An opportunity to address pandemic disparities

Strong community support for the languishing 'Miss Susie's Kitchen' project would reverse a string of never-realized promises to Newtown

A rendering of the planned Miss Susie’s Kitchen in Newtown. The project, which had languished in the wake of the death of Steve Seidensticker, the Sarasota restaurateur who envisioned it, is being reignited by his daughter and community supporters. (Photo courtesy Tableseide Cares)

If there’s one thing the pandemic has brought to the fore, it’s the real and widening gap in our community between the have and the have nots.

Wealthy retirees with burgeoning stock portfolios may have been inconvenienced by this past year of restriction, but they are far less likely to have been imperiled by it. Meanwhile, not only has COVID-19 taken a disproportionate toll physically on Sarasota’s lower-income residents — particularly its residents of color — in some cases it has also threatened their employment, housing and prospective pathways out of poverty.

With local government looking to tighten its belt after considerable revenue losses due to a drop in economic activity and tourism, looking to the city’s coffers may not be the solution. Which means those of us who are concerned about this growing gap must look for other ways to support those who have suffered — not just in the short term, but for the years to come.

That’s why I was encouraged to learn recently that the Seidensticker family and the nonprofit arm of their restaurant empire, Tableseide Cares, are working to reignite the languishing ‘Miss Susie’s Kitchen’ project in Newtown. It’s a project any of us who have made it through the pandemic unscathed should get behind.

Many residents will recall how the late Steve Seidensticker, patriarch of the family that owns Libby’s, Oak and Stone and other area eating establishments, launched the idea of creating a restaurant in Sarasota’s predominantly African American neighborhood to expand job opportunities for young residents and revive economic activity on its once-vibrant business corridor, Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.

I remember so clearly that February day in 2018 when a group of local leaders broke ground at the site where, in halcyon days, stood Susie Linder’s Miss Susie’s Social Club. It was less than two months after Seidensticker had been diagnosed with cancer and treatments had already shaved pounds off his lean frame.

As the intense sun worked its way to a zenith, his pink shirt grew sodden with perspiration. But still, he was beaming, seeing his vision for “a truly community-based operation,” with Newtown residents in control of its construction and operations, moving forward.

No one knew then that Seidensticker had only six months to live, nor that the $300,000 he had raised toward what he’d been told was a $400,000 construction budget would barely get the project underway.

His daughter, Lisa Seidensticker, says now, “It was always going to take $1.1 million to build that space.” And since she and her brother, Joe, were left to manage the restaurant empire after their father’s death, “We were in no place to be able to juggle both.”

Others in the community encouraged her to abandon the project, but she “couldn’t let it go.” Yet when the restaurant operations were finally stable enough for her to divert her attention to fundraising, she realized that, for all his passion, her father’s plan for the vocational side of Miss Susie’s lacked substance and staying power. If she was going to raise the $800,000 necessary to complete construction, the program would need “more meat on the bones.”

“I realized early on the program had been powered by my father and I needed the program to power itself,” she said.

Seidensticker devoted much of 2019 to developing a 16-week curriculum for Miss Susie’s “apprentices” that would teach them not just to be servers, but train them in computer, math, social and leadership skills, then cycle them through every job in the restaurant to give them a “full circle” understanding of the industry.

In that way, “rather than just hiring 11 people and training them and hoping they got jobs on the outside, we’ll be able to put 75 people through in a year, as well as building partnerships with the community and other feeders into the program,” Seidensticker said.

While her father envisioned a job pipeline to bring more African American youth into local restaurants, the new program will do much more, Seidensticker says, “bringing them into a clearer vision of what they want to do with their lives,” be it as a server or an entrepreneur. If successful, she hopes the model will be replicated elsewhere.

Just as she was primed to re-launch fundraising, “COVID hit and I got sucked back into the restaurants, which were dying.” So it is only now, a year later, that Seidensticker has been able to return to her mission. This time she’s determined to raise the entire required $800,000 before beginning construction.

She’s currently assembling a board and a “leadership circle” to reach major donors; smaller donations, sweat equity and construction materials will be welcomed once the building begins. While she is grateful for the city council’s recent pledge of support, she anticipates it will come in the form of assistance with utility hookups or fee waivers, and that local philanthropy will supply the necessary capital.

What better way for those who have remained comfortable or even recognized financial gains during the pandemic to invest in reducing hardships and building opportunities for those who have suffered? I’d even go so far as to suggest that some well-heeled local developers could do a lot for their tarnished public relations images if they joined this collaborative effort to lift up Sarasota’s less advantaged residents.

Lisa Seidensticker said it breaks her heart to hear her father’s project lumped in with the long history of commitments made to the Newtown community that never came to fruition. She is determined this will not be one more broken promise.

“I know it has taken a while,” she said. But we are going to do this.”

(Lisa Seidensticker can be reached at Lisa Seidensticker lisa@tableseide.com or 941-928-8113; misssusiesnewtownkitchen.com)