This Charleroi spot isn’t a drop-what-you’re-doing-and-go destination yet, but it soon will be.
Kevin Sousa knows three years seems a long time to get Superior Motors up and running.
For nearly two years, while construction in the former Chevrolet dealership in Braddock was at a standstill, the award-winning chef concedes he, too, began to wonder if he would ever open one of the most highly anticipated area restaurants and become a major player in the struggling town’s revival.
“I was going to play every card until the end,” he says.
Now the end — and beginning — is finally in sight. Superior Motors is set to open to the public July 12, following an invite-only soft opening for friends and family the previous weekend.
“And we’re actually coming back stronger,” says Mr. Sousa of the venture that includes a 70-seat theater. “It’s a much better project because of the delay.”
The 42-year-old chef from McKees Rocks developed a devout following after opening Salt of the Earth in Garfield in 2010. He also ran Union Pig and Chicken and Station Street Hot Dogs in East Liberty.
His Superior Motors project got off to a good start in January 2014 with a history-making Kickstarter campaign that raised $310,225 from more than 2,000 backers in 33 days. To date, it remains the most-funded of Kickstarter’s 2,500-plus restaurant projects.
With Braddock Mayor John Fetterman’s help, Mr. Sousa secured some $900,000 in loans from organizations such as the Enterprise Zone of Braddock, The Laurel Foundation and Heinz Endowments, which provided $150,000 for the purchase of equipment. In addition, Mr. Fetterman, who owns and lives on the second floor of the building on Braddock Avenue, across the street from U.S. Steel’s Edgar Thomson Works, offered the space rent-free.
Construction started in November 2014, and it became clear the project was “about 10 miles from turnkey,” Mr. Sousa says.
Although his architect had deemed the warehouse’s level first floor up to code, it was anything but. Digging through 3 feet of concrete, contractors realized the plumbing was bad and the sewage system woefully inadequate. All of the electrical lines had to be replaced. The $262,000 netted from Kickstarter (after expenses) was just a drop in the bucket.
“We spent enough to realize we needed a lot more,” says Mr. Sousa, well in excess of $1 million.
As Mr. Fetterman puts it: “By the time we were nine months in, it went from an X to XXL. So we put the brakes on it.”
They began to seek more financing, but had no success after a March 2015 story in the Post-Gazette about the chef’s past financial struggles. Mr. Sousa decided to lay low.
The radio silence made backers like Dan Winne, a Pittsburgh motion graphics artist who pledged $50 to the Kickstarter, wonder if he could get his money back.
“I definitely got worried,” he said, since every other project he’d backed over the years had been completed in time. “I was surprised at how long it took. I thought, ‘How hard could it be?’”
Josh Gretz of Cranberry, who donated $500, was more patient. Having backed 65 different Kickstarter projects, he says he understood the risk. “But I never worried it would never happen,” he says. “I could see there was some movement.”
Mr. Sousa insists he kept in touch with the mailing list during the process. “But there wasn’t much to update,” he says.
If it hadn’t been for performer/producer Maxine Lapiduss, the project might have died. In Braddock last fall to film a reality show, she called her friend Gregg Kander, a corporate attorney she knew who was looking to invest in a project with a social mission.
“So I went out there, and heard what he wanted to do, met the mayor and thought, “This is really fantastic,” Mr. Kander says.
A meeting with Patrick Jordan of Barebones Productions, who was thinking of turning raw space at the rear of the building into a theater, sealed the deal. Mr. Kander ended up raising $600,000 from four investors. He also was instrumental in securing a low-interest, seven-year loan for $257,000 from Allegheny County Department of Economic Development.
“With previous projects I led with my wallet,” he says. “In Braddock, it’s with my heart. This could transform a community.”
County Economic Development director Bob Hurley says his office was drawn to the project because of the strong management team Mr. Sousa has put in place. The general manager is Chris Clark, who ran WD-50 in New York for seven years and has also worked at Mezzo, Downtown, and as a consultant for Casellula on the North Side.
The scene on Braddock Avenue was also changing. Brew Gentleman started drawing large crowds with craft beers and the recently opened Portogallo Peppers N’At is thriving near the Rankin Bridge.
Construction began anew at Superior Motors in March. Mr. Sousa has pledged to make the restaurant an integral part of Braddock. He has hired four residents and plans to offer a bimonthly “community loyalty program” that gives residents (plus one guest) 50 percent off on meals.
Seventeen-year-old Raemon Prunty, a rising senior at Winchester Thurston School, will be a waiter.
“I’ve been thinking about it all school year, and counting down to training,” he says. “A restaurant in town will bring life back to the community.”
“It’s huge,” says Ash Gaines, 32, of neighboring East Pittsburgh, a Pittsburgh Culinary Institute grad and mother of four who has been hired to cook at the restaurant. “It was just a matter of will and determination.”
After so much waiting, Mr. Sousa is glad to finally be back in the kitchen full-time.
“It’s like being on the hot line on a busy Friday, and going down, and still having the best night ever,” he says.
Gretchen McKay: email@example.com, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.