Sometimes, an idea that changes the world starts with one single experience. Maybe you’ve met someone who’s facing a situation in which they need some kind of support, and that support isn’t there. Or you see something firsthand for the first time that allows you to see it from a new perspective. There are so many ways it can happen.

For Chad Houser, it was working with a group of youths in his town of Dallas, Texas, who were in jail. He led them through an ice cream making competition. He discovered, for the first time, that these young men had a lot to offer the world, but ended up in detention cycles largely because of a lack of support. Here’s what he did:

  • Define the problem: High recidivism rate among Texas youth
  • Design impact: Develop a 12-month program in which men and women coming out of the prison system that offers them paid employment and support services to get back on their feet
  • Build: Secure funding to start the restaurant and pilot the program,
  • Scale: More Cafe Momentums than Starbucks locations!

Define the problem:

In the city of Dallas, 6,500 kids enter the juvenile system every year, and 65,000 in the state of Texas. What’s more, the recidivism rate for youth in Texas is 47%, which means that almost half will return to the system within the first year.  If they go back a second time, it’s almost guaranteed that they’ll be exiting and entering the system for the rest of their lives. Without access to resources, support systems, or employment opportunities, it can be incredibly difficult for youths exiting the juvenile justice system to find stability.

For the past ten years, Chad Houser has been a renowned chef in Dallas. After graduating from culinary school in 2007, he became chef and co-owner of Dallas restaurant Parigi. In the first year, he grew the business 38% and was nominated for best up and coming chef by D Magazine. At that same time, he had the opportunity to teach eight young men inside a Dallas County Juvenile Detention Facility how to make ice cream for an ice cream competition at the Farmer’s Market.

“The first thing that I realized when I met these eight young men was that I had stereotyped them before I ever met them. These eight young men were so enthusiastic to learn something and so eager to do something that they could be proud of.”

At the end of the competition, one of the young men Chad was working with won the competition, and the excitement and sense of accomplishment he felt was so clear.

He said, ‘When I get out, I’m going to get a job at a restaurant.’  The feeling that I had at that moment was indescribable. To think that he was believing in himself. ‘I’m going to get a job in a restaurant cause I can do it.’ He asked my professional opinion on [which fast food restaurant he should work at] and I professionally told him he should work wherever hires him first.”

Chad quickly realized that the odds of that kid getting a job at a fast food restaurant after being released from juvenile detention would be slim, that the stigma and/or social dynamics would likely prevent him from getting there, and put him right back in the situation he’d been in before.

“It’s not fair because there’s nothing that separates us at birth other than who we were born to, where we were born, the color of our skin, and access to resources. And didn’t do anything before I was born to deserve those things more than he did.”

He started to wonder why no one was helping these kids, how they were slipping through the cracks in such large numbers. Then, it dawned on him: He could be that person, he could provide support to these overlooked kids. He started taking volunteer classes at the Juvenile Department, working with another nonprofit that did programming inside one of the facilities so he could learn about how the system works and what these kids really need in terms of support.

Design impact:  

At the same time of the ice cream competition, Chad was still running and cooking at Parigi, but not feeling fulfilled. He realized that what he needed to do was to open a restaurant where he could employ and offer support services to kids leaving the juvenile justice system.

He and his chef put together restaurant quality four-course menus, and he employed young men through a partnership with Dallas County Youth Village  to work with him as hosts, servers, and support staff at pop-up dinners around the city. They started with a goal of having 50 guests at each pop-up, with tickets selling for $50. Within 24 hours, they had sold 68 seats. They went on to do 41 pop-up dinners, increasing the price from $50 to $100 over time. By the time they were done, dinners were selling out in 15 seconds. Chad knew they were onto something, and was ready to take it to the next level.

He wanted to build a restaurant that would hire kids coming out of youth detention centers, and offer support services and opportunities to build life skills that would help keep them out of the system and on the right track in the long term.

Build:

“We take kids out of jail and teach them to play with knives and fire.”

Chad developed Cafe Momentum as a twelve month paid post-release internship for young men and women exiting Dallas County Juvenile Detention facilities. Initial funding for the restaurant came from those who believed in their work and mission, including United Way of Metropolitan Dallas and the Eugene McDermott Foundation.

“One of the things that I think is so special about Cafe Momentum is that there’s so many people that say that we built this restaurant. It was so grassroots.”

