Miss Susie's Newtown Kitchen is a go. Leaders from TableSeide Restaurant Group and its charitable arm, TableSeide Cares, joined with city officials, nonprofit representatives, builders and Newtown residents on Tuesday morning for a groundbreaking ceremony celebrating the start of construction on Miss Susie's, a new nonprofit restaurant that sits in the site that once housed Miss Susie’s Social Club, which closed in the '70s.
The idea for the restaurant came during a conversation between TableSeide co-founder Steve Seidensticker and Sarasota City Commissioner Willie Shaw, who are longtime friends. At the time, Seidensticker was concerned that out of 500 or so employees at his restaurants, which include Libby's Cafe & Bar, Louies Modern and others, his company employed only four African-Americans, and efforts to recruit black employees hadn't worked.
During one of their regular chats, Seidensticker and Shaw expressed frustration with people who are "all talk and no action." A light bulb went off. "We realized we were two of those guys," Seidensticker said Tuesday.
Seidensticker began working with Miss Susie's property owner Thelma Upshaw; Joan Williams and Valerie Williams, sisters who will run the restaurant; neighborhood business owners and advocates; Black Lives Matter activists; city officials; The Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce; TableSeide staffers; the Community Foundation of Sarasota County; the Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation; the Gulf Coast Community Foundation; Hoyt Architects; Ringling College of Art and Design; and many others. Together, they developed a plan for a nonprofit eatery that would give opportunities to Newtown residents who could use the experience and training as a springboard to a career in the hospitality industry.
TableSeide is leasing the property from Upshaw at a market rate; everything on the menu will be less than $10. The menu follows a traditional "meat and three" format, with a rotating selection of proteins flanked by sides like collard greens, green beans, sweet potato and more. Meats include pulled pork, liver and onions and brisket, plus fried chicken and catfish and $6 sandwiches. With roughly 2,400 square feet, Miss Susie's will offer counter service, with communal seating for around 130, as well as takeout. The restaurant is expected to open this fall.
"This is the exact opposite of gentrification," said Terrill Salem, whose company, T. Salem Construction, LLC, will be building the restaurant. He points to what happened to Overtown (Sarasota's formerly segregated black neighborhood, now known as the Rosemary District) as an example of gentrification Newtown residents want to avoid. Projects like Miss Susie's can encourage the right kind of redevelopment, he said Tuesday, by keeping the property in local hands. "The restaurant will provide jobs that will provide livable wages north of $11, plus tips," Salem said. "Those dollars will circulate in this community."
Citing the project's long list of partners, Seidensticker called Miss Susie's a "training ground for the young men and women of Newtown."
"It's their project," he emphasized. "It's not anyone's project other than theirs."
While working with Shaw on the idea for Miss Susie's, Seidensticker once told the commissioner, "I think we'll get this done." Shaw grabbed him by the arm and promised, "We will get this done."
They're one step closer today.