Cafe Momentum Pittsburgh aims to give youth more than a job
Gene Walker knows the road to success has many stops and starts. Consider his path to become executive director of Cafe Momentum Pittsburgh, the soon-to-open nonprofit restaurant and professional training facility in Downtown that gives juvenile offenders a second chance.
The East Liberty native graduated from Peabody High Schools and studied accounting at Bloomsburg University. For a decade after earning his degree in 1998, he made his living in northeastern Pennsylvania in finance and marketing. It wasn’t until he boomeranged home in 2009 to take a job with The Pittsburgh Promise that the Brighton Heights resident was ready to trade “chasing money” for a more fulfilling life of service.
“If I help enough people get where they should go,” he remembers thinking, “I’ll get where I should go.”
As the Promise’s benchmarks manager, it was Walker’s job to ensure the nonprofit met its goal of creating economic mobility for urban youth by providing college scholarships to those who met the criteria. A passionate and energetic advocate for kids facing obstacles, Walker quickly rose through the ranks, eventually becoming its partnerships manager.
“It was a cool thing, taking the lessons I’ve learned and helping others experience their dreams without barriers,” he says.
Yet by 2018 he was getting antsy, feeling he’d hit the ceiling for growth and perspective.
He left to launch Mission C, a nonprofit that provided financial education and support for people facing eviction. A year later, he changed jobs again, signing on with Gene Cook Supports, which works with adults with intellectual and physical disabilities. He also ran for a seat on the Pittsburgh School Board — and won. (He’s currently in the second year of his fouryear term.)
Finding a leader
It was during his 2021 campaign that Cafe Momentum appeared on Walker’s radar, after a friend mentioned they were looking for an executive director in Pittsburgh.
The restaurant got its start in 2008 in Dallas when executive chef Chad Houser was asked to teach a group of young men in juvenile detention how to make ice cream. As he learned more about how they ended up incarcerated, he decided to “walk the talk” and create job experiences for teens who didn’t have a lot of options.
In 2011, he started a series of pop-up dinners to raise money for a restaurant with a locally sourced New American menu that would provide 15- to 19-year-olds coming out of the juvenile justice system with a fresh start. It opened in 2015.
Though he had no experience in hospitality, Walker was struck by Cafe Momentum’s mission of giving young people a second chance through paid job training, life skills and education in a safe environment.
A lot of young Black men don’t have a vision of what their life can be, Walker noted. Cafe Momentum “struck all the right chords” because is brings together two seemingly disparate worlds — youth services and restaurants — in a way that’s both unique and delivers results. He got the job in March 2022.
At an invitation-only soft event on Feb. 6 that offered a taste of chef Peter Henry’s menu, Walker said they took a risk when they started the journey a year ago with the idea they do something “really special with special kids in an unconventional way.”
“Today, we’ve witnessed the power of that risk,” he said in a short speech after dinner, which featured a house-made charcuterie board and chicory and beet salads, along with the cafe’s signature smoked fried chicken with collard greens and mashed potatoes with black-pepper gravy.
Walker teared up as he prepared to introduce the current cohort of nine students, all but one of whom were working for the very first time in a restaurant that evening following a four-day orientation.
“We’re developing skills and teaching that what we see on the surface and read on the news is not the whole story,” he told guests. “We set a really high bar for our young people when they come into this program.”
One intern, Daniel, revealed how he used to break into houses to get food for his little sister. Now at Cafe Momentum Pittsburgh, “I found a little gateway of happiness,” he said with a giant grin. Every day is still hard, “but I finally feel like I’m finally on my path.”
After receiving their ServSafe certification during orientation, youths embark on a 12-month paid internship program during which they learn the nine stations of a restaurant. Its holistic approach means interns — who each have an assigned case manager — receive life and social skills to help them break the cycle of incarceration and violence. They also get voluntary educational assistance and individual and group therapy.
The Dallas program proved so successful — its recidivism rate is nearly three times lower than the Texas average — that in 2020, Houser launched the Momentum Advisory Collection to take the concept nationwide.
Pittsburgh beat Nashville to become Cafe Momentum’s second location, Walker says, thanks to Richard King Mellon Foundation director Sam Reiman, who happened to eat at the Dallas cafe a few years back. When he got word of expansion following a sizeable grant from the Stand Together Foundation, he asked: Why not Pittsburgh?
