Dine And Dash? Leaders In Braddock Chew On Sousa Departure
When star chef Kevin Sousa chose a former car dealership in Braddock as the site for his newest restaurant in 2013, he drew substantial fanfare — and investment from foundations and the general public — with vows to give residents of the distressed steel town a central role in the fine-dining establishment.
But as the restaurant industry struggles amid the coronavirus pandemic, Sousa has announced that he has parted ways with the Braddock eatery, Superior Motors, to pursue new interests elsewhere. Although Sousa said he will continue to consult Superior Motors' management, Braddock Mayor Chardaé Jones said Sousa's departure let her community down.
“It's kind of like investing into a community by hiring people that are in the community and then pulling the rug from under them once they got comfortable,” Jones said. “That’s what makes me angry. A lot of [residents who were employed by Superior Motors] come from backgrounds where people wouldn't hire them because they had a criminal history.”
Jones acknowledged that Sousa was “so gracious” to hire those workers. But she said Superior Motors, which received more than $190,000 from the federal Paycheck Protection Program early in the pandemic, “should have stayed open, and [Sousa] should have stayed head chef.”
Other civic leaders stress that Braddock has other things going for it. And Sousa's restaurant is likely to continue in some form.
Attorney Gregg Kander, the investor-representative for Superior Motors, said that he and other investors in the business remain committed to creating jobs for Braddock residents. It’s possible that Superior Motors will reopen, but Kander added that the investors may try a different culinary approach under a different name.
“We don't have the final plan yet," he said. "We are actively looking at alternatives now.”
“Obviously, if [Sousa] would have stayed, things would have been easier. We were doing well right before he left,” Kander said. “But I also understand chefs’ and artists’ … passion [for doing] different things and to [move] on. So you don't want to push anybody to do anything that they're not excited about doing.”
‘I saw light ’
Sousa raised more than a quarter of a million dollars on Kickstarter to fund Superior Motors, which is located across Braddock Avenue from U.S. Steel’s Edgar Thomson plant. The eatery, which opened in 2017, also won the financial backing of local foundations.
Funders were attracted to Sousa’s plan to train and hire local residents, and to provide room and board to interns and volunteers. The chef sought to promote sustainability in part by sourcing ingredients from a rooftop greenhouse as well as an urban farm down the street. He invited neighbors to dine at discounted prices.
Three years after opening, Superior Motors had fulfilled much of Sousa’s vision, while also attracting patrons from across the region and beyond.
Regardless, Sousa announced on Instagram last month that he will no longer be involved in Superior Motors’ day-to-day operations. Instead, he plans to serve as “a guiding force and consultant” for the restaurant while he launches new bars in Mount Oliver and Allentown on Pittsburgh's Hilltop.
Chris Clark, Sousa's business partner and former Superior Motors general manager, declined WESA's request for an interview with Sousa. Instead, he directed WESA to the chef's Instagram statement and said, "I feel good about what we accomplished" at Superior Motors.
In his Instagram post, Sousa said he made the decision after emerging from a period of “absolute chaos and extreme darkness” that, he suggested, led him to have suicidal thoughts.
“Had it not been for the love of and for my amazing daughter, I cannot honestly say that I would be here writing these words,” the restauranteur wrote. “As the darkness lifted and I began to recognize myself as a person instead of a commodity — I saw light.”
Still, Sousa’s exit casts a shadow for Braddock officials, who note that the chef has a pattern of launching trendy restaurants in distressed neighborhoods, and then leaving those establishments on shaky footing several years later.
Between 2010 and 2012, Sousa opened Salt of the Earth in Pittsburgh’s Garfield neighborhood, as well as Station Street Hot Dogs and Union Pig and Chicken in East Liberty. By 2014, he had left all three businesses, and they were soon shuttered.
“Kevin does have a little bit of a track record,” Braddock borough councilor Tina Doose noted. So while his departure was “somewhat expected,” she said, “of course, I'm concerned” about what it could mean for Superior Motors.
“But I will also say that I'm hopeful,” Doose continued. “When I think about the ownership and the leadership that exists [at Superior Motors], I definitely believe that there is a desire to continue on, whether it's with or without Kevin Sousa.”
‘There’s more to Braddock’
Doose also expressed hope for Braddock’s future as a community. The borough is collaborating with Allegheny County’s Economic Development office to rehabilitate dozens of properties in its commercial district, she noted. And it will soon form a chamber of commerce with neighboring municipalities to support businesses in a region that has yet to bounce back from steel’s decline.
“Multiple people … are moving [these initiatives] forward,” Doose said. “I have pushed well past Kevin Sousa, and I'm hoping that another wonderful chef [or] opportunity comes to Superior Motors. But even with that, it should not be just a cult of personality. … There's more to Braddock. There is a synergy. There is a commitment. And it's not one person.”
Kander, the Superior Motors investor, said the restaurant's own future depends largely on when the investors are confident they can find enough workers to hire. Restaurants across the country have struggled with a labor shortage as COVID-19 continues to hobble the industry.
“We're in this transition period [with Superior Motors] that we only get one shot at, so we want to take our time and make sure we get it right,” Kander said.
But he credits the restaurant’s success for leading him to commit resources of his own to the community. He's also helped to finance a 37-unit artist residence located in the heart of Braddock. The eight-story building, which formerly housed the Ohringer Home Furniture Company, is fully occupied, according to Kander.
Still, Chris Briem, a regional economist at the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Social and Urban Research, said true revitalization in Braddock will require deeper changes than increased investments in business and housing.
“The issues in Braddock, especially the economic issues in Braddock, are pretty large,” Briem said. “And it's not just Braddock. It's certainly many of the areas of the Mon Valley that have not sort of seen any economic rebound … really since before the decline of the steel industry.”
Briem noted that Braddock’s population peaked at about 21,000 in 1920. Since then, it has shrunk to 1,900 people — a 90 percent drop over the past century.
“At the core of [such decline] is [that] we're a tremendously fragmented region” that is broken up into more local governments than any other region in the United States, Briem said. “These are communities that all were created for industries or plants, many of which don't even exist anymore.”
Without the tax revenue that comes with a bigger population, Briem said, municipalities such as Braddock do not have the fiscal capacity to fund basic public services. He said communities’ best bet for overcoming this challenge is to form a structure or entity through which they can pool resources. The goal would be to “build sort of new towns” with transportation infrastructure that allows residents to access jobs concentrated elsewhere.
“But until [these communities] can maintain all the services that people expect to have a decent quality of life, let alone a decent school system, then I think all these other efforts will, in the end, fail,” Briem said.