First in an occasional series on Magarac, Kevin Sousa’s new restaurant in Braddock, Pa.
Even more people are going to think chef Kevin Sousa is nuts: He’s not only opening his next restaurant in busted-down Braddock, he’s also moving his family there.
At a press conference June 19 at County Executive Rich Fitzgerald’s office, the multi-tasking co-owner of Salt of the Earth in Garfield — and Station Street Hot Dogs and Union Pig and Chicken in East Liberty — announced that he’s opening a restaurant in the former Cuda’s Italian Market building at Eighth Street and Braddock Avenue, a desolate corner in one of the region’s most desolate business districts.
As a sign of his commitment to this broke but the once-bustling borough on the Monongahela River, Mr. Sousa decided he’s going to live there, too, 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 money. “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, built as a furniture store in 1929 and used for years as office space for Allegheny County’s Human Services Department.
But Mr. Sousa, a McKees Rocks native who currently 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.
It will 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.
Braddock Mayor John Fetterman approached him about six months ago after another project in that space fell through.
“Braddock gives me the vibe,” Mr. Sousa said. “It’s on the cusp of something. It’s where Lawrenceville was 15 years ago.”
In hammering out a deal with Heritage Community Initiatives, the community organization that owns the building, Mr. Sousa will bring the town its first commercial kitchen since UPMC Braddock Hospital closed in 2010.
Financing for the $714,000 project, which will begin construction this fall, includes a $290,000 Community Development Block Grant received by Heritage five years ago through Dan Onorato’s county administration, along with a another grant and money raised by the community.
In addition, Mr. Fitzgerald’s office has secured a $50,000 grant to renovate building’s brick and stone facade.
Heritage originally received the grant to rehab another building into office space.
But when the hospital shut down, those plans no longer made sense, Heritage president and chief executive officer Michele Atkins said. When the building started to collapse, the county “graciously” transferred the funds to the Cuda building, which Heritage bought in 2007 for $2,150 with plans to turn it into housing.
Later Heritage decided to lease it to new businesses in an effort to breathe life back into Braddock Avenue.
Last spring, Mrs. Atkins said, there were plans for a coffee roaster to move in along with Springboard Kitchens, a Lutheran Services 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 scared off by Braddock’s landscape, 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 said 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 things he’ll be able to do — including lots of exotic preserving — with the fresh organic produce he’ll get 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,'” Mr. Fetterman said. “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 take-out window for Mr. Sousa’s barbecued chicken and ribs and gourmet hot dogs.
The site also should appeal to beer-lovers. Two men 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.
The third leg of the complex will be Springboard Kitchen, whose staff will share the restaurant’s kitchen to prepare meals for Meals on Wheels.
The process of opening a restaurant never is easy, Mr. Sousa said, but working in this project’s favor is the fact all of the players have a common goal: Bringing people back to this once-thriving steel town.
“I’m not going there just to turn a buck,” he said. “I believe in the project, and want to be part of something from the ground up. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Will customers come? To Braddock?
“That’s a fair question for which I don’t have an answer,” Ms. Atkins said. “But I suspect the young and hip crowd will be all over this. If Kevin is willing to take the risk, so are we.”