BRADDOCK (KDKA) — Kevin Sousa is a rock star among Pittsburgh chefs, but after playing a pivotal role in launching the local restaurant scene into national prominence, he abruptly left the stage.
While upscale eateries have opened up all over the area, Sousa hit a wall in trying to transform the downstairs of an abandoned Braddock car dealership into a one-of-a-kind destination.
The so-called “Superior Motors Project” is already a year and half behind schedule. Now, many of the more than 2,000 devoted followers who pledged money to the project through Kickstarter are asking what gives?
“I don’t blame people from wondering what the hell is going on,” says Sousa. “Anyone who has ever put any little construction job into their house they know that it inevitability runs over time and over budget. Both of those things happened to us.”
For Sousa, Superior Motors is the culmination of a career that has taken him far from the mainstream. Rather open another hipster spot on the South Side, Shadyside or Downtown, Sousa has always taken a chance on struggling neighborhoods.
His restaurants – Salt of the Earth, Union Pig and Chicken, and Station Street – helped revitalize East Liberty and Garfield.
He says he believes that Superior Motors, which will combine the restaurant with a cooking school for disadvantaged local youth and new theater for the Barebones Contemporary Drama Company, could do even more for Braddock.
“I mean, who cares about another restaurant where there’s already 25 restaurants. That’s how I think anyway,” Sousa said. “The restaurant business is tough regardless of where you are. But for me, it was always more interesting to go into a place that didn’t have a restaurant or didn’t have anything to offer the people in their neighborhood.”
But after beginning construction with more than $700,000 from small contributors and large foundations, the project stalled.
The removal of three feet of concrete from the floor revealed other problems, and Sousa contends that a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article detailing his debts related to his other restaurants spooked investors who would have closed the funding gap.
“That article, unfortunately, with all of the innuendo and all of the irresponsible reporting cast a shadow over the project,” Sousa said.
The Post-Gazette stands by the article.
But even Sousa, who is an artist in the kitchen, concedes his skills as a businessman are lacking and that he was over-ambitious and under-capitalized in opening three at restaurants once.
But because he has now sold those places, Sousa says he’s now debt free and that none of the money raised for Superior Motors went to clearing that up.
“Not a single penny was misspent,” he said. “Everything is trackable. All the money that was raised from Kickstarter is in the building.”
“It’s never been anything other than a priority to get the restaurant open and to honor everyone that invested the project and believed in it,” Braddock Mayor John Fetterman said.
Fetterman, who is Sousa’s landlord on the project, owns the building and lives upstairs. Already committed to the project is an investment group headed Greg Kander.
“It’s a good deal. It’s going to happen,” Kander says.
If all goes well, all involved say the restaurant could open in five months. Sousa, who’d like nothing more than to get back in the kitchen, says he will make it worth the wait.
“There’s so many people who have been supportive, and organizations and the town. And just everybody’s behind it,” he says. “So I really feel it’s my duty to deliver something on a really high level.”