La Gourmandine will take over the former Penn Avenue Fish spot on Forbes Avenue
When chef Kevin Sousa last year announced plans to open a fourth restaurant in Braddock, one of the Pittsburgh area's poorest boroughs, it was big news. Not only would the high-end destination eatery in the 1929 Couda Building give Pittsburghers one more place to enjoy Mr. Sousa's award-winning modern cuisine, but it also would bring much-needed life to a town all but left for dead.
Then reality set in.
While various grants from the county and Heritage Community Initiatives were to raise upwards of $300,000 for renovations, the dilapidated structure at the corner of Eighth and Braddock avenues would end up needing way more resources. Too many dollars, in fact, to make the ambitious project feasible. Magarac -- as the restaurant was to be named after the imaginary Croatian steelmaking folk hero -- was about to be history before it even got started.
Without rich investors or bankers willing to take a chance, Mr. Sousa had to change direction this fall to keep his dream alive. First up was finding a new building that would prove cheaper, quicker and easier to build out. Second was coming up with a creative source of financing to pay for it.
With Mayor John Fetterman's help, he's hoping to hit on both cylinders.
Following an emerging trend among restaurateurs, Mr. Sousa is turning to the wider audience of the Internet to help him front renovations for a planned restaurant on Braddock Avenue. Location: the ground floor of the former Superior Motors car dealership that the mayor and his wife, Gisele, currently are renovating into a loft.
To coincide with the Dec. 6 premiere of the drama "Out of the Furnace" starring Christian Bale and Woody Harrelson, which filmed several scenes in Braddock, Mr. Sousa just kicked off a Kickstarter campaign to get the new space up and running. His goal is to raise $250,000 in 33 days.
Both he and the mayor know it's ambitious. Small business loans, more difficult for restaurateurs to get in the wake of the recession, are virtually impossible in economically depressed places such as Braddock, noted Mr. Fetterman. So crowdsourcing, the process of getting funding, usually online, from a crowd of people, seemed the only way to go. "Banks have had a hard time following anyone to Braddock."
The new restaurant, at 1211 Braddock Ave., will be called Superior Motors in honor of its history as one of the first indoor Chevy dealerships in the country. What stays the same is Mr. Sousa's and Mr. Fetterman's do-good/eat-good philosophy -- the restaurant aims to redefine "farm to table" and "local" by providing culinary training and opportunities at no cost to local residents, and also will offer free housing for stagiaires and culinary and service interns in a former convent next door.
Fans can pledge as little as $25 to $10,000 or more as a show of faith in the venture. In exchange, they'll receive rewards ranging from free food and T-shirts to an all-inclusive dinner for up to 25 guests in the restaurant.
If people fail to fully back the project within the allotted time frame, Mr. Sousa -- who in his own show of faith this fall purchased the mayor's former loft-style home on Library Street -- won't get a penny of the money and the restaurant most likely won't happen.
"It's an all-or-nothing proposition," said Mr. Fetterman. "Not for drama or to be reckless, but to let this idea stand or fall on its merits through the most democratic mechanism possible."
Several factors make this project eminently more doable, said Mr. Sousa during a recent tour of the property. For starters, the raw ground-floor space, which the mayor will offer rent-free, is structurally sound; it also has working electricity and other utilities. Plus, it comes with a 1,000-square-foot rooftop greenhouse -- a year-round growing space that's roughly the same size as the bioshelter at Garfield Community Farm, which grows greens and other produce for Mr. Sousa's Salt of the Earth restaurant. There also is room on the roof for at least 20 raised beds, and a side yard for growing herbs.
In addition, the restaurant will have easy access to an award-winning, small-scale apiary behind the convent next door, as well as an outdoor community pizza/bread oven located in the parking lot of neighboring UnSmoke Systems Artspace.
But the biggest draw may be the view through a giant window they'll install at the front of the building. Superior Motors will sit opposite the hulking, fire-breathing Edgar Thomson Steel Works, an active steel mill since 1872.
"It was an option too good not to explore," said Mr. Sousa. "It's rooted in a space that works for the community."
The destination restaurant will seat 50 at tables and cozy "conversation pits" and another 10 at the bar. The design by Studio for Spatial Practice also will include a unique fire feature and a private room for parties.
Should the project get funded, Mr. Sousa said a vetted, experienced contractor could begin work immediately. It's not clear how long construction would take.
"There's no big hurry," he said. "Rushing into it and creating a half-[baked] restaurant doesn't serve anyone.
"People who get it, get it," he added. "Those who don't, don't."
You can learn more about Superior Motors' Kickstarter campaign here.
Gretchen McKay: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.