Café Momentum’s Field of Dreams: How an Unconventional Business Model Scored a Home Run

By Bev Garvin, Foodable Contributor

Café Momentum | Foodable WebTV Network 

Café Momentum | Foodable WebTV Network 

In June of 2011, when Executive Chef Chad Houser came up with the idea to eat, drink, and change lives by teaching juvenile delinquents how to play with fire and knives, some may have thought his dream to build a restaurant was somewhere out in left field. “They said it couldn’t be done.” said Houser, but after four years of hosting countless pop-up dinners, working with approximately 160 juvenile delinquents and raising hundreds of thousands of dollars from event fundraising, corporate sponsorships and grants, Café Momentum opened its doors to the public last week.

The plan was simple - host a series of pop-up dinners in various local restaurants until they had raised enough to build their own place, while working with teens in trouble to teach them valuable job skills and help them become productive members of the community.

The kids who enter the Café Momentum program are trained in five different positions of the restaurant from the front-of-the-house to the back-of-the-house, so they can not only learn essential skills, but also discover the kind of jobs they enjoy. It’s a second chance for the troubled teens; it builds their self-esteem and inspires them to see what they are able to accomplish. There’s even an “I am thankful” art installation, with custom designed plates, that expresses things they’re thankful for. When you see it, you begin to understand just how powerful the Café Momentum program really is.

Making the Dream a Reality

When it was time to start construction, it was important to the Café Momentum team to lead by example and be contributors to the community that had supported them. They worked with local contractors Arco/Murray Design Build and Corgan for the construction and design and several local artists, designers and artisans to source everything else they needed to finish out the space from the custom wood shelving, to the chef’s table, table-tops and uniforms 

Artisanal Dining | Foodable WebTV Network

Artisanal Dining | Foodable WebTV Network

The seasonal modern-American dinner menu, executed by Chef de Cuisine Eric Shelton offers four courses, ranging from adventurous dishes like the Octopus Tiradito to a locally sourced Paul Quinn College Pea Shoot Salad and Smoked Fried Chicken with Randall’s Biscuits and Red Eye Gravy. For dessert, Pastry Chef Sarah Green’s Noble Coyote S'mores are a great way to end the meal.

When it came to the beverage program, Café Momentum had to get creative. Because many of the kids are minors, they aren’t legally allowed to serve alcohol. So they opted for a program where the beer and wine is kept at a counter and is sold by the bottle at affordable retail pricing. All wines are $20, $40, $60 or $80. Guests are handed their bottle, an opener and they pour their own beverages, with the idea being you can get a great bottle of wine for less than the price of just two glasses at most Dallas restaurants. If you don’t finish it, you may take it home with you. This is also good for residents of downtown Dallas who live nearby, but don’t want to get in the car to drive to buy a decent bottle of wine or craft beer.  

After dining, the waiter drops the check at the table and everyone pays at a counter as they leave. Part of the reason for that is to ensure minors don’t handle, serve or sell alcohol, but it's also because gratuities are considered a donation to be made to the organization. The donations allow Café Momentum the ability to pay student interns $10/hour (no matter where they work in the restaurant). It allows them to staff up and to hire case managers to work with the students. It also funds classroom-training programs.

Interior of Café Momentum | Foodable WebTV Network 

Interior of Café Momentum | Foodable WebTV Network 

It’s fitting that Café Momentum is located in the heart of downtown Dallas at Thanks-Giving Square Park. “We’ve been blessed by so many, like the generous support of The Rachael Ray Show that donated $10,000 to help us purchase uniforms and so many other generous contributors.” said Houser. “We are so grateful to have others share our vision and help us to bring this to fruition.”

Plans for the Future

But the opening of Café Momentum’s restaurant is just the beginning. Houser already has his sights set on expanding the program. “We’d love this to be the first of many restaurants. There are 6,500 kids that go in to the Dallas County Juvenile Program every year. This means there are a lot more kids who could really use our help. Our goal is to get this up, running and successful, then look at expansion options. We did a lot of things with the planning of this space to allow us to continue to grow. We’re set up for outside catering, banquet-style in house catering and we have meeting space for corporate events and groups doing presentations during the day when the restaurant would normally be closed.” said Houser. 

Although the restaurant is now open, they will have ongoing support needs. All of the plates, glasses and silverware were donated by other restaurants. But plates chip, glasses break and silverware gets thrown in the trash, so they'll continue to need more periodically. “One of the things we’ve found to be really helpful is to keep kits on hand with shampoo, soap, deodorant, shaving cream, razors, toothbrushes and toothpaste. It may seem like a simple thing, but it’s actually very meaningful because our kids don’t always have access to those things.” said Houser. Café Momentum also has a room where the kids can get ready before their shift. The restaurant provides a washer and dryer and the uniforms are laundered in house. Of course, being a growing non-profit organization, Café Momentum will continue to depend on future donations and corporate sponsorships to further their cause but so far, they are off to a great start.