, Merry Watson, the Director of Education and the National Education Advisor at Café Momentum, has been responsible for making sure all interns—old and new—are in school, doing well, and planning for the future.

School attendance is a requirement of the Café Momentum program. Interns may decide to attend a traditional school or the Café Momentum Academy, developed in response to the long list of barriers preventing young people from succeeding at their local high school. Not everyone is a good fit for the onsite program, but the support is indiscriminate. Merry says, “We can help integrate back into the school, make some recommendations, but we're trying to progress you towards completion, not stagnation.”

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Merry Watson points out graduation photos on her classroom wall. / Photo by Obiekwe Okolo

When Tristyn started the education program, she was 15 and pregnant. Two months before she gave birth to her son, she told Ms. Merry she couldn’t do school. “I said I don’t have anyone to watch him. She was like, ‘Girl, I will watch him. Bring your butt up here.’” While Tristyn worked on the computer, Merry played with the baby.

Merry is the one to hold the interns to task, though always with love. “I don't hold no punches,” says Merry. “I'm not expecting nothing that I don't see you can do.” Adela got her high school diploma at 16, and Johanna recalls Merry telling her, “If you want this, I want it as bad as you, but you also have to want it bad.”

Merry often says the diploma is not where an intern’s journey ends but where it begins, encouraging them to keep pushing to further their education or career. It’s hard, says Margaret, when the interns themselves don’t see their future the way the staff does. “When they decide not to be here or they decide that they're not going to do it anymore, we can't work harder than they do.”

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Tristyn poses for a portrait outside of Cafe Momentum. / Photo by Obiekwe Okolo

“They deserve to have people in their corner"

The world beyond Café Momentum’s doors is the toughest, most sobering element of the work. Dr. P says, “They go home and all of those people around them are still doing the same thing. And so it’s easy to get drawn back into that no matter how much they really don't want to. So that's hard. That's hard when you're fighting and pulling for them and they're fighting and pulling for themselves too.”

Just a year ago, Café Momentum lost a dearly loved intern, Omarian, in a tragedy involving gun violence. “It's tough to talk about because you want to help these kids and you love them,” says Aaron, with his face in his hands. “Once they leave here, you can't help them anymore. This one kid told us, ‘When I leave here, when I get on that train, my life changes. That train takes a turn and my life changes, and it goes back to chaos.’ So it kills you to know that. You just want to take them all home with you because here, they're safe.”

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Omarian, who passed away in 2023, is pictured here in 2022 serving on the catering team with Cafe Momentum on a trip to Denver, Colorado. / Photo by Erica Baker

The interns themselves know this all too well. Isaiah says, “It's hard to say, but a lot of us are dying off. A lot of people my age. I believe 40 is the new old heads. That scared me.” He says being a part of Café Momentum is part of how he hopes to change the narrative, “because I have to live here too. My mom has to live here. My grandmother has to live here. … I think we all should be trying to invest in our community.”

Margaret remembers Omarian’s grandmother sharing at his funeral: “She acknowledged the Café Momentum team that was there, and that Omarian had a way out. When Omarian was here, he wanted more for himself. He saw a future for himself, and that their community needs more partners like Café Momentum to help these young people see something outside of what they've been taught.”

When Margaret leaves work, it’s impossible to truly clock out because of the fear associated with her love for these young people. “You take this with you when you leave, you sleep with it. You hear it in your head all night long, especially when there are challenges.”

Dr. P knows that, even on the hard days, you always come back. “You've got to keep being consistent. They deserve that. They deserve to have people in their corner. I get to be one of those people, which is really cool.”

“We are so good at dreaming”

Café Momentum is always evolving, but it’s now entering an entirely new chapter. Coinciding with the organization’s 10-year anniversary, the program’s Dallas flagship is moving to the historic Wilson District on the nearby Meadows Campus.

Peter Miller, president and CEO of the Meadows Foundation, has been a longtime supporter of the Café. His vision for the Meadows Campus is to support the people of Texas with a wellness ecosystem. “We have 35 nonprofits that we house there for free with a goal to stimulate innovation and collaboration.” To start, the foundation opened a garden with workers from New Friends, New Life, an organization for survivors of sex trafficking. “We've produced 500 pounds of produce, most of which is bought by Café Momentum.” Meadows is also creating a pollinator garden and a childcare center. Peter dreams of the ways the campus can be the help his community needs, including the young people of Café Momentum.

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Dishes passes through the window during dinner service. / Photo by Obiekwe Okolo

The new flagship location will also act as a testing ground for program innovation, eventually informing the country-wide expansion of the Momentum Model. New leases have been signed in Pittsburgh and Atlanta with location scouting ongoing in Denver, Houston, and Baltimore. Expansion always begins with the restaurant as a new model for youth justice. The second piece is building a national conversation. Olivia explains, “If we can shine a spotlight on the crisis of youth incarceration, the inequities, the lack of resource and access that our young people are experiencing, then we can inspire others to implement the momentum model.”

As for the impact in Dallas, one only needs to ask the interns. Isaiah says that Café Momentum has taught him forgiveness and how to be a leader. “I actually love my job, man. I'm trying to change the lives of the young people around me too. I have a lot of influence. … People really care. I used to think people didn't care about me, but people care most definitely.”

He says that before Café Momentum, he carried a dark cloud with him that, if left unchecked, could reappear. Still, he sees his future as bright and his own to make. “Life is not over and I can do anything I really want. … Café Momentum has taught me the love for food and what food does for people. It's on my heart every day to go to culinary school, but I can do so much. So it's really just taking my time and focusing on what I can do first.”

For Café Momentum and its community of young people, the possibilities seem endless. Olivia says it best: “We are so good at dreaming.”

Portraits of Adela, Johanna and Isaiah / Photos by Obiekwe Okolo

At 3 pm, Café Momentum interns and staff roll in to prepare for family meal, the cherished pre-service ritual practiced in countless restaurants across the world. It is a time for nourishment before the whirling chaos of a shift. The dining room slowly fills with laughter and the smell of garlic and butter as Chef Aaron prepares fried chicken, pureed potatoes, and a well-dressed salad of mixed greens, gobbled down with the eager hunger of teenagers.

In this glowing, fragrant place, where young people are safe to be just shy of childhood, there is a sweetness, an ease. Shoulders are unwound and friends flirt like any group of teenagers. These girls and boys, bashful at greeting a customer or filling a water glass, are here under hard circumstances but for the next few hours that world gets left outside this haven of warmth, food, and love.

Before scattering to their stations, Aaron finds Terrell, the intern who perfected the flour for the restaurant’s signature smoked fried chicken. “I’m really proud of what you did last night, I’m so proud of you,” he says. Terrell beams. He smooths his crisp, white chef’s coat, and gets to work.

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Editor's Note

As its name implies, Cafè Momentum is a movement. Catalyzed by the personal transformation of individual young people, the momentum pushes outwards, strengthening the community, and changing broader cultural assumptions. Cafè Momentum offers an alternative narrative for what every young person is capable of, as well as what we as a society have the potential to become.

I want to say thank you to Cafè Momentum, who extended their legendary hospitality to welcome our story team. We are grateful for the tenacious faithfulness of individuals like Ms. Merry and Dr. P, who keep showing up for our young people and, through example, challenge us to reexamine our own biases and what we believe might be possible.

Special thanks to Sarah, Stephen, and Obi for their phenomenal work in surfacing the beauty found in chaotic kitchens and tangled journeys, and their commitment to centering the young people at the heart of this story.

AM Headshot Eric Baker

Avery Marks

Features Editor

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