Category Archives: Community Management

Interview: How Chef Kevin Sousa Raised $310,000 Through Kickstarter

Chef Kevin Sousa, 40, is a Pittsburgh-based chef and restaurateur who recently closed a Kickstarter project to fund Superior Motors and Farm Ecosystem in Braddock, PA. His goal: raise $250,000 in 33 days to bring a restaurant, farm and job-training program to a town that’s lost more than 90% of its population in the last 50 years.

Chef Kevin Sousa

Chef Kevin Sousa

The result: 2,026 backers contributed $310,225, making Superior Motors Kickstarter’s most-funded restaurant project ever. After the campaign closed, he landed a challenge $40,000 grant from the Heinz Endowment for the restaurant’s job-training program.

Just fifteen miles from downtown Pittsburgh, Braddock has no restaurants, no grocery stores, no convenience marts — not even a fast-food operator. The town’s last commercially-operated kitchen served a local hospital that closed in 2010. Chef Sousa and his backers are transforming a former auto dealership owned by Braddock Mayor John Fetterman into a destination restaurant, thereby creating a culinary oasis in what is currently a food desert.

Sustainability is key to the recipe: Superior Motors encompasses 5,000 square feet of rooftop gardens, a 3,000-square-foot restaurant, a farm within walking distance, eggs from Braddock chickens and a job-training program for workers and culinary students who’ll live in a hostel next door. “It’s really going to operate like a small school, but also as a fine-dining destination restaurant,” Sousa said.

Superior Motors Ecosystem Asset Map

Superior Motors Ecosystem Asset Map

Food waste will be composted, and a nearby apiary already optimizes farm yields and produces honey. Because Mayor Fetterman owns the Superior Motors building, he’s agreed to provide it rent-free in perpetuity. Sousa and his team plan to start serving customers in January 2015.

Superior Motors is a community-based enterprise; you and your family relocated to Braddock from Pittsburgh. Why do you want to be here?

I grew up in McKees Rocks, which is another depressed, post-industrial wasteland — I know that sounds harsh — but when the steel industry crashed in Western Pennsylvania, it really affected a lot of communities, McKees Rocks was one of them, and Braddock another one. When I was introduced to John [Fetterman] through a mutual friend, they invited me down to see what they were doing and it was really inspirational work.

The nonprofit in Braddock runs a free store, which is essentially what it sounds like: a couple of shipping containers set up in a parking lot, and they have a deal worked out with Costco where Costco donates all of the food and clothes, so it’s basically like a thrift store, except everything’s brand-new, and everything’s free.

Projects like that and the Braddock Youth Project and Braddock Farms, all these things that John and his wife and so many talented people in Braddock are doing were just inspirational to my wife and I. The first day that we met, I said, “hey, what’s the real estate deal down here,” and John said, “Kevin, if you want to move to Braddock, you can move to Braddock.”

He called me one day and said, “there’s this really great warehouse building available, I know that it’s right in your wheelhouse,” and it was available for a song, so my wife and I purchased it, cashed in a few favors with different people that do some work and we moved in in July [2013].

This place is where my heart is. I grew up blue-collar … and I love the industrial backdrop of the steel mill and the beauty of the Monongahela Valley. It just struck a chord with me. John Fetterman has been quoted as calling it “Braddock’s malignant beauty,” and I think that’s a great quote.

You’re a classically-trained, award-winning chef with a growing reputation. You already own three restaurants and a bar in Pittsburgh. Why turn to Kickstarter to fund Superior Motors instead of seeking a business loan or private investment?

Braddock is a very depressed town. Over the last 30 years, it’s lost 90% of its population, 90% of its buildings are in a landfill. It is in need of a lot of things.

Mayor John Fetterman is a friend of mine, he’s very creative in his approach to Braddock. It’s becoming an arts community, real estate is affordable, but there isn’t a business district, there isn’t a bank, and banks are not willing to take a risk on a place like Braddock. We couldn’t get banks down here.

Braddock Mayor John Fetterman

Braddock Mayor John Fetterman (photo courtesy Town of Braddock)

And I do have a good reputation in Pittsburgh, but that being said, restaurant owners aren’t all millionaires. My restaurants are modest and we focus on local product, so the profit margins are low. And I’ve put myself and my wife into a lot of debt opening restaurants over the last few years, so contrary to popular belief, I don’t have the capital to just move to Braddock and open up a world-class, destination restaurant.

I had a friend who launched a very modest Kickstarter campaign and we followed their lead and we ended up having Nara Garber, she’s a very talented filmmaker who’s been working in Braddock for more than a year, filming for a documentary she’s making. She was led to Braddock by Morgan Spurlock who did A Day in the Life of Mayor Fetterman, and she was so inspired by it, she’s been here for a year.

