Funding options to be part of board’s discussion during Jan. 26 workshop
At the request this week of Sarasota City Commissioner Kyle Scott Battie, the city board members voted unanimously to make the future of Miss Susie’s restaurant in Newtown — and the restaurant’s attendant job-training project — a focus of their goal-setting workshop set for Jan. 26.
Commissioners agreed during their regular meeting on Jan. 19 that the potential exists for Newtown Community Redevelopment Area (CRA) funding or money from the city’s Economic Development Fund to help pay for some of the expenses to figuratively breathe new life into Miss Susie’s.
Battie had asked that a discussion about the project be placed on the City Commission’s Jan. 19 meeting agenda.
“I myself used to be an assistant general manager at Libby’s,” he explained, referring to the Southside Village restaurant owned by the group that included the founder of the Miss Susie’s proposal, the late Stephen Seidensticker.
As Seidensticker’s August 2018 obituary noted, he founded the TableSeide Restaurant Group in Sarasota and then, as chair of TableSeide Cares, “he spearheaded efforts to employ his family’s experience in the food industry to address community needs.”
A groundbreaking was held on Feb. 20, 2018 for Miss Susie’s at 1741 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way in Sarasota. However, Seidensticker’s death put the project on hold.
Seidensticker “gave a number of individuals second chances,” Battie pointed out during the commission meeting, including people coming out of substance abuse rehab and those with no restaurant industry skills who needed work.
Seidensticker came to him one day, Battie continued, and talked about the vision for Miss Susie’s to provide training for those interested in getting jobs in the service industry.
The restaurant business, Battie noted, has two distinct groups of employees: those who work in “the front of the house” and those who work in the “back of the house.” The former contingent includes waiters, maître d’s, bartenders and floor managers; the latter encompasses such positions as the chef, the sous chef, line cooks and runners — people Battie referred to as “the muscle.”
“I know from personal experience,” Battie told his colleagues, “that a lot of African-Americans would apply for back of the house,” because they lacked the skills and experience to handle the front-of-the-house positions.
Seidensticker’s goal with Miss Susie’s, Battie said, was to help people learn the skills to be able to move from the lowest level of restaurant worker to a general managers position.
Moreover, Battie pointed out, jobs in the restaurant industry can bring in good incomes. He knows a young woman, he said, who worked as a bartender four days a week at a downtown Sarasota establishment that just served beer and wine along with food. She “was making over $100,000 a year.”
“Now that I’m here in this seat,” Battie added, referring to his November 2020 election to the commission, “I want to do what I can to try to resurrect [Miss Susie’s].”
“In the Newtown district,” he pointed out, “we’re having an issue with income levels. That’s a huge problem with me.” Battie said he understands that the average income is around $12,000. “That’s insane! … Whatever we can do to bring Newtown on par with the rest of the city, I feel like it’s my obligation and responsibility to do …”
In October 2018, the City Commission agreed to a $150,000 loan to TableSeide Cares for the project, Interim City Manager Marlon Brown explained to the board members. Seidensticker could have asked for a grant, Brown noted, but Seidensticker was insistent that the funds come in the form of a loan. The most recent City Commission action on that loan was in February 2020, Brown added, when the board members agreed to defer any payments on it until September of this year.
Stevie Freeman-Montes, interim economic development manager for the city, told the commissioners that the loan was for 20 years with a 1% interest rate. The funding came from a Sarasota County grant, she added, which was provided to the city for business and job training programs in Newtown.
A document TableSeide Cares provided to the City Commission in support of the 2018 loan request said, “The restaurant will provide a training ground for members of the Newtown community to learn the restaurant trade while providing a destination point for residents of the entire City and beyond.”
The document added, “The total cost to build the restaurant is estimated to be between [$350,000 and $450,000].”
During the Jan. 19 City Commission discussion, Lisa Seidensticker, Stephen’s daughter — who is helming the nonprofit TableSeide Cares — reported that the estimated total for construction has grown to $863,000. TableSeide Cares has raised about $308,000, she noted.
Referring to her father, Seidensticker pointed out, “I believe he was misguided in [his construction estimate]. I was not included in his decision making.”
Moreover, she said, “As construction costs have greatly increased over the years, [the total] is now closer to the $1-million mark …”
When Mayor Hagen Brody asked Seidensticker about estimates for operating the restaurant and the job-training program, she told him she figured “roughly around $800,000” as the total necessary for the first two years.” Then, she said, she anticipated the expense to drop to approximately $200,000 per year for each subsequent year.
“You are still 100% fully committed to this project?” Brody asked Seidensticker.
“I’m here today, aren’t I?” she replied.
“I know you well,” Brody told her. “I just wanted it on the record.”
Possibilities and projections
During her remarks, Seidensticker continued, “We are building a board,” seeking out community leaders “with passion for this program.”
The job-training plan, Seidensticker explained, would entail 16 weeks of education for persons to learn all aspects of running a restaurant. Upon successful completion of the program, she added, the graduates would be given the opportunity to interview for jobs with Sarasota-area restaurants.
Moreover, Seidensticker said, “We are in full fundraising mode,” hoping to collect all of the money necessary for construction before starting that work.
Freeman-Montes told the commissioners that members of the Newtown community bring up Miss Susie’s to her “almost weekly. “I hope that we can move forward with a sense of urgency with TableSeide Cares …”
When Commissioner Liz Alpert asked what the city could do to help, Freeman-Montes replied, “We have a wide variety of things that we could pursue …” For example, Freeman-Montes said, the city could look into the potential of using money from the Newtown CRA trust fund or the city’s Economic Development Fund to assist the project beyond the loan.
She had spoken with Seidensticker, she added, about the potential of the city’s paying for the utility connections and the parking area for the restaurant.
Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch suggested that city staff could assist the project through the writing of grant applications for funding and through spreading the word about the plans for Miss Susie’s. When the commissioners speak to various groups in the city, Ahearn-Koch continued, they could use talking points from staff about the various facets of Miss Susie’s, with the hope of winning public interest and funding support.
“We can do all of those ‘soft’ things,” Interim City Manager Brown responded, “but I think the critical need right now” is helping with the utility connections.
The solitary member of the public who addressed the board that day on the topic — businessman Martin Hyde — suggested that the board members forgive the $150,000 loan, Brown noted. That is an option, Brown said.
Mayor Brody talked of his interest in the potential of using some of the CRA funds to help TableSeide Cares. Use of that money, he added, seems “perfectly acceptable for a project like this.”
“The fundraising, I think, is challenging,” Brody continued, “but I don’t think it’s impossible.”
Finally, Commissioner Battie made a motion to direct staff to research the resources “that we can allocate to make this happen …”
In response to a question from Brody, Brown said he would try to have as much relevant information available for the board members during the Jan. 26 workshop. He also reminded them that they would not be able to take formal action on anything that day. Therefore, depending on what they discussed, Brown added, staff would put a follow-up item on an upcoming City Commission agenda.