“Maybe I wasn’t meant to own a restaurant.”
That was Brittany Houser’s primary thought after her restaurant, Soul & Sea, in Penn Hills, suffered a devastating fire, after only being open for four months beginning last summer.
It was Nov. 29, 2017, and Houser dropped off a bin of freshly-washed towels at her restaurant, then drove off. Shortly after, the towels spontaneously ignited. According to the Penn Hills Fire Marshal, Chuck Miller, “It didn’t take long for the towels to reach 200 degrees, then smoldered for nearly four hours. The problem was that the towels were saturated with cooking oils which were still hot from being dried minutes before they were dropped off by the restaurant’s owner.”
Surveillance video captured the fire. It was subsequently aired on local TV stations. The restaurant, which had so much fanfare, so many customers in such a short time, was unable to reopen. The restaurant was boarded up, with no sign of a rebuild.
But not in Houser’s mind. The choice to rebuild wasn’t a hard one for Houser; she asked herself a couple questions: “Can I rebuild? Do I even want to?”
It didn’t take long before she knew she had to.
“My mom raised me to have potential,” Houser told the New Pittsburgh Courier, and she wanted to live up to her fullest potential.
Houser hit the ground running and began to reach out to contractors. That process was a little challenging for Houser. “I was going back and forth with contractors, they were all telling me different things they could do for me. They were all giving me different time frames.”
Even after she selected her contractors, the fight didn’t end there. “I felt like as a woman they tried to take advantage of me. I also felt like as a Black business owner, I wasn’t a priority. It was my persistence that got us to get an opening date in July—if it was up to them, we probably wouldn’t have opened until September.
“The contactors were lackadaisical, I had to light a fire under their tail!” Houser told the Courier. “I had to get tough with them, and told them, ‘Look, this is the date we are opening, so you need to get it done by then.’”
Almost exactly a year after the original grand opening, Soul & Sea will reopen to the public, July 24 at noon. “Some people don’t come back from a fire, so I feel blessed. I’m also anxious, because we were doing so well, I don’t want to be anything less than that.”
Houser, in an exclusive interview with the Courier, said she’s making sure the restaurant will be “bigger and better than ever.” She wants to “fix the things that customers complained about in the past and focus on making them happy.”
Come July 24, hungry patrons will have the opportunity to feast there again. In addition to the previous menu, some new menu items have been added, such as an iconic Pittsburgh salad, topped with french fries and their choice of meat, along with two new pasta dishes. “The Don” is a lobster and shrimp alfredo and “The Timmy” is a bacon and chicken alfredo. The names of the pasta dishes are named after the hosts of a local Pittsburgh podcast entitled “Straight to the League.” She added salads to the menu so that people with varying dietary needs can eat there. “I want to be a one-stop shop for all lifestyles, so I included salads to the menu for a vegan option,” Houser said.
In the near future there will also be a dining room where consumers can eat in. She plans to double it as an event space for people to have baby showers, birthday parties and other small events, possibly centered around poetry and music. “I want it to be budget-friendly, and of course we will cater,” Houser said.
Houser also plans to use her platform as a restauranteur to give back to the community. “It was the love from the community that motivated us to reopen,” she said.
Houser, the mother of two young boys, said she’s feeling the effects of the recent police shooting of Antwon Rose II. She and her husband, Jermaine, plan to have toy drives, fundraisers and mentorship opportunities for teens.
“I want them to see a young Black couple doing positive things,” Houser said, “and show them they don’t have to go down the wrong path.”
(Soul & Sea, 10718 Frankstown Rd., will be open Tuesday-Saturday, noon to 9 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 6 p.m. The new telephone number is 412-223-5700.)
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