Miss Susie’s food truck latest step in reviving job-training program in Newtown that faltered after death of restaurateur Stephen Seidensticker

Payments on City of Sarasota’s $150,000 loan for project to begin Oct. 1

This is the Miss Susie’s food truck. Image from the Miss Susie’s Newtown Kitchen Facebook page

Although a new team has been leading the effort to fulfill the late Stephen Seidensticker’s dream of a restaurant industry-training program in Newtown, Sarasota City Commissioner Kyle Scott Battie voiced frustrations this week that progress is not being made quickly enough.

“It’s a blight that’s been existing in the corridor of Newtown … rolling into five years,” Battie said of the concrete block shell standing at 1741 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way in Sarasota. The building was to house a revival of the Miss Susie’s dining establishment.

A city document explains that the name of the business would “pay homage to Miss Susie, a Newtown icon who ran a restaurant at the site for [more than] 20 years providing a gathering place for the families in the neighborhood …”

During the Sept. 20 discussion, Battie added that he fields questions daily from his constituents about the status of the project. “It is of the utmost concern of the community.”

At Battie’s request, he and his colleagues heard an update on the Miss Susie’s project that Seidensticker launched months before his death in August 2018. Just before the 42-minute discussion ended on Sept. 20, Battie told Andrew Grossman, one of the new partners in the initiative, “This thing needs to get done, man.”

Grossman initially apologized for the fact that neither Lisa Seidensticker, Stephen’s daughter, nor the Newtown chef involved in the project — Golden Monix III — could be present that evening because of family situations that had arisen. Therefore, Grossman continued, he would provide the latest information about the team’s work.

Grossman also stressed, “We’re not here to ask the city for anything.”

He, Seidensticker and Monix have come up with more methodical ways “to fulfill the key mission points” of the project, Grossman said.

Not only was Stephen Seidensticker the founder of the TableSeide Restaurant Group in Sarasota, but he also served as chair of TableSeide Cares, a nonprofit organization, through which he planned to “employ his family’s experience in the food industry to address community needs,” his obituary said.

A formal request for a loan that TableSeide Cares made to city leaders several years ago explained that the goal of the Miss Susie’s program was to provide the necessary training to members of the Newtown community so they could “operate and manage a thriving restaurant …” They would learn how to handle both the “back of the house” kitchen skills and the “front of the house” hospitality skills.

Andrew Grossman addresses the commissioners on Sept. 20. News Leader image

Education and job creation remain the primary focus of the Miss Susie’s project, Grossman told the commissioners on Sept. 20. “By investing in people, we can more quickly and efficiently create a positive impact in Newtown.”

In June, he said, the team debuted the Miss Susie’s food truck, with Monix as the chef.

A native of Newtown, Monix is a former football and track coach at Booker High School who later went to culinary school, Grossman explained. “Everybody loves him.”

The food truck, which a benefactor donated, has provided the team with a short-term opportunity for job training, Grossman added. It also brings in a revenue stream, he noted, and it is a mobile marketing tool.

“Since launching,” he continued, “we’ve received dozens of calls” about bookings and how to contribute to the Miss Susie’s initiative.

Among the primary facts Monix has learned, Grossman pointed out, is that restaurants are not looking for employees with degrees, “they’re looking for experience.” Moreover, Grossman said, the local restaurant industry is “starved for talent right now.” The team has been talking with both public and private entities, he continued, about debuting a pilot education program in the spring of 2022. It would be tailored to satisfy restaurateurs’ needs. Graduates would receive a ServSafe®

certification, Grossman noted, “and a direct path to summer employment or paid internships.”

(The ServSafe® Food Protection Manager Certification program of the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association Educational Foundation “is nationally recognized and accredited,” the foundation’s website says.)

Chef Golden Monix III stands in front of the food truck in this still from a video posted on the Miss Susie’s Newtown Kitchen Facebook page. News Leader image created from the video

“If you come see us on the truck any given day,” Grossman told the commissioners, they would find people with diverse experiences and backgrounds working together.

Three days a week, the truck is stationed in front of the restaurant shell at 1701 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Grossman noted. Another two to three days a week, he added, the food truck sells meals in other neighborhoods around the city.

