Samuel Paderes was 17 years old when he started selling heroin. “I sold it to my own cousin because I was so addicted to money,” he says.
Paderes got caught, served time and then signed on to work with Cafe Momentum, a nonprofit that offers internships to juvenile offenders who move from detention into a sheltered environment. Under the guidance of trained chefs and case managers, teen offenders learn life skills such as working in a kitchen, washing dishes and serving.
Now 19, Paderes is one of 37 teenage boys who will proudly open Cafe Momentum’s first restaurant on Thursday alongside executive director Chad Houser and his staff. The restaurant is designed to feel like a typical restaurant, with four courses to choose on the menu and wine at the bar, but all of the servers and many of the young members of the kitchen staff have had non-violent run-ins with the law.
"I learned my past doesn't define who I am," said Tamarrion Washington, an 18-year-old who broke the law.
This is the first restaurant of its kind in Dallas. Here are 10 things you might want to know about Cafe Momentum:
1. Cafe Momentum and its interns have actually been serving food for years. It would have been difficult to open this restaurant without community support, says Houser. So over the past three and a half years, Cafe Momentum has hosted 42 pop-up dinners where 172 juvenile offenders helped cook and serve each meal. Those events, hosted all around the city, taught Dallas diners about the non-profit and gave Houser and his team time to gather donations for the first bricks-and-mortar restaurant.
2. Think of this place like any other restaurant. It just happens to have an unusual back story. Houser is very comfortable around teens, but his background is actually as a chef. His new-American menu includes items such as a pea shoot salad with house-made ricotta and crispy prosciutto; smoked fried chicken with gravy and biscuits; and smoked carrot pappardelle with chicken mole sausage. The teens who work there – called “interns” – will be learning important skills, yes, but Houser also knows you’re there to eat. His staff includes chef de cuisine Eric Shelton (formerly of Kitchen LTO), pastry chef Sarah Green (formerly of fine-dining restaurant Oak) and executive sous chef Justin Box (formerly of Stephan Pyles and Bolsa).
3. OK, so, former juvenile offenders will be serving me dinner. Should I be worried? Not necessarily. “I have no concerns whatsoever about safety,” says the man behind Sean Gregory Metal, who donated a piece of art for the wall and has attended all but four of Cafe Momentum’s pop-ups. Employees of Cafe Momentum have become very involved in these teens’ lives, even going so far as to offer their couches at home for teens who need help. If diners stereotype the interns, Houser knows that's an unfortunate part of the process. He wants to change their minds. “Come and see," he says, "Come and see how special this place is.”
4. Mayor Mike Rawlings has art on the wall. On an accent wall, Dallas artist Shane Pennington hung plates with words of inspiration written on each one by a notable member of the “Cafe Momentum family,” as Houser calls it. Rawlings has a plate up there, as does Dallas Arts District Executive Director Catherine Cuellar and many more. Eventually, diners will be able to purchase plates from “the thankful plate project” and even design a plate of their own to be hung on the wall.
5. Your dishware won’t match. You’ll have to pour your own wine. In the spirit of not-for-profit, Cafe Momentum took in donated dishware over the years. Restaurants like Cafe Pacific and The Grape donated bigger supplies, but the inventory is also made up of one-off plates and glassware that were donated by individuals. Patrons ordering drinks will need to walk up to the bar and fetch their bottle of wine priced $20, $40, $60 or $80. (Mark-ups on wine will be minimal, Houser says.) Patrons will uncork bottles and serve the wine themselves – “almost like you’re at home,” Houser explains. This system is designed to keep interns from serving alcohol, since some are too young according to TABC rules.
6. The restrooms are funny. It’s impossible to miss the “THANK YOU SHARON LYLE!” inside the men’s restroom. (And yes – I went in there!) Lyle is a longtime supporter of Cafe Momentum. Her husband, Mark Mutschink, gets the same big-name treatment in the women’s restroom. The philosophy at Cafe Momentum is to thank donors by acknowledging their financial contributions. Lyle and Mutschink apparently supported the “flush fund,” Houser jokes.
7. Interns make more than minimum wage: $10 an hour. Each intern learns five stages of the business – washing dishes, busing tables, serving tables and two rotations in the kitchen. Interns make $10 an hour but cannot accept tips, however. Gratuities on dinner are considered a donation to Cafe Momentum and will be tax-deductible.
8. Interns are required to focus on self-betterment. In an enclosed classroom behind the dining room, Houser’s team has plans to host sessions such as financial literacy, parenting and anger management. Interns are encouraged to dream big about what comes next in their lives. “I learned my past doesn’t define who I am,” said Tamarrion Washington, 18. He hopes to open his own restaurant someday.
It's impossible to miss the "THANK YOU SHARON LYLE!" inside the men's restroom.
9. There aren’t any female interns – yet. Houser hopes to partner with a Dallas County facility that works with female juvenile offenders. Once young women are hired for the internship in May or June, they will work alongside the young men in the restaurant.
10. The restaurant has the potential to change lives. The pop-ups have already. Cafe Momentum is brimming with success stories. Here’s one: An intern named Dezmund, who has a speech impediment, got a “thumbs up” from one of the board members during a mock dinner service. He spent the next 15 minutes trying to decide how he could interact with the board member in a meaningful way, given that he doesn’t like to speak much. He built up the confidence and went over to say two sentences: “I hope you’re having a wonderful meal. I’m glad you’re here.” He nailed the delivery, and then he was gone. “It was huge for him,” Houser says, and it built his confidence. Houser has dozens if not hundreds of similar stories.
Cafe Momentum opened Jan. 29. Dinner only Thursday through Saturday, 5 to 9 p.m. Breakfast and lunch can be served on-site for private, scheduled events. Off-site catering is also available. 1510 Pacific St., Dallas. cafemomentum.org.