[Nara] was willing to give us her services and also happened to have footage of all these events we’d done in the last year, all the community outreach, I’d worked with Braddock Youth Project, and she had all this stuff on film. She volunteered to cut the video for us and edit it, and it turned out great, and from that, we just built what turned out to be a campaign that I’m very proud of and I think sort of hit it out of the park.

Did you consider other options like a fundraiser or private investment, or did you raise all the money going into Superior Motors through Kickstarter?

We did a lot of those things, but frankly, in the realm of raising a significant amount of money, no one wants to be the first one at the table. We just felt like if we could successfully raise $250,000, then we’d have some playing cards.

Eventually, that’s what ended up happening. Since the Kickstarter campaign was successful, we’ve had several prominent endowments approach us. Another one [The Heinz Endowment] has already contributed $40,000 to the job-training aspect. So, good money follows good money.

Your Kickstarter proposal and video really tie together the farm-to-table concept and how it can benefit the community. How much did you contribute to the video and the other material on your Kickstarter page?

John and I wrote it in tandem. I would write, and he has a Master’s degree from Harvard, and I’m not college-educated, so I would write it and submit it to him to take a look, but the layout and the way that it’s structured is mostly myself with John’s input and, of course, Nara’s input. For the video, we talked about what we thought it should be, some history of where we’re coming from, why Braddock, why this project, and kind of what’s going on presently.

And those images of the community events and me working with the Braddock Youth Project in the summer flow into what we thought it could be and kind of end with something that really pulls at your heartstrings, which is, “this doesn’t happen without the Kickstarter community.

Braddock Farms

Farmer Marshall Hart at Braddock Farms

We wanted it to really hit home, and we weren’t willing to set our goal lower, because that wouldn’t have gotten us where we needed to be. We could have reached a goal of $100,000 we thought pretty easily, but that just wouldn’t have done anything. $100,000 is a lot of money for some projects, but for this project, it’s not.

We set it at $250,000 and we swung for the fences, and honestly, it didn’t look like it was going to happen until the last day when Pittsburgh just went bananas and really got behind it, and it’s really sort of changed the scope of what I do as far as my connection with my other businesses. I’m sort of restructuring my responsibilities within my other businesses because my focus right now is Braddock. And I owe it to the people of Kickstarter to deliver this thing that I said I was going to deliver.

If the Kickstarter campaign wasn’t successful, what was your Plan B?

We didn’t have a Plan B. We put all our eggs in one basket and hoped for the best.

You met your funding goal in the last day of the campaign; what put you over the top?

We got one really great piece of press, it’s someone who I know believes in the cause and she writes for Pittsburgh Magazine, and she put out a blog post Friday late in the day. In most cities, you bury news on the end of the day on a Friday. But for whatever reason, she wrote this really beautiful piece about why you should contribute to Kevin Sousa’s new whatever. Look it up in Pittsburgh Magazine, her name is Leah Lizarondo. I feel like that was the spark.

And then, literally the next day, we got an email from Rob Stephany [Program Director, Community & Economic Development] of the Heinz Endowment, which is huge in Pittsburgh.

That’s when he put out that challenge grant saying that if this Superior Motors project reaches its goal of $250,000, the Heinz Foundation will secure another $40,000 that goes directly to the job-training aspect. So, I think those two things in tandem, the piece by Leah and Rob Stephany, that’s what led to the insane Sunday that we had at the end.

I don’t have an answer. I don’t know what happened other than it took off. Watching it on social media was insane. Generally if I pick up my phone and look at my Twitter account, there’s one notification. On Sunday, all day I could not pick up my phone without 100 retweets or 100 notifications, it was fucking nuts. Imagine the best day you’ve ever had on Twitter, times 1,000. It was literally non-stop, I was in shock.

We were at $247,000 at 2 in the morning, I went to sleep around 4, woke up around 5:30 and at 5:45, we met our goal of $250,000, and then it kept going, raising another $60,000 through the day on Monday.

Why did you decide to make Superior Motors a 33-day campaign?

We just thought Monday was a good day to end. I can’t say we made the smartest decision because if I were to go back, I probably would have extended it to more like 45 days, because we lost 2 weeks around the holidays, but it all worked out to our advantage. In the last couple of days, people had a sense of urgency, people had recovered from the hangover of the holidays — yeah, it was really a perfect storm for us. Not one thing made it happen.

How did you get Braddock residents involved in supporting this project? Was it a hard sell, or were people receptive?

We put together a really solid Kickstarter campaign and that’s the crux of it. Pittsburgh and the region got behind it.

The other crazy thing about this is: one of our last backers — which speaks volumes about how special this place is, I think — was Christian Bale and his wife [Sibi Blazic].

