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.
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.
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 .
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.
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.“
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.
A restaurant as a catalyst for economic renewal? You can make history happen. Only a little more to go! http://t.co/JnMr9EDfXg
— Leah Lizarondo (@BrazenKitchen) January 6, 2014
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.
— Kevin Sousa (@sousapgh) January 6, 2014
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.
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.
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.