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Image: Barbara Banks

Longtime Sarasota restaurateur Steve Seidensticker has taken a step back from running Tableseide Restaurant Group, the multifaceted restaurant and consulting group he co-founded—and, up until last year, co-managed—with three of his children. Nowadays, Seidensticker, 64, defers all Tableseide questions to his son Joe, CEO since 2015.

But Seidensticker isn’t through starting up restaurants. This time he’s creating a nonprofit Newtown eatery, Miss Susie’s.

Set to open in late spring and run under Tableseide Cares, Tableseide’s foundation, Miss Susie’s has the ambitious goal of helping to create jobs and reinvigorate Newtown while coaxing more African-Americans into the restaurant service field.

The project has created a bit of a stir. Seidensticker says some people are worried the restaurant will gentrify Newtown, the historic heart of Sarasota’s African-American community, pushing longtime residents out. (“That’s not what’s going on,” he says.) Others think the project includes direct financial benefits for Tableseide. (It doesn’t.)

The seeds of Miss Susie’s were sown in a problem that had long troubled Seidensticker. The Tableseide Group owns and runs Libby’s Café + Bar, Louies Modern, Oak & Stone and Muse at the Ringling and operates catering and consulting divisions. Annual revenues top $16 million, and, at peak season, the Seidenstickers employ up to 500 people. Staffing is a constant challenge. Few African-Americans worked at any of the Tableseide restaurants or in the local hospitality workforce overall, and Seidensticker wondered why.

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A rendering of Miss Susie's.

Two years ago he turned to then-City of Sarasota Mayor Willie Shaw and, along with a handful of Newtown and local nonprofit leaders, including John Annis, then at the Community Foundation of Sarasota, and started to explore possible solutions for recruiting staff—and helping to diversify—local restaurants.

The answer? A restaurant that could double as a hospitality training ground—managed and staffed by Newtown residents. They found a derelict pink building at 1741 Martin Luther King Jr. Way that was once the site of Miss Susie’s Social Club, a popular hangout that closed in the 1970s. After Seidensticker talked to residents, he and Joe brainstormed concepts. Joe made a trip to Arnold’s Country Kitchen in Nashville (the restaurant is a James Beard winner also located in a low-income neighborhood) for inspiration.

The result is their plan for a restaurant that will serve a casual, soul food-inspired “meat-and-three” menu—a meat and three sides—that will channel the community’s history while also drawing customers from the greater Sarasota area into the neighborhood.

For management and menu development, Tableseide recruited Jone and Valerie Williams, sisters and Newtown residents with a long history of cooking for neighborhood functions. Miss Susie’s, as the spot will again be called, will include a historical plaque honoring the location’s original proprietor and namesake.

Though there have been some nonprofit restaurant-based training programs in big cities like Detroit and New York, an independent, fully operational restaurant like Miss Susie’s is a first in small-market Southwest Florida.

Seidensticker dreads looking like an interloper, a white businessman taking advantage of the African-American community. Rather than purchase the property, he negotiated a lease from owner Thelma Upshaw, also a longtime Newtown resident, for a 10-year contract at $1,750 per month, an amount based on downtown Sarasota rental rates. T. Salem Construction, a local black-owned business, is general contractor for the project. Other community members stepped up to donate their services. Architect Chris Gallagher of Hoyt Architects volunteered to design a 2,400-square-foot restaurant that will seat 130 diners.

Last September, the City of Sarasota awarded $150,000 to Tableseide Cares in the form of a 20-year loan for economic development funds. Two $50,000 grants, one from the Charles and Margery Barancik Foundation and the other from the Community Foundation of Sarasota, are being administered by the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce Foundation, which is acting as the fiscal agent for the site and development portion of the project.

Tableseide Cares will be responsible for repaying the loan and for operational costs. The goal is that the restaurant be self-sustaining after one year. Until then, the Tableseide restaurant group is providing staff training, managerial supervision and any background support, as needed, accepting no fees for the work.

Staffing his restaurants is only part of Steven Seidensticker’s motivation to create Miss Susie’s. As a young bartender at the Gasparilla Inn in the ’70s, Seidensticker was fired because of a substance-abuse problem. “But I went into treatment, and the owners gave me a chance back,” he says. After being rehired, he was promoted to concierge and then to general manager, a position he held for 27 years.

Seidensticker’s gratitude for his second chance carried over as he started his own restaurants. “We loan money [to employees]. We hire convicts. We’ve paid legal fees,” says Seidensticker, who now counts 35 years in recovery. “We’ve always hired people in recovery. They’ve been great employees. When [recovery] is successful, it’s really successful.”

He’s hoping Miss Susie’s will similarly boost the lives of some Newtown residents by helping them find new careers in Sarasota’s booming hospitality industry.

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