A Superior Strategy? Kevin Sousa's Big Bet on Braddock
The Pittsburgh chef will draw on a fierce work ethic, community goodwill and faith in his own vision for Superior Motors, the progressive American spot he plans to open this year.
photos by Laura Petrilla
Kevin Sousa is sore.
The lean muscles that whip up exotic dishes such as lamb loin with celeriac and pumpkin are swollen from his latest tattoo, a white geometric pattern layered over a black design on his left arm.
Sousa takes his tattoos seriously — almost as seriously as he takes food. He overlays the ink colors the way he artfully layers the flavors in his cuisine. If he had not become one of Pittsburgh’s most celebrated chefs, he says he would have tried to become a tattoo artist. Even his hands are tattooed, spelling out his mantra — “H-A-R-D W-O-R-K” — on the backs of his fingers.
Sousa, 40, is the chef who in 2010 opened Salt of the Earth in Garfield — then a neighborhood struggling to shake off a reputation as blighted — to near-immediate accolades. He will need every bit of his ferocious work ethic to pull off his latest enterprise, Superior Motors, slated to open this year in Braddock. An upscale eatery located smack in the middle of a down-on-its luck town, Superior Motors will aim to serve inspired, farm-fresh dishes across from a steam-spewing steel mill. He is so committed to his new restaurant that he moved with his wife and two kids from Polish Hill to the Monongahela River steel town of 2,200 residents.
Sousa’s restaurant is going up on Braddock Avenue where a Chevrolet dealership once thrived. As he peered into the dusty cavern of what remained of the old dealership late last year, he envisioned things most people could not. From the rubble of the construction site, he could see an urban, chic restaurant emerging to serve progressive American food with seasonal ingredients, some of them grown in a rooftop greenhouse.
He foresees a friendly destination restaurant intended to attract diners from throughout the region as well as the neighborhood, a place where steelworkers from across the street and symphony lovers from Point Breeze will mingle. And when he looks across at U.S. Steel’s sprawling Edgar Thomson Works, Andrew Carnegie’s first steel mill, he doesn’t see an industrial eyesore. He sees a spectacular glassed-in view for his diners.
As much as possible, he plans to staff his restaurant with Braddock youth who will train in a culinary school he intends to operate at the restaurant. He sold his socially conscious vision for a community restaurant to the public, raising a record-setting $310,225 in pledges during a Kickstarter crowd-funding campaign; the eventual total raised was $261,000 after Kickstarter applied fees and some pledges backed out. He’s raised additional funding through grants from various foundations and other sources.
For every person who donated money to his project on Kickstarter in exchange for an entrée or admittance to a VIP pre-opening event, Sousa knows that there will be others who are going to shake their heads and say, “I can’t believe there is a restaurant across from a steel mill.”
He isn’t worried that people may call him crazy. So far, Sousa — a former semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation’s Restaurant & Chef awards as well as Pittsburgh Magazine’s Chef of the Year in 2011 — has made a notable career out of ignoring what other people say.
At Salt of the Earth, which opened to critical acclaim, the customer was not always right. To the annoyance of some diners, Sousa discouraged special orders unless the requests stemmed from food allergies.
“You don’t go to a Chinese restaurant and ask for a baguette,” he says now. “Why do people come to a progressive American restaurant and ask for asparagus with hollandaise sauce?”
Bill Fuller, corporate chef and Sousa’s former boss at big Burrito Restaurant Group, says, “Kevin doesn’t worry about what people think. He is more interested in how people react to him.”
Even for a guy who shuns conventional wisdom — and one with a track record of launching spots in neighborhoods on the uphill side of turnaround — choosing Braddock for his next venture is an audacious leap off the trendy restaurant path. Superior Motors, slated to open this summer, will be the town’s only sit-down restaurant. And then there’s the lack of foot traffic in one of the region’s most impoverished communities, located about 9 miles upstream from downtown Pittsburgh.
“Braddock is not Penn and Negley,” says Fuller, referring to the location of Salt of the Earth in Garfield. “If you drive over there from Shadyside, it’s 25 minutes in the middle of the day. I hope people are passionate enough to go over there, but I think it is going to be hard.”
Sousa, who sold his share of Salt of the Earth and another culinary venture to former business partners and associates in 2014, says he knows his new venture won’t be easy. “We are not banking on my reputation. We have to create something special,” he says.
Sousa’s culinary forays into blighted neighborhoods that most restaurateurs wouldn’t touch haven’t always been smooth sailing. Buoyed by the success of Salt, he opened two restaurants in 2012 in East Liberty — Station Street Hot Dogs, a gourmet hot-dog shop, and Union Pig & Chicken, a barbecue place that later would house the Harvard & Highland cocktail spot on its second floor.
