Advertisement
Rise Up

Ex-Juvenile Detainees Get Job Training and a Second Chance at This Dallas Restaurant

Dropping recidivism rates, one new job at a time.

by Eric Kingrea
Mar 29 2018, 6:00pm

When Brandon Lundy gets into work at Cafe Momentum, he goes through the usual server prep of setting up glassware and straightening tablecloths. A short while back, he was bussing, just learning the restaurant business, but now he’s on the floor. In a few hours he’ll be waiting on guests, who typically comprise of the well-to-do of downtown Dallas, or at least the kind of people who rush for a reservation to a spot that’s listed at No. 3 on Eater’s 38 Essential Restaurants in the city. As in every restaurant, after “family meal,” the chef goes over the night’s specials so that the servers know what to describe and recommend: the homemade charcuterie with crostini and lavash bread, the $26 rockfish with cauliflower and harissa, the pork chop over farro risotto. Anyone who’s ever spent time on the line or the floor knows this routine--it is the humdrum pre-service grind of wait-staff, cook-pirate America--but to Brandon it’s still pretty novel; he’s only been in the industry since June, when his probation officer recommended him for the Cafe Momentum program. Brandon is 16 years old.

“I had an incident at school where I [got into a fight]. I really didn’t mean to, and I accidentally hit a teacher. They took me to JVC and put me on probation for nine months,” Lundy told VICE Impact. Nine months ago he almost went to jail. Instead he came here.

Cafe Momentum is a restaurant with a unique concept, one that isn’t about the food or the decor, but rather the people who clear the tables, plate the garde manger, and work in front of the burners. The majority of the staff, both front of house and back, are teenagers. What’s more, they’re minors who’ve just served time in one of Dallas’s juvenile detention facilities (or, like Brandon, received a probationary sentence).

"I think that’s a testament and reminder to the people that come here that these kids can and will rise to any level of expectation set for them, as long as you give them the tools, resources, love, guidance and support, and the opportunity to get there."

Along with being a restaurant, Cafe Momentum is a culinary training facility, teaching their interns life and social skills along with how to make a thyme-butter sauce. The restaurant has a memorandum understanding agreement with the Dallas County juvenile department that allows them access to all detention facilities, as well as probation officers. They take the teens, post-release, and give them jobs, training, a sense of purpose and creativity.

“I think the beauty of this restaurant, because of the quality, I think that’s a testament and reminder to the people that come here that these kids can and will rise to any level of expectation set for them, as long as you give them the tools, resources, love, guidance and support, and the opportunity to get there,” Cafe Momentum’s founder and executive chef, Chad Houser, told VICE Impact.


Check out more videos from VICE:


Houser developed the idea for Cafe Momentum after volunteering to teach eight juvenile detainees how to make ice cream for a farmer’s market competition.

“All eight of those kids looked me in the eye, and all eight of them called me sir,” says Houser. “In 20 years of cooking, I’ve been called a lot of things in a lot of different languages, but none of them had even been ‘Sir.’”

Houser realized that he had stereotyped them: the way they walked, the way they wore their pants. Then when they began to make ice cream, he saw them come to life. Their enthusiasm, their eagerness to learn and participate. Basically, they pierced his “wholly unfair” preconceptions and he got to see them as they were: not youthful offenders, but kids with interests, ability, and talent. Two days later, they competed in the farmer’s market competition, which included students from the local culinary college. One of the kids Houser taught won the whole thing.

The seeds of Cafe Momentum were planted.

Of course no one thought this would work. “We take kids out of jail and let them play with knives and fire,” is Houser’s go-to line. People said they wouldn’t show up. People said they’d be lazy. People asked what he would do when they started stabbing each other. Houser has a friendly and jokey demeanor, but also the flintiness of someone who’s spent too much time in kitchens.

At each station they learn the skills needed to make a restaurant function, but are guided as well through the social skills that are implicit to that particular job. When the interns are done with the program, the restaurant has case managers who prepare them for other jobs with employment partners, based on each kid’s skills and interests.

“The system is rigged. And I just remember thinking to myself, the only difference between this kid, at 16, and me at 16, are choices that neither of us made for ourselves. Color of my skin, the parents we were born to, the class I was born into, the one he was born into…those aren’t choices either one of us made. Pure fucking luck,” he said.

So he started doing pop-ups at restaurants around the city as proof-of-concept. The reservations started selling out in minutes, then in seconds. Eventually, they were able to open up a brick-and-mortar establishment. It now serves dinners Thursday-through-Saturday, with interns cooking gourmet quality food under the supervision of chefs at each station. The teens go through four tiers during their year-long internship, with each tier devoted to different stations (such as dishwashing, entrees, serving, etc.).

At each station they learn the skills needed to make a restaurant function, but are guided as well through the social skills that are implicit to that particular job. When the interns are done with the program, the restaurant has case managers who prepare them for other jobs with employment partners, based on each kid’s skills and interests.

The object, of course, is to give the interns the skills and confidence they need to go out into the world, and not back to juvie. So far the numbers they’ve established in the program are eye-popping. The recidivism rates for youths in the state of Texas hovers at around 50 percent: that’s a 50/50 shot that a minor will be go back to jail. The recidivism rate for the 500 kids that have gone through Cafe Momentum’s internships drops that number down, precipitously, to 15 percent. For the interns who’ve gone through the program in the last 12 months, that number is 8 percent.

The beauty of this project, which Hauser wants to scale (he was quoted as wanting as many Cafe Momentums as there are Starbucks), is that it’s non-political: an up-by-your bootstraps concept with a liberal narrative. Considering that it costs $127,000 to incarcerate a minor, Hauser’s program and its recidivism rate reduction has saved tax-payers millions of dollars. It also brings people together--a teen who doesn’t often leave her neighborhood, a guest who’s only “exposure” to said neighborhood might be some exploitative news program--to, quite literally, break bread.

“Serving food, I come around different people from different areas. Just coming to see us and how we operate,” said Lundy, who is about to start his third tier: the kitchen. “It’s been really good, to be honest.”

Considering that it costs $127,000 to incarcerate a minor, Hauser’s program and its recidivism rate reduction has saved tax-payers millions of dollars.

The whole endeavor is a testament to the old “give a man a fish” adage, a culinary metaphor that Hauser is only happy to expound upon.

“First you have to let him know that he’s allowed to fish, that he deserves to fish, that he is important enough to fish. When people are eating dinner in our restaurant, being served by our kids, that’s the message that’s being created on both sides of the table. Is that everybody in that room deserves to fish.”

If you're in New York, check up on the state's "Work for Success Pledge," which is an agreement between the state and businesses to consider hiring qualified talent with prior convictions. If you're an employer in New York and you're ready to step up and make a change on criminal justice reform, then sign the council's pledge to hire talent now.