Last month, Pittsburgh chef and 2012 JBFA semifinalist Kevin Sousa attracted national attention for his Kickstarter campaign that the Pittsburgh City Paper confirmed was the site's "most-funded restaurant project to date." Sousa and the team behind the forthcoming Superior Motors raised $310,225, well past the already sky-high $250,000 goal they had set for themselves. A significant chunk of that money came within the last days of the campaign that had entered its final weekend short about $100,000. It was one in a string of rather high-profile restaurant Kickstarter projects — including Jonathan Sawyer's Trentina and Travail's fundraising in Minnesota — that led some to wonder whether Kickstarter is the future of restaurant financing.
But this particular Kickstarter is extraordinary for more than just its record-shattering results. Superior Motors is the brainchild of Sousa and John Fetterman, the mayor of Braddock, Pennsylvania who has captured the attention of everyone from the New York Times to Stephen Colbert for his efforts to revitalize a Rust Belt community in decay. When it opens in 2015, Superior Motors will be Braddock's only sit-down restaurant in existence. And, more than that, it will also house a culinary education program that will make use of adjacent farmland, a rooftop garden, and the kitchen itself to offer the people of Braddock an opportunity to learn about the culinary industry.
In the following interview, Sousa talks with Eater about the ambitious scale of his latest restaurant project, why he thinks chefs have a responsibility to their communities, and why Pittsburgh being Pittsburgh made it all possible. [Ed: Just after publication of this interview, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported that Sousa has sold his stake in the acclaimed Salt of the Earth restaurant.]
How did you first hook up with Mayor Fetterman for this project?
John Fetterman and I were introduced by mutual friends. John had expressed an interest in me and my restaurants because, at the time, all of my restaurants opened in what were considered "fringe" neighborhoods, on the outskirts of what would be considered a business district. That was interesting to him because he's the mayor of Braddock. Braddock has seen better days and is a somewhat depressed town. So he introduced himself to me and invited me down to see what he had going on in Braddock. I immediately fell in love with the place and, over the course of about a year and a half, John and I became friends.
We had originally started working on a project in a different building in Braddock. There were a lot of moving pieces, a lot of different organizations involved, and that project fell through. It gave us some time to regroup. Over the next six months or so, something pretty amazing happened: This really wonderful building became available for a very reasonable price, and John purchased it. It was an old car dealership, about 15,000 square feet. John called me and offered up the bottom floor — which is a beautiful, industrial space — free of rent. [He also] volunteered to share the utilities and follow through on the different pieces of this project that we had started to hatch over the course of the previous year and a half.
And it was with the first concept when you realized the banks wouldn't fund it, right? Did you try the banks again with Superior Motors?
None of the banks would even entertain the idea of what we were proposing.
Correct. The first concept, we learned a lot from that process. The fact that it fell apart was kind of a blessing in disguise. Allegheny County had set aside some money to get this historic building remediated. The building still needed $1 million or more worth of work just to get it to the point where we could build a restaurant in it. So it became obvious very early on that we were going to need a lot of money. Once we realized that, we started to approach banks, foundations, and private investors. None of them would return our calls or really even entertain the idea of what we were proposing. We didn't have any money either. Despite the fact that I do own a couple restaurants, small independent restaurants are not million-dollar affairs all the time.
That's when we realized we were going to have to approach the fundraising much more creatively. It just so happened friends of ours in Braddock had recently had a successful Kickstarter campaign: The Brew Gentlemen, they're in the process right now of opening a micro-brewery in Braddock. We took some advice from them and did some more exploration of other simpler Kickstarter campaigns, and we just went for it.
Why did you set your fundraising goal so high?
We went all in. As far as we know, we set our goal higher than any other restaurant project on a crowd-sourcing vehicle. Because had we not set it at $250,000, it really wouldn't have mattered if we'd met our goal. We knew what the budget of the restaurant was shaping up to be and we thought the only way we were going to get the restaurant open was if we raised $250,000. Like immediately. We also felt that was a good gauge of our market. Not only was it a fundraising opportunity, but it was kind of a market study to see if this kind of thing is sustainable. The only way that it's sustainable is if you have a core group of people that believe in it and want to frequent it. And we got great success with over 2,000 backers.
Did you have a back-up plan at all?
If we couldn't make it to $250,000, we weren't sure what we were going to do.
Actually no, we didn't. John and I were finishing up the language and the video and the layout of our Kickstarter campaign. It was coming together nicely. The one area where we couldn't quite grasp what we should do was what our ask was going to be. We decided we were going to swing for the fences. Like I said, we had already kind of vetted out the banks and the private investors, so if we couldn't make it [to $250,000], we weren't quite sure what we were going to do. We might've had to go after a more modest initial project without so many facets, but luckily, we never had to have that conversation.