We didn’t need their money at this point, and he’s in Spain playing Moses. So he was watching Kickstarter, and first, his wife donates, and I’m thinking “Bale? Well, that’s got to be related.” And then, literally within 10 minutes, he came and made a big donation. So together, they donated $20,000. And he’s not going to be looking to get his reward back.

Christian Bale in "Out of the Furnace"

Christian Bale in “Out of the Furnace”

They filmed “Out of the Furnace” entirely in Braddock. John got really close to them and worked directly with them. And Christian Bale is on record saying that he loved the whole experience and fell in love with Braddock. To learn the dialect, he’d go to Pittsburgh bars with a hood over his head and just listen to people talk, It’s really cool to see that we had a number of people donate a dollar, we had Christian Bale [and his wife] donate $20,000, and everything in between.

73% of your backers contributed $50 or less. Why do you think you were so successful at this level?

We’re not dealing with people who have tons of money. Most of them [backers under $50] live in the region. Those rewards don’t really cost that much, people wanted to contribute what they could, and $25 or $50 was what most people could contribute. Which is great, because $25 – $50 is where we try to fall as far as our average ticket in a restaurant.

To have 2,000 backers is a really great starting point to open this type of business. Especially when we’re not in a destination area; you’re going to have to drive to find this restaurant, you’re not going to just stumble upon it walking down the street.

What are your plans for keeping backers engaged while you build out the restaurant?

John and I are meeting this afternoon to set up a calendar of events, at least one each month, most likely more than that once the weather breaks. The nice thing about Braddock is there is a ton of space, and we don’t have to go through much red tape because the mayor is involved in the project. We’re going to be doing a number of community events, some are going to be open to the public, some will be just for the backers and Kickstarter-only, some will be a little more exclusive just for larger backers.

What advice do you have for others launching six-figure campaigns for Kickstarter projects like yours?

Paint a picture and say, “this is something that needs to exist.”

We decided that we have to pull on people’s heartstrings, and we have to make this feel like something that anyone would be proud of the fact that they’d contributed. If you go back to our Kickstarter campaign and look at the comments, some of them made me cry. They’re really touching and emotional. And that’s how this project has been from day one. That’s why we were successful.

If you can really connect with people on an emotional, visceral level, you’ll succeed. And I wouldn’t have been able to put that sentence together a month ago. All John and I did was present this idea and a pretty video. Everyone else made it real.

Kickstarter comment

Comment from a Superior Motors backer on Kickstarter.

Give it a special feel. It’s not a product — you have an idea.

Watch the Kickstarter proposal video for Superior Motors (cinematography and editing by Nara Garber):

Follow Chef Kevin Sousa on Twitter.

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Copy & Paste Crisis Management, Part 2: Applebee’s and the Bad Tipper (UPDATED)

On January 25, a party of 10 dined at an Applebee’s in St. Louis. When Alois Bell picked up the check, she saw that the restaurant had added an 18% tip — a customary practice for large group. Bell crossed it out and wrote, “I give God 10% why do you get 18.” For good measure, she added the word “Pastor” before her name on the signature line.

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Waitress Chelsea Welch didn’t serve the group, but she took a photo of the receipt and posted it on Reddit. After Pastor Bell learned that she’d gone viral, she called the restaurant to complain; Welch was fired soon after.

“Sanctimonious preacher vs. indignant working stiff” is a great storyline. I just wish Welch had obscured Bell’s name before submitting it to Reddit; she’d have had a claim to the moral high ground.

Outrage travels fast, so Applebee’s social media channels were soon bristling with comments from pro-waitress agitators. Because no one from Corporate quickly provided the SM team with a choate response, they turned to Ctrl+C, Ctrl+V, instead of simply using their right to remain silent for a few hours.

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Nervous marketers: when you’re in a foxhole, I know copy + paste looks like a friendly, but it’s actually the enemy.

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As I’ve written before, canned responses ≠ crisis management. Putting “we’re listening” on a loop is the exact opposite of listening, and even worse, it’s insulting. People know when they’re being shined on.

After a full business day of getting the business, Applebee’s crafted this precious gem:

“We wish this situation hadn’t happened. Our Guests’ personal information – including their meal check – is private, and neither Applebee’s nor its franchisees have a right to share this information publicly. We value our Guests’ trust above all else. Our franchisee has apologized to the Guest and has taken disciplinary action with the Team Member for violating their Guest’s right to privacy.”

Very safe and by the book, but it creates a new narrative: the giant restaurant chain and the cheapskate who got her fired vs. a service worker trying to make ends meet.

(Applebee’s PR Team: close your eyes and imagine Chelsea Welch sharing her story on The Today Show: “What’s next for you, Chelsea?” asks a sympathetic Matt Lauer.)

Not that anyone asked, but what would I have done differently?

