Dallas Chef Creates a Stir With Program for Troubled Kids

Dallas, TX (Source) – When the United Way of Metropolitan Dallas started looking for promising new talent in nonprofits, Chad Houser was its first find. An acclaimed chef, he had built a cultlike local following for his community-service sidelight: occasional “pop-up” dinners prepared and served by detainees at a juvenile-detention center bused in for the evening.

Inspired, Mr. Houser had sold his share in his restaurant and begun planning to open a nonprofit, fine-dining eatery staffed by young men and women newly released from detention. It was a leap into the unknown. “I was so unbelievably scared,” he says.

About a month later, the United Way got in touch: Would he like to apply for one of its first fellowships for social entrepreneurs? “It was like a call from the White House,” Mr. Houser says.

After enduring what he describes as a grueling screening, he was given $175,000, enough to hire three staff members. More important, United Way connected him to other donors as well as mentors and consultants to help create a business plan and performance measures. He was also given his first office space: a cubicle at Dallas United Way’s headquarters just steps from CEO Jennifer Sampson’s office.

“If I had an idea, I would just walk into her office and say, ‘Hey, what do you think about this?’ ” he says. Others told him he was supposed to make an appointment; he answered, “No, I’m not. She doesn’t care; she loves this.”

Less than five years later, Mr. Houser — “just a guy who had an idea and a big heart for kids,” Ms. Sampson says — has signed on more than 300 men and women for yearlong paid internships at his nonprofit restaurant, Café Momentum. The organization’s staff has grown to 20.

The program’s completion rate is low, in part because of the interns’ turbulent home lives; one student dropped out recently because his small restaurant paycheck meant his mother lost her government assistance. Still, only about 14 percent of the hundreds of kids he’s worked with have returned to jail, a recidivism rate far below the average in Texas. The curriculum of restaurant and life-skills training developed at Café Momentum will soon be incorporated into an accredited program used in schools nationwide.

Mr. Houser says he’s also looking to open another restaurant. “My ultimate goal: I want to have more Café Momentums than Starbucks.”