February 04, 2022
Down North Pizza's Detroit-style pies and social justice mission have caught the attention of many since opening last year – including a show dedicated to highlighting Black innovators.
The third season of Hulu's "Your Attention Please" debuted this week with new episodes in honor of Black History Month. Hosted by actor Craig Robinson, the series profiles Black creators and seeks to explore their dreams and goals.
Down North Pizza is featured in the season's second episode. The Strawberry Mansion pizzeria serves thick-crust pies and exclusively employs formerly incarcerated people.
Abdul-Hadi, a West Philly native, has worked in property management, retail and real estate during his career. But the entrepreneur said Down North Pizza is the business venture he holds dearest to his heart.
"I always respected the art and the industry of cooking," Abdul-Hadi said. "I've always wanted to get into this, to start something. Something from scratch. To see it through is a process. It's an experience for me, an experience we're looking to share with the world."
Abdul-Hadi, a West Philadelphia High School and Temple University graduate, said he saw the adverse impact that the U.S. prison system had on his neighborhood. He saw Down North Pizza as a chance to erase the stigma of incarceration and provide opportunities to formerly incarcerated people that might not have been available otherwise.
"I don't believe a man should be defined by his mistakes," Abdul-Hadi said. "I've always seen value in people who were formerly incarcerated because their thing is, they're just limited on the opportunities, right? And given the opportunity, they will show you the true person because people who have been formerly incarcerated are viewed as defects or throwaways in society, right? But I see the opposite. For me, it was personal."
The restaurant seeks to reduce recidivism rates in the community and eliminate employment barriers faced by people formerly incarcerated. It provides workers with culinary career opportunities at fair wages, reduced housing costs, transportation and legal representation.
"People tend to view individuals who have been formerly incarcerated as defects in society," Abdul-Hadi said. "I never looked at it as a stain on them as a person because I look at the individual. I tend to look past all of that. You know some people's upbringing and their socioeconomic status, that may have caused them to be part of the system, so I tend to look at the actual person."
Down North Pizza's mission may be best exemplified through its executive chef Carter, who spent 12 years behind bars. Carter said he began cooking as a kid at family dinners and reunions.
Carter's passion for cooking took him to The Art Institute of Philadelphia, where he earned his bachelor's degree in culinary management. He worked at Porta, Booker's and V Street before joining Down North Pizza, where he now runs day-to-day operations.
During the episode, Carter takes viewers inside the kitchen to see the process behind the way his Detroit-style pizzas are made.
"I use 50-pound bags of flour," Carter said. "That's the base of everything that I do, and I turn that 50-pound bag of flour into 70 doughs. So when I pull the dough out, I gotta measure 70 times into each pan. I have to cut it, measure it, put it back in the pan, let it proof for about 5-10 minutes. By proof, I mean, the yeast and the sugar marry and gas forms inside of the bread and the gluten networks start to connect and that's where you get the chewiness in the dough. So I gotta at least proof it one time, then I press all the air out, let it proof out one more time and then I'm ready to fire in the oven."
Along with making pies, Abdul-Hadi said the goal of the pizza shop is to provide his employees with the support system that they may have lacked throughout their lives.
"You know, for me, like building that relationship, that brotherhood, that togetherness, that's going to ultimately keep these people out of these situations because you gotta have a support system, a strong support system," Abdul-Hadi said.
"This is what Down North is all about," he continued. "The symbol of Down North and what we're about, as we expand, this same brotherhood and sisterhood that we're trying to build in these kitchens. It's stuff we feel is going to be antidotes to a healthy human being. Being able to feel as though you have opportunities and resources to help you through this journey because [life is] a marathon."
The episode detailing Down North Pizza's story can be watched on YouTube and streamed on Hulu.
Located at 2804 W. Lehigh Ave., Down North Pizza also serves wings, fries and shakes. The shop is open Thursday-Sunday from noon until whenever all of its pies have been sold. All pizzas must be ordered in advance.
The pizzeria was named to the New York Times' 2021 list of "the 50 most vibrant and delicious restaurants."