A local restaurateur who planned to open a ‘90s hip-hop-themed fried chicken restaurant in East Liberty is changing the concept after receiving some backlash from the community.
Adam Kucenic, who owns Muddy Waters Oyster Bar, planned to open the restaurant, originally to be called “The Coop,” later this year in the space that the Twisted Frenchman has occupied since 2015.
It was originally described by Kucenic as having an “urban street vibe” and featured a background of ‘90s hip-hop music.
Online commenters, however, were quick to call the theme “appropriation” and insensitive, considering East Liberty’s history with gentrification.
Damon Young, editor-in-chief of the blog Very Smart Brothas, said there’s nothing inherently wrong with Kucenic’s idea to open a fried chicken restaurant, but said it’s about the big picture.
“[This place] doesn’t exist in a vacuum,” Young said. “I guess the owner is going to put it right there on Highland Avenue, where black restaurants and most famously the Shadow Lounge and AVA used to sit.”
The Shadow and AVA lounges were prominent venues for hip-hop performers, jazz musicians and artists in East Liberty.
The neighborhood has become a beacon of Pittsburgh’s post-industrial reinvention, but some argue it comes at the expense of its traditionally lower-income and black residents. A Whole Foods once planned to replace the former Penn Plaza apartments was seen as the ultimate symbol of gentrification pushing out long-time residents who could no longer afford to stay in the neighborhood. The company has since hit pause on the project.
“[East Liberty] used to be a nexus for Pittsburgh black culture,” Young said. “And over the past decade, we’ve just seen those restaurants and those businesses and the Shadow Lounge having to move out, or get priced out.”
Kucenic’s chicken restaurant will replace the upscale Twisted Frenchman, which has occupied a space near Muddy Waters for the last two years. A second restaurant concept, featuring poke, or raw fish and various “proteins that you toss in sauces and put over rice or lettuce,” will take over Global Food Market, owned by Ogbonna Moses Onwubiko for more than a decade. Onwubiko said he opened it because he couldn't find any African food stores owned by Africans.
"There are some Chinese people selling African food, but it's not the same,” he told the Pittsburgh City Paper in 2008.
Though, Kucenic said Onwubiko is simply retiring.
“He’s a friend of mine,” Kucenic said. “He’s not being forced out, he’s retiring to spend more time with his family … I think he’s happy with it.”
Onwubiko said he hasn't been pushed out from rising rent prices, since he owns the building.
Kucenic said he didn’t want to alienate anyone with his original restaurant concept, apologizing. He said the restaurant will no longer have anything to do with “black culture.”
“I just don’t want to be known as somebody that’s trying to objectify other cultures or anything like that,” Kucenic said. “Especially in the community where we live.”
Instead, Kucenic said the restaurant will focus on “approachable fast casual fried chicken.”