Eat. Drink. Change Lives.
That’s the motto at Café Momentum in downtown Dallas. It’s splashed across the top of the restaurant’s website and on the front of t-shirts worn by its staff. If you read it quickly, not knowing anything about the place, it might sound like marketing lingo. In truth, it’s anything but.
Café Momentum has been changing lives since it was founded by its award-winning executive chef, Chad Houser, in 2015. Staff at this upscale restaurant is made up mainly of kids coming out of Dallas-area juvenile detention centers, who take year-long paid internships at the restaurant after their release and learn job and life skills, along with a little culinary wizardry.
On the morning of May 30, Chad arrived at the nonprofit restaurant to find that it had been damaged from the previous night when protests and riots broke out in response to the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. One of the front windows had been smashed. Broken glass tumbled everywhere. Out front, a planter had been overturned. Though nothing was looted, damage was done.
But the damage wasn’t what concerned Chad. He was worried about his interns.
“Leading up to the protests that weekend,” says Chad, whose employees have, almost uniformly, had first-hand experience with police, “it was a very somber time for our staff. They were hurting inside. And a lot of them were feeling despair.”
“So as I’m driving to the restaurant on that Saturday morning, the thing that was going through my head was, I don’t want to let whatever damage was done to the restaurant overshadow the feelings of my staff and the young men and women that we serve.”
So the chef, along with staff psychologist Porshia Haymon, quickly came up with a plan to use the newly empty window frame to amplify the voice of the kids on his staff. They placed post-it sheets all around the restaurant and encouraged the interns to write down their thoughts.
It took a little bit of time, Chad says, for them to open up and start writing things down. But then:
“I want more justice for black people affected by police brutality.”
“I feel like we should have equal rights in the eyes of law enforcement.”
“I want to make the world better.”
“I want to be a part of the solution.”
The post-it sheets filled up quickly with hopes, fears, and frustrations, and then the interns and other staff members painted the words and images onto the plywood that had taken the place of the broken window.
As the plywood project unfolded, and the protests continued nightly around the country last week, Chad says he noticed a change in the collective demeanor of the interns.
“By the end of last week, without question, I began to see a difference,” he says. “You could actually see it in the way that they talk. The enthusiasm, the kind of spirit of hope, that they were a part of actual change. A genuine hope rather than a false hope.”
The difficult conversations that sprung up among the interns in the wake of the window damage were a natural outgrowth of the Café Momentum program, which aims to prepare the interns for adulthood as they transition out of the juvenile justice system. Chad and his staff regularly bring in guest speakers on all sorts of topics during a Friday lunch series, with the goal of taking tangible action coming out of those conversations. For the next few weeks and maybe months those speakers, Chad says, will be more focused on issues raised by the protests, to foster more discussion on the topic. “It’s an educational foundation for our staff and our interns to holistically understand the issues and the history of the issues,” says Chad.
Last week, they welcomed Congressman Colin Allred, a former professional football player, and civil rights attorney who worked in the White House during the Obama administration. He talked about the history of the congressional black caucus, the makeup of congress, and how policy works on a federal, state, and local level.
In addition to the weekly lunch series, Chad is also preparing to transition the restaurant back to full-service status as the citywide restrictions brought on by the coronavirus lockdowns begin to lift. Since mid-March, when the lockdown went into effect, Café Momentum has functioned not as a restaurant but as a food hub, serving meals to Dallas-area school students, many of whom rely on now-vanished school meals for most of their food intake. To date, the Momentum E.A.T.s food hub has served more than 280,000 meals to food-insecure students and their families in the past 13 weeks.
Even Chad sounds astonished by that number and by the accomplishment of his staff over the past few months. And though he clearly is ready to get back to serving customers, he’s reflective about what the past few months, and specifically the past few days, have meant to him, and to the interns.
“I can’t think of a more worthwhile thing to be a part of right now,” he says. “This is literally everything that we’ve wanted to happen. There’s actually a national conversation. People are actually talking about how we treat our fellow citizens based on the color of their skin.”
Late last week, the damaged window was replaced, and the plywood art project came down from the front of Café Momentum. But it’s not going away. Chad is trying to find the perfect spot for it to hang inside the restaurant once it reopens and customers return, a constant reminder of a conversation that needs to continue.
“What a small price to pay,” says Chad, “for such amazing social change.”
Photos courtesy of Café Momentum