It is a crisp and sunny October morning as I drive through downtown Braddock on my way to meet Kevin Sousa at the under-construction Superior Motors. When I arrive at the building that at one time housed a car dealership, I’m struck by the proximity of U.S. Steel’s Edgar Thomson Steel Works. The sprawling complex is literally across the two-lane Braddock Avenue from what will be the front door of the restaurant.
On this day, the smoke from the steel plant is billowing out into the pale blue sky. It’s more of a forceful exhalation, as if the smoke can not wait one second longer to escape and be set free. They make double strand rolled steel at the Edgar Thomson plant. Double strand rolled steel is the process where steel is taken through one set of rollers to align the grains in a certain direction, then through a different set of rollers to get a second grain alignment. This provides strength and resiliency to the steel.
It’s that same strength and resiliency that is imbued in Kevin Sousa, who has had to weather numerous trials and tribulations during the course of Superior Motors’ creation. He greets me outside the building with an unlit cigar clenched between his teeth. “It’s my one remaining vice,” said the recovering alcoholic. “I only smoke two cigars a week, usually when I know I’m going to be outside doing something.” He unlocks the side door and we enter the space. Note that I say ‘space’ and not ‘restaurant’, because as I soon find out, one has to abandon all preconceived notions of what this venture is truly about. The food on your plate is almost an ancillary product.
By going through the side door labelled Barebones, we’re actually standing in the under-construction space of a theater operated by Patrick Jordan, a longtime friend of Sousa. “When we started building out the space, it looked like we were going to have 1,500 square feet unused, so I asked Patrick if he would like it.” The theater is intimate, holding perhaps 75, and will be separated from the restaurant. There are industrial-looking props on the floor of the space as we stand.
Patrick Jordan was the one who introduced Kevin Sousa to Braddock’s mayor, John Fetterman. The space that houses Superior Motors (and Barebones Productions) also is part of the actual home of Mayor Fetterman and his family, who live upstairs in a loft-style space. A proposed Phase 2 buildout would have a small bar adjacent to the current interior front door of the Fetterman’s and utilize the outdoor deck and steps. There’s an existing greenhouse on the roof with a steep concrete ramp in the same shared area, as well. All demarcations are blurred out with Superior Motors, as if erased by a petulant six-year old.
“I signed a lease with John [Fetterman] for no rent on the space forever,” says Sousa as we walk down a newly poured ramp from the theater space to the proposed lobby area of the restaurant.
We’re standing in the entrance of the restaurant, surrounded by metal studs, and Sousa, speaking in a rapid, stream-of-consciousness manner, is explaining in great detail each building material that will be involved in the project. “The backdrop to the hostess will be in this…”, he says, struggling to properly describe the end product,”…kind of backlit…corrugated fiberglass, with slowly shifting colors. This one company makes it locally around here…”
And that’s a theme that carries through for most of Superior Motors. Buying local, growing local. But as Sousa tells me, “Any restaurant that says they only buy local products is full of it. Oh? Is there some salt bed under the Monongahela River that I don’t about? Is there a pineapple farmer growing them in the winter down the street? If so, let me know and I’ll start using him.” Every effort is made to use local products and businesses, though, such as the rough-hewn wood tables that will be joined in Lawrenceville and used in the side room dining space to the patron’s left of the hostess area.
An estimated 70% of the restaurant’s produce and herbs will be grown either on-site (both outside the restaurant and in the rooftop greenhouse) or harvested just a few blocks down from the Braddock Community Farm. Last year, Sousa says that the 1-1/2 acre plot yielded 19,000 pounds of produce that was sold at the Braddock Farmers Market or to restaurants in Pittsburgh.
We migrate into the main dining area, with the front wall currently boarded up with plywood. “We’re not shying away from having a mill directly across the street,” the chef says, as there will be a large glass window fronting Superior Motors. The windows will be adjacent to the board-formed concrete conversation pits where people can have drinks while they wait for a table or have their dinner. “Board-formed concrete is rarely seen around here, but I love the look of it. It reminds me of one of my favorite architects, Carlo Scarpa, and his work with concrete.” The pits themselves are a takeoff on something Sousa saw at Graham Elliot’s Bistro restaurant in Chicago.
The board-formed concrete repeats on the three banquette seating areas behind the conversation pits. The eye then leads to the far wall where the long, narrow bar will be located. Seating at the far end of the bar will be Chef’s Table-style seating so that patrons can look directly into the kitchen area. “One part will actually be in the kitchen itself,” Sousa said.
The kitchen is set up in similar fashion to the erstwhile Salt of the Earth, Sousa’s signature restaurant that opened in 2010 in socio-economically-challenged Garfield. “There’s no difference in Garfield’s Penn Avenue in 2009 and Braddock Avenue in 2015. Braddock Avenue is in much better shape, actually, in terms of lower crime rates,” he explained. The conversation diverges to Salt of the Earth and Sousa’s uncoupling from his burgeoning restaurant empire of Salt, Station Street Hot Dogs, and Union Pig and Chicken.
