Owning a For-Profit, Mission Driven Business: Muhammad Abdul-Hadi, Owner of Down North Pizza

Matty Kerr is co-creator with John Brancaccio of The Working Experience. He is also a filmmaker and published author. Listen to the full episode on iTunes and Spotify and visit our website: theworkingexperience.com for videos, merchandise and more. You can also find us on Facebook, Linked In, Instagram, and Twitter.

Mr. Muhammad Abdul-Hadi, is the founder and owner of Down North Pizza. Down North Pizza is a for-profit, mission driven business in North Philadelphia that exclusively employs formerly incarcerated individuals while providing career opportunities in the restaurant industry at a fair wage and an equitable work place along with excellent food.

“When hiring someone, we meet people where they’re at.”

“I majored in criminal justice, or criminal injustice, as I like to call it. That was my field of choice because I was always intrigued by the law, the laws that govern people and how it can be, you know, manipulated in some facets and kind of work if you work ’em right. So that was something that always interests me to kind of get more knowledge base about like how, how they work and how they operate for me to get a better understanding of how they’re used against a lot of people as well.

I guess it gave me more insight with this particular business, Down North Pizza, because you see about some of the laws and systematically how they’re put in place to hold people down. And for me just understanding that and building this business model, I guess it gave me more insight and why this is this particular business is important and why it’s necessary.

I was in real estate for some time and I bought the property in 2015 which at the time it was a shell, it was a beat up building. But I knew I wanted to do something in particular that would benefit the community. Because when you look at this community, it’s, it’s broken, right. They have nothing to look forward to in this sea with nothing of substance. When you walk through some of these blocks, there’s no hope

So, I knew this couldn’t be a traditional business that looked to just come into the neighborhood and take from the neighborhood, not give anything or putting anything back into the community. So for some time I just kind of set it on the building, kind of brainstorming in my head, what was needed, what was necessary in this particular community.

We try to combat recidivism because majority of the residents in this particular area who are no longer in this area is due to recidivism and being incarcerated. So I thought on a broader scale, how can we get some of these people back into this neighborhood? How can we erase some of the barriers, these employment barriers that a lot of people who’ve been formally incarcerated have to overcome? I want to help combat and recidivism. And I was sold on the idea.

We exclusively hire formerly incarcerated and very intentional with that. Um, because throughout various businesses that I’ve ran, I always hired formerly incarcerated individuals. And I never get caught up in looking at what people tell me on paper. I have to be able to see the actual individual. I think that’s the problem. A lot of why formerly incarcerated individuals aren’t given a chance because people can’t look past some of their mistakes actually look at the individual. My experience with working with them, they are some of the hardest working, like most reliable, best humans that I’ve ever worked with.

When hiring someone, we meet people where they at. I mean, how you expect somebody just coming home from prison to have this decorated resume, know how to fill out application. But they have work experience; they have a ton of experience. They just haven’t put it down on paper; they don’t have a traditional resume. That’s why I meet people where they at. When they call the store, it’s like, well, come in, let’s talk. And they talk about how they was working the kitchen in prison. They was preparing meals for two thousand people a day. Michael Carter, our executive chef, he was a master in running a kitchen. He had a skill that didn’t even know that he had. He was running the kitchen inside a prison and he was responsible for feeding two thousand people a day. So this is the reality. They have a ton of experience, but it’s just not on a resume. So I like to meet people where they’re at and just come in and meet the individual and see how, or if this can work. There’s some organizations I work closely with in Philadelphia to get in touch with candidates and that’s kind of been the hiring process thus far.

My ideology is that if you throw as many resources at them, then you get them the best chance to succeed. I provide them as many resources as possible such as transportation and housing. I have two apartments on top of the store that they can live in for six months rent free because I’m able to offset the rent through the different programs that, nine times out ten, these guys don’t even know exist. I also have pro bono legal representation for them if something were to come about where they have some legal troubles with their parole officer or probation and issues like that.”

Mission is great but what about the food? Down North Pizza prides itself on its product.

“I guess we just make it good. No shade to New York, but we probably feel like we got the best pizza and I’m quite sure people out there think that as well. We got the Detroit style pizza that we do and ours is, um, we kind of put our Philly twist on it. This Detroit style pizza is a square pizza. We use Wisconsin brick cheese. The cheese is the base of the pizza. And it has this nice, like golden crown that goes around the pizza that, uh, which is really people think that the pizza is burned, but it’s actually the cheese. Okay. That makes this crown that cooks on the side of the pan in the oven. It gives it that nice crunch that crisp. And we love to do a choice style pizza where Mike comes up with these different flavors to try out.

We have a very small kitchen, it’s a scratch kitchen. We don’t have too much room for storage so we buy everything fresh. The dough is made fresh on a daily basis. The lemonade is freshly squeezed, lemonade with cane sugar. Um, I pride myself on this, using actual ingredients. People were like, well, do you have sodas? I said, no, we don’t have any sodas; only freshly squeezed lemonade. We have hand cut fries and when you come into this shop and you can see, you know, at any given time somebody be cutting fries at the fry station.”

So what do you have to know to be an entrepreneur?

“There’s no guarantee. You could spend a year working on something and not be getting paid; you have to be okay with that. When people ask me about being an entrepreneur I say, are you okay with working tirelessly, maybe eighty plus hours a week and not getting paid? Because that could be a reality, especially when you building something from nothing because those hours get longer and longer. You still have to be able to push through and realize that you have a goal that you’re trying to attain and that’s primary in your mind. People have to understand that when they think about being an entrepreneur, because it’s not for everybody. And I think being honest with people and people being honest with themselves is the key to success within entrepreneur.”

The Take Away:

Meet people where they’re at. Don’t assume anything. Understand that they have had life experiences that may be much different than yours. Try to see things through their eyes.

Be Okay with Risk: Understand that nothing is guaranteed. Your idea could take off and make millions or be a disaster. Understand your own threshold for risk. If you are a single person that is one thing. If you have a family to support that is something quite different. Don’t be foolish.

Give Back: Successful businesses often work with the community and do not see them as merely a source of profit. It is possible to help people and make a profit.

Make a Great Product: Take pride in what you do. Go strong or go home.

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Matty Kerr

Matty Kerr

Co-creator and cohost of The Working Experience Podcast. We explore what people do for work, how they do it and how they feel about it. Twice a week!