It only took three years to get there, but nonprofit Cafe Momentum finally has a real home. Previously a roving pop-up, this charitable restaurant concept, which serves as a culinary training facility for disadvantaged youth, will build a permanent brick-and-mortar restaurant in downtown Dallas.
The exact address: 1510 Pacific Ave., at the intersection of Akard, in Thanks-Giving Square, on the ground floor of what is a seven-story parking garage.
This location was chosen for a variety of reasons, but especially for its proximity to public transportation, including DART and TRE — a major plus for the youths involved in Cafe Momentum. The space also offers customer parking and enough room to fit a full-service restaurant, catering and banquet facilities, and a classroom.
The location at Thanks-Giving Square was chosen for a variety of reasons, but especially for its proximity to public transportation, including DART and TRE.
Cafe Momentum executive director Chad Houser calls it the "tangible reality of a longtime dream for everyone involved with Cafe Momentum. This space is our opportunity to not only mentor more young men with job, life and social skills, but it will also serve as a hub for community building with catering services and a classroom all in one place.
"Our guests will eat well and know that their dining presence is making a difference in the lives of our city's most at-risk youth."
Cafe Momentum was born in June 2011, the first month it began hosting pop-ups at restaurants throughout Dallas. The cafe has since held 35 dinners and worked with 160 young men from the Dallas County Youth Village. The recidivism rate for those young men is 11 percent, compared to the 47 percent state average, resulting in a Dallas County taxpayer savings of more than $7 million.
The enterprise is the recipient of a number of charitable donations, including $487,640 it will receive in March 2015 from Crystal Charity Ball, to be applied to operating expenses and an expansion into the LeTot girls facility currently under construction.
The restaurant/classroom space finish-out will begin in September; the opening is tentatively scheduled for December. In anticipation, two chefs were hired in July 2014: Eric Shelton joined as chef de cuisine, and Justin Box will serve as executive sous chef.
The pop-ups have all sold out, due in part to the dedication and charisma of the participants — including top Dallas chefs such as Matt McCallister, John Tesar and Kent Rathbun — and to the fact that this enterprise is significantly different from others, Houser says.
"There are a lot of people who do philanthropic work, but nobody helps this population," he says. "If you look at programs for juvenile offenders, they're very traditionally gang intervention or drug intervention."
Donors and participants also get to see the results first-hand.
"The restaurant is a vehicle to push life skills and social skills and employment skills," says executive director Chad Houser.
"I feel like part of the appeal is that people get to see the changes being made in front of their eyes," Houser says. "It also breaks down a lot of stereotypes. I know I had a stereotype of the kids as being hard. But they're sweet kids who are eager to please, just like any kid you would invite over to play in the backyard."
The restaurant will operate like a normal restaurant. The kids will serve as busboys, waiters, cooks and dishwashers while the staff simultaneously manages and mentors them.
"These kids have been told no all their lives," Houser says. "For someone to come in and say, let's do this, and we're making money, changes their entire method of thinking, their attitude and demeanor."
Key to their choice of space was that it have enough room for a classroom, in what Houser calls a holistic approach.
"The restaurant is a vehicle to push life skills and social skills and employment skills," he says. "After working with these kids for five years, I've learned that their barrel of resources is pretty much an empty bucket. They come from nothing and have nothing. In order to create a stable base or foundation, we felt like it was imperative to have a classroom."
Classes will cover everything from anger management to parenting, financial literacy, career exploration and art. The restaurant will be broken into stations such as washing dishes and bussing tables, each with a job description as well as what life skills are involved.
Houser has seen a lot of skepticism, but it has only strengthened his resolve.
"People who come to the pop-up dinners have asked, 'What if they don't want to be a chef?' But how many of us have ever worked in a restaurant?" he says. "We're not trying to build the next generation of chefs.
"What I'm trying to do is give these kids an employment skill so they can become financially independent, and put them in a room with people who come from all different neighborhoods and careers and expose them to that. It creates a network.
"When we said we wanted to open a restaurant and staff it with juvenile delinquents, I can't tell you how many ways people said I was stupid, or listed everything you can imagine as to why it wouldn't work," he says.
"My personality type is to say, 'I can make it work.'"