Down North Pizza serves up unique pies while bringing awareness to mass incarceration
Childhood friends Muhammad Abdul-Hadid and Kurt Evans plan to open their spot in Strawberry Mansion full time on March 19 or 20.
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For generations, Black and Brown people have been ostracized from society just because they served time in jail.
Philadelphia is known for having one of the largest mass incarceration rates of any large jurisdiction in the country.
There are over 4,391 inmates in Philadelphia prisons as of March 3, 2021.
In a show of strength against the odds, childhood friends Muhammad Abdul-Hadid and Kurt Evans from West Philly are taking a stand and trying to change the numbers through opening Down North Pizza in Strawberry Mansion.
“It all started when we were kids, we grew up together and lived down the street from each other,” said Abdul-Hadid, in a recent interview with AL DÍA News.
The unique business venture is taking a step toward lowering the numbers of mass incarceration and ending systematic racism.
They exclusively employ formerly-incarcerated people who have a hard time finding a job, and help them gain the experience of working in a positive environment.
“We also have two apartments on top of the restaurant that we use for someone who is employed by us and needs a place to stay,” he said. “We provide them housing for six months free of charge and are able to save some money and get themselves together.”
Their initiative is to end the social stigma of believing that former inmates are a burden to society.
“Our executive chef, he did seven years in prison, but you would never know,” said Abdul-Hadid.
On top of their charitable cause, Evans, also known as a “chef-tivist, focuses on his other projects called End Mass Incarceration Dinners and Everybody Eats Philly, both non-profit organizations focused on social matters that affect the lives of countless communities of color in Philadelphia.
“The response that we have gotten from the community is overwhelming, it’s really been a great journey so far,” said Abdul-Hadid.
The eatery opened up as a pop-up in Nov. 2020 and pays its staff $14.50 an hour regardless of position.
“We only open up 12 hours a week so far,” he said.
The local activists have plans to open up full-time at their facility on 2804 W Lehigh Ave on March 19 or 20.
“We have other plans to partner with our communities and really listen to them,” said Abdul-Hadid.
One of them is to open community gardens so locals can have access to fresh fruits and vegetables while also utilizing the many empty lots that are scattered around Philly.
“We also plan on teaching Black and Brown children different tech skills like coding,” he said.
The duo’s love of pizza and community are paving the way for locals who have served sentences and need to get back on their feet.
They serve about 300 golden-brown, cheese pizzas on Saturday and Sunday alone.
“All of our pizzas are named after a famous Philly song,” said Abdul-Hadid.
If you’ve ever dreamed of munching on a slice of jerk chicken sausage pie that has just the right amount of spice and grease, look no further, the eatery thrives on uniqueness and is proud of it.
“We have an ‘Uptown Vibes’ pizza, which has our north sauce, mushrooms, spinach, and peppers,” he said.
Their pizza is out of this world, but their Abdul-Hadid also says their wings don’t get the attention they deserve.
If you’re in the neighborhood and want to eat something that’s one-of-a-kind, try their mango habañero wings, the crispy, saucy, spicy appetizers that are served with thin slices of peppers on top.
If you’re worried you might not get to their spot on time once they are fully open, don’t worry.
There are no plans on slowing down, in fact, this is only the beginning for the two entrepreneurs.
“We’re just getting started,” said Abdul-Hadid.
This article is part of Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project among more than 20 news organizations focused on economic mobility in Philadelphia. Read all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.