By Joyce Gannon / Pittsburgh Post Gazette
Crazy Mocha plans to develop a cafe and other food operations in the long-vacant Cuda Building along the borough’s main drag, Braddock Avenue.
The Friendship-based chain of 32 stores is partnering on the project with Heritage Community Initiatives, a nonprofit that owns the building and that provides transportation and other services to low-income residents of Braddock and surrounding areas.
Besides a storefront cafe serving coffee, espresso, tea and light food, Crazy Mocha wants to use part of the first floor to set up an expanded kitchen where employees would prepare sandwiches and items for its other stores. The company also may launch a popcorn venture that would deliver to other locations and cater events, said Ken Zeff, Crazy Mocha’s owner.
Eventually, the business could provide jobs for about 20 people, he said.
The Cuda Building was last occupied about 20 years ago by an Italian market.
In the decades when Braddock bustled with shopping activity generated by steelworkers and their families, the site housed a Neisner’s five-and-dime store and a tea room.
But like other places in the Mon Valley, the borough hasn’t prospered since a dramatic downsizing of the steel industry began in the 1970s. Its population has shrunk to about 2,000, and lots of vacant properties line its business corridor.
The town suffered another major blow when UPMC closed its Braddock hospital in 2010.
Since 1988, Braddock has been a state-designated financially distressed community.
With an estimated cost of $474,000 to rehabilitate the Cuda Building, Mr. Zeff and Paula McWilliams, president and chief executive of Heritage, acknowledged the project is risky and ambitious.
But both said their organizations have a strong mission to invest in community revitalization.
Heritage, based a few doors from the Cuda Building, provides low-cost transportation, preschool and after-school programs, and volunteer initiatives for Braddock and 40 other communities.
Family ties to Braddock
Braddock is not the first low-income location that Crazy Mocha has selected for a cafe, Mr. Zeff said.
The company opened a location in Lawrenceville years before that city neighborhood experienced urban gentrification, he said, and put a cafe in a North Side building at Federal Street and North Avenue that Mr. Zeff described as being in worse shape than the Cuda Building.
“We are in some fancy places, but we are a community coffee shop and if we have to absorb some losses [upfront], we are willing to make the investment,” he said.
He’s also driven by a strong sentimental attachment to Braddock.
He was born in the town’s hospital and, though he was raised in the city’s East End, he visited Braddock frequently because his father’s family operated the B Zeff Co., a metal scrap business near the Monongahela River.
After a mutual friend connected him with Ms. McWilliams and Heritage, Mr. Zeff said, “I saw this space and said, ‘We have to figure out how to make this happen.’ “
Despite disrepair from decades of sitting empty with a leaky roof, the Cuda Building “has really strong bones,” Mr. Zeff said.
The structure, which dates to 1929, sits at Braddock Avenue and Eighth Street.
Across Braddock Avenue is the very first library erected by steel baron Andrew Carnegie; down the street is U.S. Steel’s Edgar Thomson plant, which was Carnegie Steel’s first mill and still operates with about 600 employees.
Sparks of promise
The most recent effort to redevelop the Cuda Building was a much-publicized 2012 plan by Pittsburgh chef Kevin Sousa to open an upscale restaurant. That never came to fruition. Mr. Sousa now is renovating a site several blocks away for another restaurant, Superior Motors.
Inside the Cuda Building, paint is peeling, and dusty, badly damaged wood floors will likely be torn out and replaced. The structure also needs new windows and new wiring. Mr. Zeff hopes at least part of the original tin ceiling can be repaired and reinstalled, perhaps in the cafe.
Money for the renovation will come from a combination of fundraising by Heritage and matching dollars from Crazy Mocha, although Mr. Zeff could not provide an exact figure of how much his business will invest.
Heritage has applied for grant money from Allegheny County’s Community, Infrastructure & Tourism Fund and in 2012 won a $25,000 grant from the Heinz Endowments to use for improvements to the building’s brick and stone facade.
Construction is scheduled to start in June pending a final decision on a contractor for the project.
“If we are fortunate enough to secure funding in early summer, then we could have a mid-fall opening,” Ms. McWilliams said.
Funds obtained from the county when Mr. Sousa proposed a restaurant in the space were used to repair the roof, she said.
“It was a little bit of providence [that Crazy Mocha is our partner] because of Ken’s history with Braddock,” she said. “We’re delighted to have a business with a brand as strong as Crazy Mocha.”
She sees sparks of promise for revitalizing Braddock, including Trau & Loevner, a custom screen-printing business that moved to the town about a decade ago, and redevelopment of the Free Press Buildings on Braddock Avenue that are now occupied by a mix of commercial and residential tenants.
Recently, the town council approved plans for a medical marijuana growing and processing facility and is hoping to win a license from the state to develop that business.
A couple of other food and drink destinations also have recently banked on the town: Portogallo Peppers N’At serves sandwiches and pizza and has an outdoor patio and a microbrewery, Brew Gentlemen Beer Co., serves beer in its taproom and food trucks operate outside.
“We’ve got a little bit of momentum,” said John Fetterman, Braddock’s mayor.
“Ken Zeff is an important entrepreneur in Pittsburgh, and we’re beyond thrilled he thinks Braddock is a worthwhile investment. We’re just really grateful for any entrepreneur who thinks Braddock is worth their investment.”
Joyce Gannon: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1580.