A restaurant to fuel Rust Belt renewal

Dorothy Guy remembers when Braddock, Pennsylvania, was a thriving steel town humming with streetcars and commerce where her father, a foundry worker, and mother raised a happy family.

Every other Thursday – “steel mill payday” – her family went grocery shopping at the A&P or Kroger. For the occasional post-church treat, she recalls trips to Isaly’s for a skyscraper cone or a chipped ham BBQ sandwich.

“Braddock was really alive back then,” said Guy, 63, a lifelong resident who’s raising seven grandchildren there.

That was before the steel industry’s decline in the 1970s. Since then, the 20,000-person population of Braddock’s heyday has dried up to around 2,300, and this former metropolis on the Monongahela River east of Pittsburgh has fallen into urban decay. Save for a handful of markets, convenience stores and a cafe, there are no grocery stores or restaurants within the city limits of Braddock, Guy says.

But Braddock Mayor John Fetterman is hoping to change that with the help of Kevin Sousa, a Pittsburgh-area chef known for starting businesses in neighborhoods that have seen better days. And, they’re looking to Kickstarter to fund their big idea.

Superior Motors, named for the car dealership that once occupied the space, will be more than a chef-driven restaurant serving up food framed in buzzwords such as “organic” and “farm-to-table,” say Fetterman and Sousa. They envision a “restaurant ecosystem” that draws upon Braddock for food and labor in return for a job-training program and an establishment serving fresh, seasonal dishes.

“Good, expertly prepared food shouldn’t be exclusionary,” said Fetterman, a tall, bald, tattooed man whose efforts to revive Braddock as a modern-day urban homestead have made him the face of “Rust Belt renewal” in the national press.

“Everyone is competing for the affluent, prestigious locations and clientele, but here’s a chef who can cook with best of them wanting to go into the most impoverished towns,” Fetterman said in a phone interview.

But can a restaurant help fuel a town’s revival?

The plan is still in its infancy, which is why Sousa turned to Kickstarter when bank loans and private investors failed to materialize. But, it’s very much a project unique to Braddock, and it bears the imprint of its current mayor, who is known for pursuing ambitious projects through unconventional means.

Fetterman owns and lives in the Superior Motors building with his wife and two children. He is leasing the bottom floor free of charge to Sousa, whom Fetterman persuaded to relocate his family to Braddock to launch the project.

Sousa plans to lead a job-training program out of the restaurant for Braddock residents, who also will receive resident discounts at the restaurant. He hopes to source most of the food from Braddock Farms, the community garden launched in partnership with Grow Pittsburgh, and an existing greenhouse on top of Superior Motors.

“It is a really one-of-a-kind project, but it could be a model for other Rust Belt areas,” Sousa said in a phone interview. “All across the Rust Belt, there are post-industrial towns that are not really sure where they’re going. I’m not saying one restaurant is going to save the town, but it can be an incubator for others who have ideas about how to start businesses.”

Many in Braddock hope to see it succeed, especially if it means creating more job-training programs and employment opportunities, said Braddock Farms manager Marshall Hart. As a nonprofit dedicated to food access, Braddock Farm’s involvement will be tied largely to the food education and training component of Superior Motors.

“Getting training programs together and figuring out how to make this serve Braddock residents is our priority, because that’s what needs to be done to really help Braddock; the main issue here is jobs,” Hart said.

Dorothy Guy’s grandson Jon White is also excited by the prospect of being able to train under Sousa. The 15-year-old worked at Braddock Farms over the summer thanks to a partnership between Grow Pittsburgh and the Braddock Youth Group. He was turned off by the smell at first, but applied anyway, encouraged by Giselle Fetterman, Braddock’s first lady.

Through the six-week program, he learned to appreciate compost and to identify kale, swiss chard and cucumbers, earning a $800 stipend in the process. He also learned how to make pizza, thanks to a visit from Sousa, and hopes to work with him so he can earn money for college.

“Him being here is just another sign of how Braddock is getting better,” said White, who lives with his grandmother while he pursues his high school diploma through an online program

“Braddock used to be a bad area. It used to have a lot of violence,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s getting better and better, the streets are getting better. We don’t have a lot of loitering, and people care about the community. At the pace we’re going, it’s getting better all the time.”

So, why does a community lacking many basic amenities need a restaurant? Why not, asks Fetterman, who arrived in town in 2001 as an AmeriCorps volunteer.

Since taking office in 2005, the mayor has spearheaded a number of urban renewal initiatives, from converting abandoned buildings into community centers and artistic incubators, to the creation of green spaces and an urban garden. Through the Free Store managed by Giselle Fetterman, members of the community can get clothes and food donations from Costco, helping to alleviate food insecurity, Fetterman said.

With plans underway for an urgent care facility and affordable housing development, a restaurant seemed like a good way to continue serving Braddock while making it a destination for outsiders.

“This is not a gentrifying effort, nor is it a panacea to all our problems,” Fetterman said. “All these things are here already – the chef, the garden, the building, the pizza oven – the one thing’s that missing is a restaurant to plug them all into.”

The mayor approached Sousa about two years ago with the idea. The chef has a proven history in pioneering restaurants in neighborhoods that had fallen on hard times. His first fine-dining restaurant, Salt of the Earth, opened in 2010 in Pittsburgh’s Garfield neighborhood to great acclaim, followed by Union Pig & Chicken and Station Street Food in 2012.

“Kevin gets it. He’s from a place not unlike Braddock, and he’s not interested in distancing himself from that,” Fetterman said. "He’s running into it and embracing it.”

The chef hails from McKees Rock, a transportation hub through which much of the steel produced in Pittsburgh traveled. His grandfather worked in the steel industry and opened an Italian restaurant with Sousa’s father in the 1960s, catering to steel workers. He was raised against the post-industrial backdrop of the 1970s and 1980s amid the mass exodus.

“I feel comfortable in less affluent neighborhoods because that’s where I’m from,” he said. “There are a lot of cool and eclectic neighborhoods in Pittsburgh that had their heyday at one point and for whatever reason they haven’t come back. But they are near and dear to my heart.”

“And, from a business standpoint, the rents are cheap, and I’m open-minded to taking on challenges,” he continued. “It seems to have worked out. People come to our restaurants and support us.”

Dorothy Guy and other residents of Braddock are looking forward to its arrival. She is happy with how the mayor has turned around Braddock so far and supports his initiatives. Plus, it’ll be nice to have another gathering place in town.

“There were lot of good things back then, but now it’s a new day,” she said. “It will never be the same as before, but it’s going to be good.”

Previously:
Today's special: a cafe on a mission of empowerment
Serving time at an inmate-staffed restaurant inside a prison
Dark restaurant provides ray of hope for visually impaired

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