“Our bookings with local apartment complexes, commercial parks and events at Selby Gardens,” Grossman pointed out, allow people outside Newtown to learn the history of that community.

Additionally, over the past three months, he said, the team has been talking with community residents about “the future of Newtown” and Miss Susie’s.

The city’s commitment

City Attorney Robert Fournier and City Auditor and Clerk Shayla Griggs sit at the dais during the Sept. 20 meeting. News Leader image

In response to commissioners’ questions, City Attorney Robert Fournier explained that in October 2018, the commission approved a $150,000 loan to assist with the launch of the program.

This is the shell of the building planned as Miss Susie’s, as seen in a Google street view in August 2019. Image from Google Maps

The groundbreaking for Miss Susie’s was held on Feb. 20, 2018, and then Seidensticker died in August of that year, putting the project on hold, Fournier noted.

“It was a long-term, low-interest loan over 20 years,” Fournier added, noting that the interest rate is 1%.

Fournier reminded the commissioners that, in February 2020, the board members sitting at that time agreed to defer any payments on the loan until this fall. The first is due Oct. 1, he said. (The agreement called for no payment until Jan. 1, 2020.)

City Manager Marlon Brown noted that the monthly amount will be $722.65.

TableSeide Cares committed to creating at least 11 full-time jobs at Miss Susie’s, Fournier continued. “From the city’s standpoint, this was money spent for economic stimulus.”

Commissioner Kyle Scott Battie. News Leader image

The cost of constructing the restaurant was estimated at $400,000, he said. The security for the loan was to be equipment purchased for the new business.

When Battie asked Grossman whether the new team has any restaurant equipment, Grossman replied, “You can take the truck out any weekend you want.” Then Grossman acknowledged that no restaurant equipment exists as indicated in the loan terms.

One other concern, Fournier noted, is the fact that TableSeide Cares did not buy the site of Miss Susie’s; instead, it leases the property from Thelma Upshaw.

Grossman confirmed that the team has been paying the lease each month

More questions and concerns

When Vice Mayor Erik Arroyo asked Grossman to clarify his position with the group, Grossman explained that he was in the restaurant industry and hospitality business in Chicago for 20 years before relocating to Sarasota. (In online research, The Sarasota News Leader learned that Grossman founded Lagniappe Beverage, which became “the Chicago-based arm of T. Edward Wines.”)

Grossman added that he became a partner in the Miss Susie’s initiative in October 2019, after meeting Lisa Seidensticker.

In response to another question posed by Arroyo, Grossman said that the food truck has five part-time workers. Grossman noted that bookings had slowed down in late summer, but, when the next tourist season begins, the goal is to have seven to 10 employees.

This is a menu for the Miss Susie’s food truck, posted on the Facebook page on Sept. 10. News Leader image courtesy of the Facebook page

Grossman further pointed out that the team plans to keep using the truck even after the restaurant has been constructed. The truck “will always serve as a valuable marketing tool for us to go to festivals and events and showcase the [job training] program.”

“I am really glad that this project is moving in the right direction,” Arroyo told Grossman.

Mayor Hagen Brody, however, pointed out to Grossman that the team spent the $150,000 from the city “on a cinder block shell that sits there every day.”

“I had a big problem with this from the outset,” Brody told Grossman. While Brody said he “believed in Steve [Seidensticker],” he was not happy with how the city money had been used.

Newtown residents have a lack of trust, Brody continued, because projects begin but never seem to be completed, “and Miss Susie’s is a glaring example of that.”

Brody recommended that the project team members partner with the leaders of the Sarasota County School District, which has a culinary skills program. “I want accreditation,” Brody said. “I want curriculum. … I think it’s the only way you’re going to be able to raise the capital in order to build this thing. … My fear about the food truck,” Brody added, “is that’s going to be a money pit.”

Although the city is not spearheading the Miss Susie’s initiative, Brody continued, many people believe that that is the situation.

“Gotcha,” Grossman replied.

When Commissioner Battie asked how much money had been raised for the project, Grossman said that he believed Stephen Seidensticker pulled in about $350,000. The new team has added $140,000, Grossman noted.

“Where I rest right now,” Battie continued, is “I don’t know if … you will succeed with the project.”

Wrapping up the discussion, Brody told Grossman, “You’ve heard our concerns.”