“The best I’ve ever been was my first two years at Salt. Some of the things I’m going to do here, I tried to do at Salt, like community farming, but my business partners didn’t have the same vision. All they saw was the bottom line, but to me social connectivity is good for the bottom line. We were in the black after 18 months, which is unbelievable, but when you’re in business with people with different ideas, it just gets to be a grind.”
Sousa found professional success, but not social fulfillment. “It got to a point where I’m making food look very pretty and garnishing things just right, getting awards, and thinking ‘Is this it?'” So Sousa expanded his scope from Salt and opened Union Pig and Chicken and (re) opened Station Street Hot Dogs. “I saw those dormant spaces and wanted to bring something to the community. It’s no coincidence that I opened a barbecue place in a failed barbecue restaurant. It’s no coincidence that I opened a hot dog place in a failed hot dog shop.”
The kitchen at Superior Motors will be set up in a similar flow path as Salt of the Earth. The pastry area will be somewhat bigger than Salt’s, but it will also double as a classroom on Mondays and Tuesdays, when Sousa stated that the restaurant will be closed. The classroom will be teaching the 6 to 12 youth in the culinary program that Sousa will be heading up. During the Wednesdays to Sundays that Superior Motors will be open, the students will be paid to work two of the nights. One night, the student will be watching Sousa (or another chef) prepare four dishes, then the next night they’ll be responsible for the preparation of one of the dishes on their own.
I asked Sousa if there was any point during this planning and construction process for Superior Motors when he just thought about scrapping the whole project and working the line for one of his chef friends. “My lowest point was when the Post-Gazette article came out,” Sousa said, referring to the hit piece published in March of this year. “The Post-Gazette chose to run a story based on innuendo, with no conclusion,” said a still-bitter Sousa. “I’m comforted knowing that my reply has more page views than the original article.” Sousa knew that after his wildly successful Kickstarter campaign that “all eyes would be on us” due to the large sum of money raised, but the Post-Gazette piece was “too public for my tastes.”
But he realized that he had to power through it. This project was about far more than him. Too many people were watching the project. “I made a conscious decision to separate myself from that whole scene,” he says, referring to the glossy magazines and newspaper articles that had been breathlessly reporting on him for years. It’s not lost on him when I say that the media will again seek him out if Superior Motors is a success because of its radical concept.
The elephant in the room during our visit was about the current unfinished status of the restaurant. Sousa generated over $310,000 in January of 2014 on Kickstarter, in what was the most successful campaign for a restaurant in the site’s history. He also tells me that he has put $100,000 of his own money into the venture. So…where did the money go? Well, we are standing on it.
“This place had a vertical change of 40 inches over the span of the restaurant. For ADA purposes, we had to put in a series of ramps when we poured the new floor. That also meant raising up existing associated piping, all of which was an unforeseen expense.” Sousa says he still had “a couple hundred thousand” in the bank, but he needed to pursue a bridge loan to recoup the amount lost in the concrete pour. He’s confident, as he is while discussing every facet of the operation, that the loan will come through by the end of October. The loan will be administered by Braddock Redux, the non-profit started by Mayor Fetterman for community planning and job training, and kept separate from Sousa’s personal funds. Once that loan is in place, Sousa says that all contractors and vendors are in place and ready to go. Right now the plan is to be open for the night of the April 26 U.S. Senate Primary for John Fetterman.
Ambitious isn’t the correct word to define the scope of Superior Motors. Perhaps career-defining is a better term, for Superior Motors isn’t just a restaurant. It’s almost like a part of a broader campus that encompasses Braddock and the attempt to make it rise like a phoenix once again. Sousa talks about involving the Braddock Community Center down the street for recruitment of youth into the culinary training program. “I grew up very poor. I had a lot of friends enter the system or die. I’m trying to give these kids not a second chance, but a first chance that they otherwise may not get.”
Next door to Superior Motors is a converted convent that acts as a hostel for chef-in-residences, traveling chefs, and housing for young startups like the Brew Gentleman in the nascent days of their own venture down the street. There’s the Braddock Community Farm a few blocks away that will supply produce to the restaurant. The outdoor community oven, that will be utilized by both Superior Motors and the community, was built by apprentice masons from the Trade Institute of Pittsburgh that uses recent prison parolees looking to learn a trade a get a second chance.
If Superior Motors reaches its full potential, Kevin Sousa can no longer be considered a chef. He will have become a hybrid or some Frankensteinian amalgamation of a chef, a community activist, and an urban planner. An old Chinese proverb says that “vision is seeing things not as they are, but as they could be”. Sousa is at the inflection point of his career; everything that has come before it is the basis for this venture. On one side is a restaurant concept unlike any other in the region, if not the whole United States. On the other side is professional and financial failure that would probably spell the end of Sousa’s ability to front his own restaurant.
The converted Buddhist practices meditation daily. “I’ve learned to control things I can control and stop worrying about things I can’t,” he says as we walk out of Superior Motors. But like the double strand rolled steel being made 24-7 across the street from us, Sousa will remain strong and keep moving forward, no matter which path the venture takes him down.