First order: ask Legal if we faced any liability because the receipt was publicized; if we were exposed, I’d urge them to negotiate a confidential settlement with Bell. If not, I’d direct the PR team to issue a press release indicating that another statement is forthcoming later today.

I’d then use the time I’d just bought to:

  1. Contact the Franchisee, Welch and Bell.
  2. Give Welch two options: 1) suspension without pay for two weeks and an apology on Reddit for posting Bell’s personal info, or, 2) stay fired.
  3. Issue a formal apology to Bell — before she receives the settlement, she agrees to record a YouTube video about why we tip servers in restaurants. (How many times do you think that would get shared?)
  4. Call The Today Show to find out when Welch and Bell can explain to Al Roker how they became besties.

I know: “that’s not how corporations act.” Of course they don’t; most organizations don’t have crisis-response plans; instead, they roll up the drawbridge and force their SM team to heave prefab responses over the parapets at the angry mob.

Can we please try out some weird, new ideas?

UPDATED: Applebee’s PR team must have burned the midnight oil, because they posted a timeline of the events with a detailed explanation of how Chelsea Welch apparently violated employee guidelines:

“Employees must honor the privacy rights of APPLEBEE’s and its employees by seeking permission before writing about or displaying internal APPLEBEE’S happenings that might be considered to be a breach of privacy and confidentiality. This shall include, but not be limited to, posting of photographs, video, or audio of APPLEBEE’S employees or its customers, suppliers, agents or competitors, without first obtaining written approval from the Vice President of Operations. The policy goes on to specify: Employees who violate this policy will be subject to disciplinary action, up to and including termination of employment.”

In related news, The Guardian published an op-ed by Chelsea Welch this morning:

Tips are not optional, they are how waiters get paid in America

I’d like to commend Applebee’s for drawing global attention to the plight of the American service worker. Ms. Welch, if you need a publicist, I recommend SKDKnickerbocker — they represent Sandra Fluke.

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A few thoughts on Instagram’s TOS problem

Can you name a successful Web service whose fortunes fell because they updated their Terms of Service?

Neither can I, but since Instagram announced proposed changes to its TOS, I’ve read a lot of commentary about how they’re alienating prolific users who post high-quality content. (A few will leave and other shutterbugs will fill the vacuum.)

Working with lawyers, I’ve drafted TOS documents for several companies. Users “click to agree” almost anything without reading it first, but that’s never stopped me from explaining policies clearly and simply. Because I’ve been on both sides of this issue, TOS changes just don’t get me worked up. As one wise soul put it, “if you’re not paying for it, you’re the product.”

I’m willing to bet that the proposed changes weren’t reviewed externally before they were announced. A TOS isn’t proprietary information, so why not recruit a working group of power users to ask them if they can work within the new guidelines? Um, Instagram has formed 1:1 relationships with the members who make the service interesting, right?

Around midday yesterday, Instagram updated its blog to clarify the TOS changes. This was the right call — if you don’t tell your story, someone else will tell it for you. I didn’t care for the tone used in the post; purely a matter of taste, but when I flip through my PR swatch book, Condescending Corporate isn’t a first choice.

“Thank you, and we’re listening” is a patronizing way to address angry users, as are statements like “legal documents are hard to understand.” I’m just glad they didn’t include “math is hard.” There’s also too much text; if users don’t read the TOS closely, I doubt this co-founder’s message got more than a quick scan. Each of his points could have been reduced to a couple of sentences. I’m sure this post was sincere, but it wasn’t persuasive.

After reading the last paragraph, a reasonable person might assume that the hue and cry raised by users would lead Instagram to revisit and change proposed policies. That’s misleading. Give the community a perceived sense of ownership and they will become engaged and passionate. Give them an overblown sense of how much they direct the company’s management and direction, and they’ll feel betrayed and ignored.

What would I have done differently? I’d have produced something more direct, like an AMA session on Reddit to discuss the proposed changes ad nauseum. A 90-second YouTube video would have had more personality and could have elicited empathy. (Moreover, YouTube’s analytics can help determine which parts of your argument resonate with your audience.)

The section of the blog post explaining that companies won’t use Instagram photos in ads read like pure CYA: if they NEVER had any intention of licensing photos to third parties for ads, why did the language appear in the revised TOS? Why not just come clean and say, “we changed our minds.”

If I were King of Instagram, I’d have put together a Town Hall so the company could speak directly to users without a PR filter. Ask someone like Xeni Jardin or Kara Swisher to moderate, and suddenly, Instagram is a steward of discussions about user-generated content. I’d even have called Apple to see if I could stream the event to stores in top markets and would have used the service to promote the event.

Regardless of what I’d have done, Instagram will weather this; I’d be surprised if their growth declines as a result of the TOS controversy.

Every communication crisis is an opportunity to engage your community. Don’t just wipe the egg off your face; make an effort to reach people where they are and be as clear as you can.

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