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‘Not just a job’: Pittsburgh-area teens gain a sense of calm and confidence at Café Momentum

Chef cuts meat as he prepares a meal in front of restaurant diners
An-Li Herring
90.5 WESA
Café Momentum Pittsburgh chef de cuisine Peter Henry prepares entrées for diners at the "chef's table." The restaurant's interns stand close by, ready to assist.

One of the newest fine-dining establishments in Downtown Pittsburgh, Café Momentum is more than a restaurant: The 25 teenagers it employs have been involved in the juvenile justice system in the past 12 months. Café Momentum provides them with yearlong, paid internships in an effort to set them on a new path and stop the cycle of incarceration.

For 17-year-old Marissa, that process began when she started to feel more comfortable with herself. She joined Café Momentum last fall when the program still operated out of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh's Downtown branch. She has worked at the restaurant since it opened in March, just outside Market Square where Wolfie's Pub was previously located.

Café Momentum Pittsburgh displays its mission on a wall in the restaurant
An-Li Herring
90.5 WESA
Café Momentum provides support such as jobs, case management, and mental health services in an effort to reduce recidivism among teens.

“My biggest lesson from here was just my confidence,” Marissa said. “I used to be scared to talk to [strangers].”

But at Café Momentum, “I talk to everybody that comes in here.”

Last Friday evening, more than 50 diners ate at the restaurant. When introducing herself as their server, Marissa plainly stated that Café Momentum works with youth in the juvenile justice system between the ages of 15 and 19.

Despite her previous shyness, she said now her favorite job at Café Momentum is to wait tables. She described the restaurant as "a safe place."

"I always like being here," she said. The mother of two young children, Marissa said she also likes to earn money for her family.

Organizations outside the court system also refer participants to Café Momentum, according to the national nonprofit’s executive director in Pittsburgh, Gene Walker. A member of the Pittsburgh Public Schools board since 2021, Walker said interns sometimes recruit friends, too.

Restaurant staff prepare food in kitchen
An-Li Herring
90.5 WESA
Café Momentum Pittsburgh interns and chef Peter Henry prepare for the dinner shift on Friday, June 23.

“Watching the young people interact with each other around food, interact with our customers around food, interact with our staff around food, they really get to learn a lot of different lessons,” Walker said. “[They] face a lot of challenges, overcome some things, have some successes, learn about themselves [such as] what [they] like and what [they] don't like, and then [are] able to express that in a way that is positive.”

The restaurant serves a full-course menu consisting of high-end dishes, such as pan-seared red snapper, coffee-rubbed ribeye, and the restaurant’s signature smoked fried chicken.

The idea for Café Momentum began in Dallas with chef and restaurant co-owner Chad Houser. In 2008, he taught eight young men in juvenile detention how to make ice cream, Café Momentum’s website says. Through that experience, the site adds, Houser witnessed the flaws of the juvenile justice system, prompting him to found Café Momentum as “a place … to land” for justice-involved youth.

The nonprofit reports that it has served more than 1,000 teens in Texas since 2015, recording recidivism rates three times lower than the statewide average.

Pittsburgh beat Nashville to become the restaurant’s second location, thanks to support from local foundations and corporations.

 Small candles, cloth napkins and metal cutlery are arranged neatly on dinner tables before Café Momentum opens for dinner
An-Li Herring
90.5 WESA
On Friday, June 23, about 50 customers had dinner reservations at Café Momentum Pittsburgh. Interns at the restaurant say that on some nights they serve more than 75 people.

Customer Tony DaBreo dined at the restaurant late last month with a handful of friends. He said it marked his second visit to the establishment.

“I know what the mission is and the role it plays in the community. So we want to support. We want to make sure these folks have an opportunity to grow and develop,” he said. Plus, “the food is amazing,” he added after ordering the red snapper entrée with a side of ham hock collard greens in lieu of mashed potatoes.

Initially, interns at Café Momentum earn $12 per hour, with the potential to make up to $15 per hour as they progress through the program. They also receive counseling and life skills instruction, along with a range of support services on-site to meet basic needs such as housing, food, and child care. A case management team works in offices adjacent to the restaurant space.

“One of the more important things that we really work on is helping [the interns] with conflict resolution and emotional regulation,” Walker said, “so helping them to realize, ‘Okay, you made a mistake — you dropped a glass, you put the wrong order down.’

“‘If you keep your cool, we can fix it. If you lose your cool, it makes it really hard.’”

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Terrance, 17, said that since signing up for Café Momentum in the fall, he has discovered a new level of serenity, especially when washing dishes in a nook behind the open-concept kitchen.

“The dish pit is very just much a chill place in my opinion,” he said as stoneware plates and metal bins clattered and clunked around him. “It’s just very calming, especially to get away from everything. If you have a bad day or something, you come in here and just wash everything out and get it all out.”

With its extra support services, he said, Café Momentum differs from his previous service jobs at McDonald’s, Shop ‘n Save and a hospital.

“It’s not just a job. If you’ve got something personal going on, they’ll definitely ask you what’s going on. … They actually try to help you and better yourself with everything that you’re going through.”

Café Momentum Pittsburgh is located at 268 Forbes Ave., Downtown. Hours are 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday.

Corrected: July 6, 2023 at 10:37 PM EDT
This story has been corrected to reflect that all teen participants at Café Momentum have been involved with the justice system within the past 12 months.