Non-profit and restaurant are not words that usually come together to describe a business, but Café Momentum fulfills both these rolls. Their motto is, “Eat. Drink. Change Lives,” which encapsulates the mission they set out to achieve in 2011 with pop-up dinners— later turning into a true restaurant in downtown Dallas.
Over the summer, I had the privilege of working as an intern at the Café, though when I was there I went by volunteer. The real interns are the kids working at the café, who have all been released from juvenile detention and are trying to break the cycles of hardship most of them have endured.
The Café provides a year-long paid internship to young men and women that includes a thirteen week orientation to provide immediate foundations in the interns life, family meals before every shift, presentations and training sessions (such as financial literacy classes and mock job interviews), a supportive environment, and a helping hand not usually extended to the kids society tried to give up on.
When the staff of the Café were asked what the most difficult part of working there is as well as why they continue to work there, the answer was often the same: the kids.
“Not knowing where they are coming from, not knowing their day to day stresses, what’s affecting their moods and knowing how to deal with them deal with stuff heavier than anything I’ve ever dealt with as an adult— more trauma, more stress as sixteen year-olds than I’ve ever had in my whole life— is difficult,” said Chef Aaron “Fuzz” Collins.
The founder of Café Momentum, Chad Houser, had a way of drawing not only interns into the program, but staff as well. Nearly everyone said something similar to Christina Zienkosky, the pastry chef who knew Chad prior to working at the Café, said, “I believe in the mission of the Café… I can’t work somewhere where I don’t believe in the principle values and I love working here.”
“This organization is dedicated to changing the lives of the youth that we encounter, so much so that there has been a culture created of pure love and acceptance and much diligence is given to staff training and increasing knowledge on trends and strategies to maximize our efforts,” said Roosevelt Sargent, a published author and one of the dedicated case managers.
This environment is a difference noted and prided in, as another case manager, Torie Reed, points out that it is “refreshing to be in an environment that built the kids up and made them feel special as opposed to coming at them in a punitive manner for their past and their mistakes.”
The Café is only open from 5:30 to 11 on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, all guests experience a a meal cooked and served by the interns who work hard to run the restaurant with the skills they have acquired both in the kitchen and on the floor. Chad sums up the Café with one of his favorite sayings, “We take kids out of jail and teach them to play with knives and fire.”
And, it works. I’ve seen firsthand the struggles that come with doing such an incredible feat, but I have also seen the smiles on the kid’s faces when they’re welcomed into building and given a hug. I’ve seen the heartbreak on the staff’s faces when told one of the interns is going through a period of self-sabotage, or were stopped unjustly by a police officer, or are dropping the program.
Patton Robertson, the chef de cuisine, said he “treats the kids like they’re his own.”
The Café is more than just a job, just a restaurant, just a non-profit. It’s a family.