Interns work in each station of the restaurant — dishwasher, prep cook, line cook, busser, server, host and hostess. The goals are to teach them life, social, and employment skills, highlight what their strengths and weaknesses are, and determine what they like and dislike doing. Working in the kitchen helps them learn teamwork and stay accountable to others.

He knew that having access to employment opportunities is critical to reducing recidivism rates, but they employment isn’t the only thing that matters. In order to succeed in the long-term, these kids would need support services and resources. So he developed a set of steps that new interns and staff would take together ensure that interns first had access to basic needs, legal support, health care and more before starting their work. He also found a way to integrate life skills training into each step of the internship program. Here’s what the process looks like:

Pre-Internship

  • Ensure that interns have required work documentation
  • Address basic needs such as housing, healthcare, and food security
  • Offer legal support
  • Complete skills assessment
  • Provide restaurant training
  • Register for health care

Internship

  • Refining of social skills
  • Leadership development
  • Rotate through restaurant services
  • Build social awareness
  • Receive life skills training
  • Receive training around financial literacy, parenting, resume building, interviewing, and more

Post-Internship

  • Community employment opportunities through employment partners that will allow them to explore their interests and highlight their strengths
  • Professional skills training
  • Continued case management support

Interns are evaluated weekly based on their performance across all of those areas, and rewarded for their successes. Their evaluations are not punitive, but supportive. Cafe Momentum has a full case management team that works to build an ecosystem of support for interns from the minute they come to the restaurant, throughout their internship experience, and after they leave. Interns receive healthcare through Cafe Momentum’s partnership with the Parkland Memorial Hospital, and support in finding housing through the Dallas Housing Authority.

Cafe Momentum’s impact measurement system is impressive. First, they measure in relation to recidivism rates. 48.3% of youths who exit the prison system in Texas will end up back in prison within 12 months. Chad took those metrics a step further, noting that each stay in prison costs the state $127,000. Cafe Momentum has worked with 172 kids in the pop up dinners and 397 in the restaurant, and of those 469 kids, only 15.2% have ever gone back to jail.

“That literally means that Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings owes me a check for over 19 million dollars because that’s how much money we’ve saved taxpayers. But, our mission statement says to help these kids achieve their full potential and that extends above and beyond just keeping them out of jail. That’s a baseline, right?

The answer is over the course of five generations, it affects over 2,500 lives. And when you take taxpayer savings and breaking cycles of incarceration and add to that the money that they actually interject into their communities and into local economy by becoming tax contributors and leaders of their community, the difference is 389 million dollars over five generations. I think that’s the very definition of momentum.”

Cafe Momentum partners with Bonton Farms, a farm that is located in Bonton, a federally recognized food desert, and an area with high crime and poverty rates.

“For us to partner with Bonton and not only buy their produce so that what we’re cooking for our guests, who we’re purchasing our food from we know the impact that it’s making in the community and we are walking the talk. But, also for our kids to have that relationship in the community that a lot of them come from. It creates an exponential value both for us and for them. It’s a source of pride both for us and for them.”

Today, Cafe Momentum has about 20 employees and 35 interns actively involved in the program, with another 35 interns in training. There is no court mandate or probation requirement — kids generally find out about the program through their juvenile detention facilities and probation officers, with whom Chad works closely.  

What’s more, the restaurant has received acclaim for its delicious food and excellent service. In March 2015 when Dallas Morning News food critic, Leslie Brenner reviewed the restaurant, saying “On any given night, Cafe Momentum can go toe to toe with the best restaurants in the city.”

When building a new organization or business, developing a logic model can help you immensely in identifying your core value proposition, the sources of support and authorization, and what capacity is needed to fully deliver on the value promise.

Scale:

Though initially, Cafe Momentum was focused on offering employment and other services to young men, they received a grant from the Youth Opportunity Fund in 2015, that allowed them to invite young women to take part as well.

They plan to expand to open as many restaurants as possible, while staying true to their mission of providing quality services. Chad recognizes that there are so many kids that could benefit from Cafe Momentum’s programming.

“About a year ago I was interviewed and the journalist asked me if I wanted to open more Cafe Momentums, I jokingly and arrogantly told her that my goal was to have more Cafe Momentums in Starbucks.”

Though Chad has ambitions plans for scaling, his hope is that eventually, the need for the services Cafe Momentum provides will decline. He wants Cafe Momentum to inspire others to work with kids at a younger age to keep them out of juvenile detention in the first place.

The bottom line is: If you’re frustrated by the fact that no one is creating change in a particular area, the person to do it could be you.

Are you ready to get started?