Right. In your conversations with the banks, did you have some idea from them...
They weren't really interested in talking to someone that didn't have anything financial to put on the table. If you're first in with $100,000, the banks are likely more willing to lend $100,000. So they're not the only ones taking the risk. Nobody wants to be the first in a risky endeavor. A restaurant is risky in and of itself, let alone in an area that has lost 90 percent of its population. So I can understand why banks weren't willing to go first in. Having such a successful Kickstarter campaign, not only did that write our business plan for us, but it's also [demonstrated that] we have now $350,000 [and] the backing of the whole city. The city showed up in a big way to support this. Now we have something we can put in front of the banks should the time come that we need to.
To prove that you have clientele.
We've got something now. More than just an idea. A lot of people have really great ideas, and unfortunately there's not a whole lot of follow-through because there's so many roadblocks, most of them financial. But, in this case, things just started to fall into place. For whatever reason when we delivered this idea to the public, it spoke to a lot of people.
Why did you decide to do such an ambitious project? How did that concept develop?
There aren't any sit-down restaurants in Braddock.
John and I weren't sure what my participation would be. He wanted my input for what kind of food outlet would make sense in Braddock because there aren't any sit-down restaurants. There are a couple places where you can get some quick bags of chips and bottles of water, and there's a butcher shop, but there aren't any restaurants within the limits of Braddock. We could have done any number of things, a nice farmers' market or a convenience store. But my background is in restaurants and so that was the base of my idea. I was trying to wrap my brain around what kind of restaurant could work and help the community.
I became more familiar with Braddock and all these beautiful things that already existed. For example, Braddock Farms, which is a subsidiary of Grow Pittsburgh, has been there for years. It's this beautiful two-acre urban farm in a beautiful post-industrial backdrop [with] a beautiful award-winning apiary that makes delicious honey that I've used in all of my restaurants. We have chickens down there that are producing tons of eggs. We have a rooftop 1,000-square foot greenhouse that happened to come with the building [and] 4,000 square feet of a raised bed garden on the roof of the building. We have a convent that has been restored to a beautiful hostel, and we're going to be able to use it for free housing for our staff and interns and students. All these things, it's like they were there already.
I had experience doing volunteer work in the Summer with the Braddock Youth Project. There are all these young people who are passionate about food and farming and Braddock, but odds are that they wouldn't be given the opportunity to pursue that after high school. So John and I started to put together this idea, well, how do we incorporate a culinary/farming training program? We work directly with Braddock Redux, which is the nonprofit that does job training in neighboring areas, so we would have people that are educators. All these resources exist already, so we just felt the last piece of the puzzle was a delivery system. And we felt that the best way to show all of these beautiful things to the world would be through a restaurant.
So this is also a learning restaurant. Can you tell me a little more about how the program is going to work? It's going to have about 4-10 students the first year?
Our goals are going to be very modest in the beginning because we want to set as many students up for success as we can. We're not going to be equipped to serve dozens and dozens of students like a traditional culinary school would, but we will have the ability to provide a really focused, streamlined program for select individuals, all from the Braddock area. Four to 10 students would be a very modest first cycle.
Monday through Wednesday, the restaurant proper will be closed to the public and that will be when we provide all the training. Then the restaurant will be open Thursday through Sunday for regular service, eventually both lunch and dinner. And those same students will work in the kitchen. [They'll] start off at the bottom as a dining room attendant or a host or bar back. Just [to] expose everyone to the different aspects of running a restaurant and also a farm. So there'll be training one day in the kitchen, one day in the farm, and then one day will be classroom work. We haven't come up with an entirely complete program yet. I'm learning a ton about what it takes to put together a realistic program.
Sounds like a lot.
Yeah, it's a lot of work, but it's really exciting for me. Trying not to sound too confident, but I've opened several restaurants and am confident in my abilities to cook and train cooks and open a world-class restaurant. However, I have not set up a culinary education program. So we're tapping all of our resources. A number of people have approached us and said, "Hey, that happens to be my area of expertise and something I'm passionate about." I'm meeting with everyone that is willing to meet with me and share their experiences and failures and successes and hopefully learn as much as I can and put together something that can serve the community in a really special way.
So what is it that draws you to do a project like this? Why is it important to you to have such a strong community component?
I viewed this opportunity as a way to do something more than just cooking.
Well, you know, at this point in my career, I've made a lot of little bits of fancy food, and I've made really delicious barbecue, and I've been a part of a really great street food restaurant. Quite frankly, I think to myself, who is this serving other than my own ego? Yes, we're producing really great food and we're serving it to the public and making a lot of people happy, but over the last year and a half, I've really been thinking about what else can I be doing. This opportunity presented itself, and I viewed it as a way to do something more than just cooking.
