Chef Kevin Sousa will have a two-minute walk to work when he opens his fourth restaurant next year in one of Pittsburgh's most down-on-its-luck towns. That's because along with the creative, modern cuisine that has earned him two James Beard Foundation nominations, he's bringing his family to Braddock, too.
At a news conference Tuesday at county Executive Rich Fitzgerald's office, the multitasking co-owner of Salt of the Earth in Garfield -- and Station Street Hot Dogs and the new Union Pig and Chicken in East Liberty -- announced that he's opening a restaurant in the former Cuda's Italian Market building at Eighth and Braddock avenues -- a desolate corner in one of the region's most sparse business districts.
As a sign of his commitment to this broke but once-bustling borough, the local celebrity chef decided he's going to live in the old Ohringer Building just down the street.
"A lot of people tell me I'm crazy," he said last week while taking visitors on a tour of the squat corner market, which was marked for demolition until Mr. Fitzgerald stepped in with development dollars. "But they thought that about Salt being in Garfield, and a white kid doing BBQ, and my opening a hot dog shop across the street from what used to be one of the worst projects in the city."
Plans are still in the initial stages for the loft Massaro Corp. will construct for his wife and daughters in the former commercial space. But Mr. Sousa, a McKees Rocks native who lives in Polish Hill, expects to move in by the time the high-end restaurant is up and running in late 2013.
It will be called Magarac. The name -- Croatian for donkey -- honors the imaginary Croatian steel worker who is the Paul Bunyan of steelmaking, and is embodied in a statue at the hulking Edgar Thomson Steel Works in North Braddock.
The restaurant will seat between 100 and 120 people and feature the works of local artists such as Iron Eden's John Walter, who is crafting a 23-foot steel and iron tree to be its focal point. The dishware will be made across the street by potters in the library's basement pottery studio.
"From the minute I walked around town, it just felt right," said Mr. Sousa, who was approached by Braddock Mayor John Fetterman about six months ago, after another project in that space fell through. "Braddock gives me the vibe. It's on the cusp of something. It's where Lawrenceville was 15 years ago."
"We're super excited," said Mr. Fetterman at the news conference. "We've taken a derelict structure that was empty for a quarter of a century and introduced a food pavilion in a town that doesn't have a restaurant."
The first phase of construction, which included a new environmentally sustainable "white" roof and new joists, is complete. Work on the interior and facade is expected to start later this summer.
In hammering out a deal with Heritage Community Initiatives, the community organization that owns the building, Mr. Sousa will bring the beleaguered town its first commercial kitchen since UPMC Braddock hospital closed in 2010. Financing for the $714,000 project include a $290,000 Community Development Block Grant received by Heritage five years ago, along with other grants and money raised by the community. In addition, Mr. Fitzgerald's office has secured a $50,000 grant to renovate the building's brick and stone facade.
Heritage originally received the grant to rehab the Mill Station building in the 400 block of Braddock Ave. into office space. But when the hospital shut down, those plans no longer made sense, said president and CEO Michele Atkins.
Last spring, Ms. Atkins said, there were plans for a coffee roaster to move in, along with Springboard Kitchens, a Lutheran Service Society nonprofit organization that offers food job training. But the grant process took so long, the coffee roaster gave up and moved back to Minnesota. It was back to square one.
Mr. Fetterman, though, isn't the type to give up.
He remembers thinking: With an empty lot across the street on which to plant a garden and more than 10,000 square feet of open space, the Cuda building would be perfect for a restaurant.
When he asked his friends who could pull it off, only one name came up: Kevin Sousa.
Many would be discouraged to start a business in Braddock, a town where 90 percent of its original buildings are in the landfill and the remnants are in desperate need of repair. Mr. Sousa wasn't one of them. He said he loves Braddock Avenue's "open sky feeling."
Because Heritage has worked out a deal in which he'll pay no rent for the first two years, Mr. Sousa says he'll be able to afford taking a few more risks than at Salt with his modern American cuisine. Already, he's thinking about the interesting things he'll be able to do -- including lots of exotic preserving -- with the fresh organic produce he'll get two blocks down the street at Braddock Farms and also grow on the lot across the street.
While he's counting on foodies to come from all over, he'll also serve the local community, with lower-priced, more accessible foods.
"It's not, 'Let's create this awesome restaurant where Kevin can stretch his legs,' " said Mr. Fetterman. "The bottom line is, he's taking on the region's most persistent and difficult food deserts."
To that end, Glance & Associates will include in its design a small takeout window for Mr. Sousa's barbecued chicken and ribs and gourmet hot dogs. Borough residents will get a 50 percent discount.
The site also should appeal to beer and cocktail lovers. Two Carnegie Mellon University grads calling themselves The Brew Gentlemen will brew at least four craft beers, including a chai-spiced white ale, on a small system in the basement. And Mr. Sousa also is planning a high-end lounge.
The third leg of the complex will be Springboard Kitchens, whose staff will share the restaurant's kitchen to prepare meals for Meals on Wheels.Will customers come? To Braddock?
"We have a pretty solid reputation of producing destination restaurants," Mr. Sousa said, "and [confidence] that three concepts in one business will interest enough people. The level of food will be second to none in the city."businessnews - neigh_east - dining
Gretchen McKay: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1419 and on Twitter @gtmckay. First Published June 20, 2012 4:00 AM