An impressed Houser agreed to put Pittsburgh at the top of the list.
“Our influx of [philanthropic] support really helped us get started,” Walker said, “and we continue to build on that support.”
With a $2.5 million fundraising goal, Cafe Momentum Pittsburgh’s capital campaign has so far raised about $2 million from foundations, corporations and organizations like the Pittsburgh Steelers; it also boasts a long list of individual donors. The hope is that once people see the space, learn about its programming and enjoy a stellar meal at the restaurant, support for its “Get the Doors Open” campaign will pick up.
“This is a daunting financial task to take on,” Walker said. They’re holding a half-dozen private and fundraising events over the next couple weeks “to get us where we need to go.”
Kirk Johnson of Highland Park, who served on Cafe Momentum’s advisory committee and is now chair of its board of directors, was one early cheerleader.
“We just believe in kids if you give them an opportunity,” he said.
“We want kids to know they are not defined by their mistakes or circumstances,” agreed director of programs Cheyenne Tyler, “and make sure they have the support, love and guidance to reach their fullest potential.”
While mentoring programs such as Big Brother and Big Sisters provide a lifeline for kids in need, Walker said there aren’t many groups actively recruiting youth after they’ve been in the justice system. Cafe Momentum is the bridge that gives them the life skills they need to successfully navigate the future.
While the program is referral-based, it’s voluntary. Young people need to want to be here for it to work because they’re typically juggling work and school, Walker says. He hopes to bring in a new group of 10 kids every 10-12 weeks, for a total of around 100 in 2023.
Interns start at $12/hour, with pay increasing to $15 as they gain experience and responsibilities in back- and front-of-house operations.
Every hands-on culinary training program requires a thoughtfully designed space, and Pittsburgh’s 4,000-square-foot kitchen and restaurant hits it out of the park. Located in the former Wolfie’s Pub at 274 Forbes Ave., Downtown, its open design assures diners will be able to see everyone cooking “so they know who we are and that everyone has value,” said restaurant consultant Roger Kaplan of Dallas-based RK iNNOVATION.
At the restaurant’s center is a gleaming copperclad pizza oven largely donated by Beech Ovens (it was a demo). Chef Henry and his interns will bake the cafe’s many breads, Southern-style biscuits and chef-driven entrees on the gas-fueled hearth. The kitchen also includes three high-end Jade cooktops, a gas grill and a NUVU smoker to make the restaurant’s signature fried chicken. There’s also a separate baking area, a prep kitchen with a blast cooler and a large dish pit for every intern’s first assignment: learning how to wash dishes. Much of the equipment is reclaimed.
“It’s the most gorgeous kitchen anyone will ever work in,” Kaplan said. Another plus: A handful of guests will be able to dine each night at a “chef’s table” along the bright white counter.
In the former Pizzuvio next door, an adjoining 3,900-square-foot Community Services Center boasts a quiet room for yoga, offices for caseworkers and two therapy rooms in addition to a large classroom. There’s also a cozy lounge area for simply kicking back after a trying day.
“It’s a safe space to come and get away from the things in life” that they don’t want to be around, says Kaplan.
Chef Henry, 36, worked in organic restaurants in California and ran an education program for homeless people before coming to Pittsburgh in May 2020 to become AMPD Group’s culinary director. His menu will focus on local, sustainable ingredients and thoughtfully prepared meats such as the black-tea lomo and duck speck he served with mustard on Feb. 6.
Because it helps the community, as Henry himself was helped after being in a coma 10 years ago, the restaurant is “near and dear to my heart and everything I want to be and do.”
In teaching young people to be part of a team, Walker said Cafe Momentum is not just creating restaurant workers but also equipping them for life, with skills they can use in any profession. “If they show up, we’ll be there for them.”
Details are still being finalized, but they hope to open at the beginning of March with a full menu. Hours will be 5:30 to around 10 p.m. WednesdaySaturday.
“We have a unique opportunity to bring together our youth and the community in a space that is safe and inviting, that opens up conversation, but most importantly puts a human face and a human heart on each and everyone you interact with,” said Walker. “And there’s no better place to do that than at the dinner table.”