Those first few years were harder than expected, he acknowledges. He got behind on his rent at Union Pig & Chicken and on payments toward a loan he obtained from the East Liberty Development Corp. In November, he opted not to renew the lease for the hot-dog shop. In February, Sysco Corp., a food service supplier, sued him for $25,173 — a debt that at press time he had started paying down, displaying a copy of a $5,000 cashier’s check on his blog. Union Pig & Chicken’s new ownership now is responsible for the lease and loan, under terms of the sale, Sousa says.
“If I could do it over again, I would make sure I had more working capital and less debt,” he says. “If anything, I was overly ambitious and undercapitalized.”
He also underestimated the difficulty of drawing customers to a depressed strip, he says. “It is hard when you are the sole business in the business district and there is no foot traffic. You are trying to do something unique culinarily and for the neighborhood. We struggled through a lot of hard times, but I am moving forward and trying to do something different in Braddock.”
Even his concept for Braddock was not without complication, as he first considered opening a restaurant called Magarac in a different building. In a nod to the community’s challenging location, Superior Motors at first may be open only Thursday through Sunday for dinner, though the hours will be expanded if demand justifies it.
From Monday through Wednesday each week, Sousa plans to instruct six Braddock youths, age 21 and under, at no cost in a culinary training program on site and pay them to work in his kitchen. More than 200 people, many of them Woodland Hills High School graduates from Braddock, applied for those six jobs. A variety of foundations donated $225,000 to fund the culinary program through Braddock Redux, a nonprofit organization founded by Braddock Mayor John Fetterman to revitalize the town.
Fetterman, who owns the building and lives with his family in part of it, has donated the entire first floor to Braddock Redux. Braddock Redux will not charge rent for the restaurant. Braddock residents will get a discount on meals.
While his success with obtaining Kickstarter and foundation support removed initial financial risk for Sousa, it also generated considerable community pressure for him to deliver on his promises. Anticipating that some of his Kickstarter backers and other supporters may get antsy about the status of the restaurant, Sousa says he has tried to keep them abreast of the project’s timetable, which has been delayed by such typical construction hiccups as removing concrete and obtaining permits. He has provided updates on the construction process via Instagram and Twitter. One winter post showed a photo of the 12-foot-long table planned for the restaurant’s smaller dining room.
He says he’s already distributed all of the starter prizes possible at this stage, including Superior Motors T-shirts and Matthew Hodgman’s photographs of Braddock. Other backers will have to wait for the restaurant to open to attend a pre-opening VIP event or get their free entrée.
While calling it “surprising,” Fuller says Sousa’s ability to raise more than a quarter of a million dollars in project funding through Kickstarter is a measure of his relative celebrity. “Kevin is a very interesting chef character, the way he moves from thing to thing and carries fans,” he says. “I wish him all of the good fortune he deserves.”
For a guy in the culinary spotlight, however, Sousa exhibits none of the flamboyance of a TV chef. The soft-spoken redhead epitomizes post-industrial cool as he tools around in a 1989 Ford pick-up truck. His soft blue-green eyes provide a contrast to his hard tattoos, his Zen-like reserve a contrast to adventurous creations such as striped bass with pine-needle dashi. In the pressure-cooker world of restaurants, Sousa says he now stays grounded with daily meditation. He also says he has mellowed in the kitchen since he stopped drinking five years ago.
“When I was a younger chef who still drank, I was a lot more of a screamer. I was a bit of an a–hole,” he says. “I feel calmer and more confident now.”
Braddock wasn’t even on Sousa’s radar in 2011, when he was busy running Salt of the Earth and preparing to open Station Street Hot Dogs and Union Pig & Chicken. Everything changed when a mutual friend introduced him to Fetterman, the 6’ 9” Harvard University graduate who came to Braddock with AmeriCorps in 2001 and stayed.
Since becoming mayor in 2006, Fetterman has acquired his own measure of fame in media appearances spurred by his resolute, sometimes unconventional work to rejuvenate Braddock. Fetterman suggested the idea of a restaurant as a way to help with efforts to reboot his struggling community, which had shrunk by nearly 90 percent from its 1950s steel-boom population of more than 20,000.
In October 2011, Fetterman took Sousa on a tour of Braddock. Sousa says he was smitten the minute he crossed the Rankin Bridge and peered down at the panoramic view. “There is something special about Braddock,” Sousa says. “It isn’t a hopeless cause.”
Fetterman says he didn’t have to sell Sousa on his idea of a restaurant as an agent of community change. “I didn’t have Kool-Aid for him to drink. If Kevin said, ‘No,’ there was no No. 2 on the list. Kevin is the only chef who could pull this off.”
