Kimberly Paynter / WHYY
Philadelphia’s Down North Pizza quickly made it to the nation’s top lists for its Detroit-style square pies.
The buzz is so big that the bestseller often changes based on what has been featured in the press recently, Executive Chef Michael Carter said.
“Because of The New York TimesIt’s the store’s vegetarian pie, loaded with julienned peppers, sautéed mushrooms, kale, red onions and their tomato sauce, called “norf” sauce: a secret recipe that’s sweet, spicy, and smoky.
But this dazzling success is based on one mission: to hire formerly incarcerated people and to convince other employers to do the same.
“We have over 60 years in prison in the kitchen,” owner Muhammad Abdul-Hadi said. “We are all living proof that you can build a business around former prisoners.”
Each year, about 600,000 people leave state or federal prisons, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services. About 9 million people spend time in prison.
Philadelphia has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country. According to the Philadelphia Reentry Coalition, Down North Pizza is located in an area where 1,000 people return from prison each year.
Like everyone who works at Down North, Carter has spent time in prison – 12 years in total from the age of 16. He then went to cooking school and eventually found success in restaurants, but Carter credits his time upstate for teaching him mass production.
“The main job is the kitchen. It’s the most important job… because you have a kitchen that feeds 4,000 people, 3 times a day,” he said.
He is now using his own story to urge employers to hire people who have been behind bars. But when he was released he had to hide that experience when he applied for jobs.
“I had to lie,” he said.
Finding work is a struggle
To break the cycle of incarceration and stigma, Down North Pizza tries to model only working conditions.
First, the salary starts at $ 15 / hour. Sous Chef Jamar Johnson said even with food industry experience under his belt, his track record often meant he was undervalued.
“I recently worked for a company where, whose name I’m not going to say out loud, but the dishwasher did more than I did,” he said.
Second, provide support. The two apartments above the restaurant are available for staff. Formerly incarcerated people often find it difficult to rent accommodation, due to discrimination and lack of referrals.
A pro bono lawyer is also available if a problem arises with the terms of their release. Parole violations are a way for people to be sent back to prison, even without committing a crime.
Finally, staff are a natural support group, and employees no longer have to hide their past at work.
Kimberly Paynter / WHYY
“I feel like what we’re doing here is like a testament to our history,” said Deputy Chief Myles Jackson. The mission helped give it a purpose, he said.
On a recent Friday night, a constant stream of customers walked in and out of the small storefront. Many customers say they have traveled all over town because they heard about the food.
Keith Wiggins lives just around the corner. He was attracted after seeing the lines.
Wiggins was unaware of the mission, but said it resonated with him. Her son is serving a long prison sentence in central Pennsylvania.
“Who knows, maybe he’ll come out and hang on to something like that… Maybe I could take him under my wing,” said Wiggins, who has his own photography business.
Regardless, he said he was happy to see a thriving black-owned business in his neighborhood shining in a positive light.