And you mentioned yesterday you hoped it could be a model for future restaurants.
Yeah. I think that it can be. We're going to be borrowing from other programs that exist around the country. A lot of my day is spent researching other successful and unsuccessful programs that might possess certain pieces of what we're trying to do. But at the end of the day, as far as I know, nobody is doing quite exactly what we're doing. With any luck, this could be something that someone else down the road could learn from, another Rust Belt community that's looking for some sort of spark for community involvement in a food business. Without thinking about it too loftily, it's something we're very proud of. The way that things are falling into place, I feel like we're going to be able to deliver something that has some real value to the community and to all the people involved.
This project makes me think a little about Roy Choi's speech at MAD, I don't know if you watched that.
I did. I love what Roy Choi has to say. He talks a lot about involvement with community and engaging people, and I feel the same way. Even at my first restaurant, Salt of the Earth, we employ farmers at Garfield Community Farm and we're involved with their community outreach programs. Food is one of those things that just really is easy for people to connect with because it's not abstract. Everybody has a connection to food in some way. So it's just a really honest way of connecting with people.
Do you think there's a certain responsibility that chefs have when it comes to this?
We all should take a little bit of responsibility for educating people.
I do. It's our chosen profession and I think that producing good, wholesome food is one part of it. Some people put their whole career toward getting accolades and consistently being named as one of the best restaurants in the world, and there's something to be said for that. The world needs those restaurants and those restaurateurs. But I think there's another group [of chefs for whom] that isn't necessarily our goal. Of course I want to do the best food that I'm capable of doing, but in the process I think I do have some responsibility to spread the word about responsible farming, responsible treatment of product, and responsible sourcing of product. I think the answer to your question is yes, we all should take a little bit of responsibility for educating people.
I also want to talk a bit about the Pittsburgh dining scene and the enthusiasm there. About 2,000 people donated to the Kickstarter?
Wow. And a lot of them were local.
Yeah, a big part of our support came from the Braddock area. The majority of our supporters were in the $25 to $100 range, which says a lot about the kinds of people that want to see this thing happen. Not only were there modest donations, but there were donations all the way up to $10,000 by really famous people. [Ed. Including Christian Bale, who was in the documentary film about Braddock, Out of the Furnace.]
But, to answer your question, the restaurant community in general here supports each other. In the early 2000s, a lot of my contemporaries and myself were line cooks or sous chefs or running our own places. I don't want to speak for everyone, but it felt like a lot of us just were tired of delivering other peoples' visions. I think it's the same with many burgeoning food scenes. You get to this point where the scene just stagnates. The bar is not necessarily low, but it never raises. And so a lot of us just started to branch out. All of a sudden, there were all these independent restaurants popping up and everyone had their own vibe. We weren't all trying to chase the same dollar. We weren't all trying to deliver our version of the same restaurant. We were kind of doing our own thing.
Little by little, that ripple effect spread throughout the city and there are more unique concepts popping up. With every one, we all rally behind the new guy or gal doing their thing. And before we knew it, national magazines were noticing and calling us the next big thing. That mentality of getting behind the underdog, no matter what it is, as long as it's born here [is the] same mentality I feel was behind our success with the Kickstarter campaign.
The majority of our supporters were in the $25 to $100 range.
On paper, that should have never succeeded. Pittsburgh is a relatively small market. We went after the largest amount ever gone after by a restaurant project. It didn't make much sense for it to succeed on the level that it did. Through Pittsburgh's will to get behind their own people and stick up for the hometown, they made it happen. That's how our food scene has been born. It's all been very organic and very honest. None of us have PR people. We're not out there begging for media coverage. We're just doing what we do.
That's great. Okay, well thank you again for talking with me.
I love talking about Pittsburgh. I don't have enough nice things to say about the people of the city and the people that are in the restaurant community. As much as I would like to credit for everything that's happening, I'm just a small cog in this. Hopefully it blows up in the right way.
What do you mean the right way?
Well, there are a lot of examples of towns that are trying to reinvent themselves and end up over-gentrifying and it's a big socio-economical mess. I don't think that we're doing that.
Is Christian Bale going to come and cash in?
I'm hoping. There's nothing I would like more than to fulfill Christian Bale's $10,000 reward of a private dinner for 20 of his closest friends. That would make me very happy. He probably will never cash it in, but it could be five years from now and he'll call me up and,yeah, I would go to him and do it. It's just so flattering. It's just such a cool story, and I'm just lucky enough to be a part of it. I'm choked up now just thinking about how moving it was to watch the whole Kickstarter social media thing go down. It was insane. Every time I picked up my phone that whole night, there were like 30 Twitter notifications, one after another. It was such a weird viral thing that I never thought I would be a part of.
Well it sounds like something people can get behind.
Yeah. It speaks to the power of Pittsburgh.