Tristyn Williams’ world was at a standstill until she found Café Momentum.
At 15 years old, the Texas resident was pregnant and in jail. Upon her release from juvenile detention, she began a frantic search for employment. Williams not only got a job but she also gained a strong sense of purpose at a popular Dallas restaurant that doubles as a nonprofit for at-risk youth.
Founded in 2015 by Executive Chef Chad Houser, Café Momentum has helped more than 1,000 justice-involved youth through its 12-month paid internship program. At the culinary training facility, participants ages 15 to 19 who are identified as possible candidates for Café Momentum by the county’s juvenile probation program, learn all aspects of the business, along with life and social skills.
Williams, now 18, works at a different fine dining restaurant and serves as an ambassador for the Momentum Advisory Collective, which oversees expansion efforts across the country.
This year, with $650,000 in combined support from the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership and the Richard King Mellon Foundation, the organization will open a location near Market Square. The goal is to literally bring community members to the table to confront societal issues and change mindsets.
Café Momentum Pittsburgh is moving into the former Wolfie’s Pub at 274 Forbes Ave. A community services center will occupy the former Pizzuvio next door, giving interns a safe and stable place to go to when they’re not working.
The 3,900-square-foot space will feature a lounge area, wellness center and a closet stocked with free toiletries, infant care essentials, feminine hygiene products, snacks and clothing.
The center will be staffed by a case management team to address issues such as housing instability, healthcare, food insecurity and career exploration. The site will also offer an educational component so that teens can earn their GED.
The 4,000-square-foot restaurant will be a farm-focused, chef-driven take on American cuisine with a seasonal menu. An open kitchen will allow guests to watch their meals being prepared while the cooks will see patrons enjoying the fruits of their labor.
The flagship location, which works with 150 teens a year, is consistently heralded as one of the top restaurants in Dallas. Houser believes the Pittsburgh addition will generate the same kind of buzz.
“Like we do in Dallas, in Pittsburgh we will make sure to provide the appropriate educational materials to guests so they truly understand what’s going on in the restaurant,” says Houser. “When you’re a hot ticket in town, people see it on Yelp and OpenTable with no idea about the purpose or mission behind the restaurant.”
Houser has hosted pop-up dinners in Pittsburgh to develop partnerships with judges in the Allegheny County Juvenile Court system and with representatives from local groups. His goal is to build trust with juvenile offenders.
In the coming months, Café Momentum will hold an orientation session for the first group of 150 youth.
A typical training day starts at the community services center where participants eat breakfast and relax. They attend classes until 1 p.m., when they head to the restaurant, rotating through different stations, from the front to the back of the house. At 3 p.m., they have a meal together and talk about current events. Then it’s time to feed hungry customers.
“Something as simple as a wonderful meal can change the lives of a community’s most vulnerable youth,” Houser says. “It’s a unique opportunity to engage two populations that may have not ever crossed paths.”
Learning a hard lesson
In 2007, the burgeoning chef had just bought into a high-end Dallas restaurant when the economy tanked. Despite the recession, Houser was able to grow the business by 40 percent and was named one of the best up-and-coming chefs in the city.
After a successful first year, Houser was asked to teach young men at a juvenile detention center how to make ice cream. All preconceived notions he had of the law-breaking teens melted as soon as he met them.
“I had stereotyped them before I even met them and realized I was wrong,” Houser admits. “I thought I was a better person. I was confronted with the reality face to face and that led to a sense of shame and then a sense of humility. I was teaching them how to make ice cream, but, more importantly, I listened.”
The chef volunteered at juvenile facilities in Dallas to better understand the people occupying them and to figure out a way he could use his kitchen skills to help stop the cycle of crime and poverty.
“They didn’t just need a job — that’s like putting a Band-Aid on a waterfall,” Houser says. “They needed a consistent and stable environment to go from a life of surviving to a life that’s thriving. For me, Café Momentum has to be an ecosystem of support to address all issues and barriers. We have to get to the root cause of their problems if we’re going to be able to provide space for them to flourish.”
In 2013, Houser stepped away from his trendy eatery to focus fully on Café Momentum.
At first, the idea was met with a lot of skepticism. Some critics even told Houser that his employees would probably use their kitchen knives to stab each other rather than chop vegetables. The punks, they said, wanted nothing more than a paycheck, not a career.
That marginalization didn’t sit well with Houser.
“How is a young person supposed to think their life has value when over and over again society tells them it doesn’t?” he says. “It’s one thing to tell kids you believe in them; it’s another to show them.”
Beyond the culinary praise, Café Momentum is bolstered by the success of its graduates. One participant was the first person in his family to graduate from high school. Another landed a NASA internship.
In 2016, Demondric Pratt’s probation officer recommended Café Momentum to push him in the right direction.
While learning the ins and outs of the culinary world, Pratt gained valuable life skills that he never mastered before, such as how to talk to people, how to receive positive and negative feedback, and how to be empathetic.
Today, the 21-year-old is a cook and cashier at Ruthie’s Food Truck Fueled By Café Momentum, the organization’s mobile unit. His goal is to pursue a culinary arts degree at College El Centro Campus in Dallas.
“To be quite honest, if I never got involved or heard about Café Momentum, I would still be making bad decisions, still getting in trouble,” says Pratt, who also serves as a Momentum Advisory Collective ambassador. “My advice to young people is to keep their heads up. Don’t think it’s the end of the world, because it’s not. There is someone out there to help you. All you got to do is reach out. Don’t be ashamed to tell people what you’re going through and what you need help with. The help is there.”