The mayor acknowledges that adding one restaurant won’t transform Braddock by itself. “I don’t hang the albatross of changing Braddock around one person’s neck,” he says. “There is no home run that will ‘fix’ Braddock. It is getting people on base, racking up runs. There is never an expectation that you will open a restaurant and change everything. It is about providing a service.”
Sousa is the perfect chef for Braddock because of his history with other restaurants in underserved communities, Fetterman adds. “It is ridiculously admirable,” he says. “It is almost like a nonprofit mission in a for-profit body.”
Braddock’s working-class vibe reminded Sousa of his hometown of McKees Rocks. While growing up in a small house on Irwin Street, he and his brother Tom would hang out at his family’s restaurant, Sousa’s, which served breaded pork chops, pierogies and other comfort food. He saw the toll the restaurant business took on his father, Thomas, who died at age 56. As a boy, he didn’t think about becoming a chef.
“I was a tough kid,” Sousa says, alluding to past habits of partying with other kids down by the Ohio River. His mother, Eileen, says he stayed out of trouble, but he did everything with utter fearlessness — from skateboarding to mountain biking to skiing. “He was a daredevil,” she remembers. “I would see videos of him skiing and I thought, ‘Oh my God. He is up in the air.’ He is not afraid of anything — not even Braddock.”
His mother, a widow who worked at three jobs, instilled a strong work ethic in her two sons. During high school, Sousa spent summers on the boardwalk in Ocean City, Md., working the fryer at Thrasher’s French Fries — not glamorous work. But he loved the pulsing energy of the kitchen, and he returned to the landmark eatery after graduating from Sto-Rox High School, earning enough to travel across the country and visit Europe.
At age 25, Sousa decided to buckle down and find a career. He was torn between apprenticing at a tattoo parlor and attending culinary school. “I like the athleticism, the physicality of kitchen work,” he says. He attended the former Pennsylvania Institute of Culinary Arts in 1997.
After a stint at a resort in Arizona, he worked his way up the chef ladder in Pittsburgh restaurants, first working as a saucier for the Duquesne Club in 2000. Later, he worked as executive chef of big Burrito’s Kaya in 2001 and then Soba two years later.
From 2004 to 2007, he made a name as the opening chef of the Bigelow Grille, receiving favorable press for experimental techniques in molecular gastronomy that he later used at Salt of the Earth. After a short time at Red Room Cafe in East Liberty, he consulted for other restaurants and planned every facet of his new venture, Salt. In one hour, he sketched the design for the restaurant with communal seating and a menu written daily on the chalkboard. With business partners Cruze Architects, he turned the onetime Harley-Davidson dealership into a transparent space with an open kitchen.
“He seemed to be ahead of the curve,” says his wife, Holly. “People told him communal feeding wouldn’t work, but it was amazing and beautiful.”
Some people absolutely loved Salt, and some people absolutely hated Salt. Despite vocal critics, his then-unconventional restaurant took off. It also helped to revitalize the Penn Avenue corridor in Garfield, making the neighborhood a destination and leading the way for other restaurants such as Verde Mexican Kitchen & Cantina, says Rick Swartz, executive director of the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation.
“We [were] sorry to lose him,” Swartz says. “People like Kevin don’t come along every day.”
After opening Salt, Sousa could have gone just about anywhere. Job offers came in from everywhere — from Chicago to Cleveland, from Lawrenceville to Shadyside. Swartz says he is not surprised that Sousa is choosing to build his next dream in Braddock. “He is a person who doesn’t mind jumping from the highest cliff and seeing where he lands.”
Holly Sousa says her husband also has another character trait that gives him an advantage. He can see far down the road to success, beyond obstacles that might be in his way at the moment, she says. “Most people say, ‘I want to do this, but this might happen.’ Kevin shoots right past that.”
For now, Kevin Sousa is busy preparing to open Superior Motors. In February, he began hosting small research-and-development dinners in his home, presenting food that is said to be in the spirit of what he’ll serve at the new restaurant. Initially, he served a seven-course omnivorous meal and a five-course vegetarian meal; in a tweet, he said he also plans to present a vegan dinner at some point. Tickets for those first events, at $65 each, sold out quickly — the first in five minutes, the second in 15 seconds.
But on a recent afternoon, he found time to talk about how peaceful he’s found it living and working in Braddock. Looking over at the Mon River, he says he can carry his kayak from his home in suitable weather and be paddling on the water in a few minutes. “I feel like I am in the country,” he says, before returning to the hard work of luring Pittsburgh’s foodies to his new hometown.
Frequent contributor Cristina Rouvalis is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in national publications, including Hemisphere, PARADE, Esquire.com, AARP the Magazine, Fortune.com and Parents.