The first weekend Down North Pizza in Strawberry Mansion was open for business, chefs and co-founders Kurt Evans, Michael Carter, and Muhammad Abdul-Hadi sold 800 pizzas in three days. “It was a good problem to have,” Evans says now. “We were going through about 260 pizzas a day.” No reservations, no preorders, only walk-ins. Selling out — as they have every weekend since they opened — was a sign that the community was showing up.
While Down North operated as a limited pop-up since December, its official opening on March 19 was hard to miss. To mark the occasion, the 76ers sent over the Sixers Stixers, the official drum line for the team, and a DJ inside the restaurant made the whole scene feel like a big party. There were crowds of people outside all day, waiting for their chance to try Down North’s Detroit-style pizzas, spicy wings, and flavored lemonades.
“It reminded me of the lines at South Philly Barbacoa, at Mike’s BBQ, at Pizzeria Beddia,” Evans says of opening weekend. “The fact that we’re a Black-owned business — especially understanding the culture and landscape of our city — it’s a really big deal to me.”
Down North has had its fair share of attention since Evans, Carter, and Abdul-Hadi held their first pop-up weekend last winter, but opening day was a test of how they were going to make it work. “The pop-ups were a paced thing,” Evans says, which meant the team could limit the demand. “That’s different than the uncontrolled variable of fifty or sixty people outside an hour.”
Evans knew that folks showed up for more than just the crispy, cheesy square pies. They were there to support the mission, too. Down North exclusively employs formerly incarcerated people and pays its staff a fair wage. Besides making pizza, Down North aims to mitigate recidivism in the short-term and end mass incarceration in the long-term.
“When I started doing the End Mass Incarceration dinners, I wanted to do something that was going to bring awareness to the people in my community,” Evans says about a series of dinners he hosted for a few years before opening Down North, which served as early inspiration for the pie shop. Evans grew up with family members who were incarcerated, and so, when mass incarceration became a topic to people who hadn’t considered its effects before, he saw an opportunity to bring more people into the conversation.
“Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow started taking off. The 13th documentary came out. The story of Kalief Browder came out,” he says referencing the Black teenager who was incarcerated at Rikers for three years without trial after being accused of stealing a backpack, before committing suicide in 2015. “Using food as a vehicle, I thought it was a good way to sit down and bring people together to talk about it.”
Behind the counter at Down North, there is a mural tribute to the path to end mass incarceration. On social media, Down North shares information about its mission and its hiring practices, and the founders host free events for criminal record expungement and second chance job fairs. Evans is also one of the founding chefs of Everybody Eats, a mutual aid organization that feeds people for free on a biweekly basis. The activist mission is baked into Down North’s business.
“A lot of people don’t really understand the full ramifications of mass incarceration,” Evans says. “This comes from years and years of systemic racism and media coverage on Black communities.” Evans, Carter, and Abdul-Hadi hope to change that narrative, and educate people on the ways mass incarceration harms everyone, but especially Black and Brown communities. Research shows that incarceration in communities of color has the effect of increasing poverty and disenfranchisement, and limiting employment opportunities.
It’s one of the reasons why getting the pizza shop up and running took some time — it required a lot commitment and a lot of cash to make it work. “Some people have family members invest in their business. Someone has a friend who may own something that they have access to,” Evans says. “Coming from my communities and our culture, we don’t have access to capital.”
It took a few years for Down North to open, because the business didn’t have any loans. “It took us a little while to invent the infrastructure,” says Evans, who worked as a sous chef at South Jazz Kitchen. “We had to reimagine workforce development around people who were formerly incarcerated to work at Down North.” Now that they’re successful, a lot of people are coming out of the woodwork to offer help, “but we already did the heavy lifting,” he says.
Evans says it’s also a consequence of segregation in Philly that only certain neighborhoods get media coverage, making it so businesses like Down North have to do a lot of the work of self-promotion and bootstrapping upfront.
“When people write about us, they bring business into this community and we put that money back into our community,” Evans says. “In some restaurants in our small pockets of the city, you can get a better cheesesteak [than in others]. They just write about other places, because it’s in that community’s interests.” What Evans wants to see is more curiosity about neighborhoods that might not get the same attention.
Down the line, Down North is working on other ways to bolster the neighborhood, starting with a community garden and a community center. Until then, they’ll keep selling out of pizzas, hosting chef collaborations, and bringing love to North Philly. “You would think 200 pizzas would take us to 8 p.m.,” Evans says. “But the way things have been going...” He trails off.
“It’s a good feeling.”
Down North Pizza is located at 2804 West Lehigh Avenue. It’s open Thursday through Sunday from 12 p.m. until sell out. Walk-ins only.