How Cafe Momentum Plans To Help At-Risk Youth Move Toward A Brighter Future

The Downtown restaurant will double as a training facility where interns learn the business, as well as life skills.


When Cafe Momentum opens Downtown next month, its mission will be to serve good food and beverages while helping young people get their lives moving in the right direction. 

The 4,000-square-foot, nonprofit restaurant at 274 Forbes Ave., near Market Square, will double as a culinary training facility for youths involved in the Allegheny County Juvenile Court system. 

The Cafe Momentum concept was launched in Texas in 2015 by Chef Chad Houser, who was inspired to combine food and community service after working with young men at a juvenile detention center. He taught them how to make ice cream. 

That cool volunteer position turned into a passion. Houser now works with approximately 150 teens a year at the flagship location. The farm-focused, chef-driven restaurant is continually named one of the top eateries in Dallas. 


Currently, in Pittsburgh, there are 19 participants, ranging in age from 15 to 20, enrolled in the 12-month paid internship program. During that time, they will learn all aspects of the restaurant business, as well as life and social skills. 

“We don’t necessarily want to create a new group of restaurant workers, but give our young people a chance to find what they’re really good at and use those skills throughout their lives, no matter what career they choose,” Executive Director Gene Walker says. 

The eatery, which will be BYOB to start, will operate for dinner from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. Catering services will begin this spring or summer. 

The ever-evolving menu developed by Chef Peter Henry will offer a variety of gourmet dishes made with fresh, local and seasonal ingredients, including coffee-rubbed ribeye, wood-fired pizzas, fish, salads and charcuterie boards. A signature plate, the smoked fried chicken with mashed potatoes, collard greens, black pepper gravy and a buttermilk biscuit, is being carried over from Cafe Momentum’s original location in Dallas. 

Over the year, an 11-member, professional staff will guide the interns through nine restaurant stations, from front-of-the-house to the open kitchen. Walker, says employees were selected not just for their expertise, but for their dedication to helping teens.

Pastry Chef Aedan Carlton, who worked with Henry in California in addition to spots around Pittsburgh, says Cafe Momentum provides a unique opportunity to give back to the city. 

“It’s been a challenge, but a good one,” he says. 


There’s also an adjoining Community Services Center, which provides the interns with an ecosystem of support when they’re off-duty. The 3,900-square-foot space includes a classroom, meeting rooms, a lounge with lockers, a TV and gaming system and a pantry stocked up with free toiletries, feminine hygiene products, snacks and clothing. Donations can be dropped at 268 Forbes Ave.

People can also help by dining at Cafe Momentum when it opens, visiting the website and social media pages, signing up for the newsletter or joining the Get the Doors Open campaign. Donors can sponsor everything from a place setting to a walk-in freezer. They can also fund the I’m Thankful Plate Project developed by artist Shane Pennington, which will be an evolving art installation created by the interns. 

Cafe Momentum works with about two dozen nonprofit partners throughout the city to provide additional support for young people, from addressing housing instability and health care to providing GED classes and career exploration opportunities. Cafe Momentum keeps tabs on interns up to a year after they graduate from the program. Walker says Cafe Momentum is currently working to provide a childcare facility.

Walker wants the Pittsburgh site, which can accommodate up to 105 diners, to be the model for other locations opening up in Atlanta, Denver and Nashville, Tennessee. 


The team has spent more than a year fundraising $1.4 million to transform the former Wolfie’s Pub and Pizzuvio spaces. Large photos on the wall feature program graduates from Dallas, but Walker hopes to replace them with portraits of local teens by this time next year. 

Walker, who spent years working for The Pittsburgh Promise, says the experience ignited his passion for community service. 

“Everything I believe I’m meant to do in my career is here,” he says. “I want to see young people succeed.”

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