By Rick Hynum
Erica Barrett’s husband used to tell her she could never make a living as a chef. Not surprisingly, he’s her ex-husband now. And Barrett today is not only a highly acclaimed chef with numerous TV appearances under her belt; she’s also the mastermind behind two restaurant concepts in the Deep South, including one of the country’s more innovative and potentially profitable pizzeria franchises: a “smart” restaurant called Dough Boy Pizza.
That’s what happens when you tell Barrett she can’t do something.
A self-made entrepreneur who has appeared on Shark Tank and The Profit, Barrett currently has two Dough Boy locations—one in Atlanta and one in Birmingham, Alabama—and has deals in the works for more stores in several states. The company is tech-forward yet chef-driven, Barrett says, and as far as she’s concerned, it’s “the pizzeria of the future.”
Not to mention that her high-tech, quick-service approach to pizza making is a lot easier than the cuisine that gave Barrett her start: Southern-style cooking at her acclaimed restaurant, SOCU Southern Kitchen and Oyster Bar, with locations in Mobile and Birmingham. “It takes us all day to make Southern food,” she said. “Collard greens take two hours. Braised oxtails take four. Marinated chicken is 24 hours. I decided, if I do another restaurant concept, it needs to be easy. I don’t need to prove to anybody anymore that I can cook. I know that I can cook. Now I need to do something smart that’s gonna make me money.”
“I decided, if I do another restaurant concept, it needs to be easy. I don’t need to prove to anybody anymore that I can cook….Now I need to do something smart that’s gonna make me money.”
— Erica Barrett, Dough Boy Pizza
As for Barrett’s culinary talent, that naysaying ex-husband was probably the only person who ever needed convincing. She was a high schooler when she started cooking for money, making and selling chicken fingers, hot dogs and fries to customers at her mother’s hair salon in Mobile, Alabama. She’d learned to cook from her grandmother—a Head Start cafeteria employee and caterer—as well as from her stepfather. “I was a really picky eater when my mom married my stepdad,” Barrett recalls. “Everything that I thought I didn’t like to eat, I learned to love to eat. He taught me the basics of building flavor and making sauces, which we call gravy in the South. Everything is gravy.”
Barrett went on to earn her degree in business finance from Clark Atlanta University. She worked in management and human resources at large corporations like Target, Paychex and ADP. But she preferred a hot stove to HR. “Early on at Target, I started to enter cooking contests,” she says. “And I don’t mean to brag, but every home-cook contest in corporate America that I entered, I won first place. I was working at Paychex when I entered a contest sponsored by the Food Network and Lea & Perrins for $10,000. That was my first professional contest, and I won. And I said, man, you know, I kind of measure up. I should take this seriously.”
Barrett started out with a catering company called Fab Food ATL. “It was short-lived, maybe two years,” she says. “But that’s when I started to create some of the dishes that I serve at my restaurants now.” Frustrated with the number of pricey ingredients needed to make pancakes from scratch, she created her own packaged mix through a company called Southern Culture Kitchen. After appearing on The Profit in 2018, she scored a licensing deal with Marcus Lemonis, who helped her expand the business. Today, her pancake and waffle mixes are available in grocery stores, with unique flavors like apple cobbler, banana pudding, birthday cake and bourbon salted pecan.
But, all along, Barrett really wanted to go to culinary school—an idea that her then-husband staunchly opposed. “He said, ‘Chefs don’t make any money. You’re not gonna make more than 30 grand a year. You’re not going to culinary school. [Paying] $90,000 for two years doesn’t make sense to earn that salary for the rest of your life.’ So I didn’t do it.”
Not at first, at least. But in 2016, Barrett finally decided to follow her dream. She moved to New York and enrolled at the International Culinary Center. “I’m that type of person,” she says. “I like to live with no regrets.”
“He Gave Me a Restaurant”
And when you live with no regrets, serendipity often lends a helping hand. That’s how Barrett came to own her first SOCU Southern Kitchen and Oyster Bar location in Mobile. It started with a pop-up she hosted at a restaurant that was closed down at the time. Her friend and fellow restaurateur, Chakli Diggs, had the lease on the 4,000-square-foot space and, impressed with the success of her pop-up—which drew 400 people—offered to turn it over to her.
Barrett recalls the conversation with Diggs: “He was, like, ‘You want a restaurant?’ I was, like, ‘Yeah, I want a restaurant.’ He said, ‘Well, hey, I’ll mentor you. Write a business plan. I’ll introduce you to the landlord, and I’ll give you all the equipment and all the furniture inside of it.’ I’d been wondering how I was going to open a restaurant. This man is literally giving me a restaurant. Nobody gives you a restaurant, but he gave me a restaurant. And when it was time to sign the lease, he gave me a $10 bill of sale and said, ‘Hey, it’s yours. Everything inside is yours. You can have it.’ And he walked away.”
That was in 2018. By 2019, SOCU was up and running in Mobile to wide acclaim. In 2021, developers in downtown Birmingham invited Barrett to open a second location at the Pizitz Food Hall. “That space used to be an old Italian restaurant, and there was a pizza maker in there. And I got obsessed with pizza. I’m, like, man, this is an expensive piece of equipment. What can I do with it? I do Southern food. I don’t know what we’re gonna do with pizza.”
But the challenge proved irresistible. With encouragement from the food hall’s owners, Barrett started developing her own dough for a pizza concept. Originally, she envisioned a wood-fired pizzeria, but the space sits on the third floor of a historic building, and the foundation couldn’t support the weight of the oven. “So there goes my dream of having this really nice award-winning Neapolitan pizzeria,” Barrett says.
But, again, don’t tell Erica Barrett she can’t do something.
“Labor at Dough Boy, on average, is 11%. Crazy number, right? Our food cost is around 32%. We’ve outsourced almost everything outside of pie assembly.”
— Erica Barrett, Dough Boy Pizza
Solving the Labor Problem
If there was one lesson she learned from COVID-19, it was that pizza keeps selling even when the whole world has shut down. “I’d realized that the pizza industry was growing even during the pandemic, as other sectors of food were suffering,” she says. “Everybody was ordering pizza.”
And making restaurant-quality pizza was getting easier and easier, as she learned while exploring the technology pavilion at the National Restaurant Association Show. “They were asking, what does the restaurant of the future look like? How do we create restaurants of the future that solve labor issues, consistency of food and all of that stuff? And I said, well, I need to solve all of these problems, too.”
With Dough Boy Pizza, she just might have figured it out. The concept opened in August 2022 in the same Birmingham food hall where her SOCU restaurant is located. Like a fast-casual eatery, it’s all about speed and efficiency. But, unlike a typical fast-casual pizzeria, Dough Boy can operate with just a single employee.
No cashiers. No one making dough. No culinary skills—and very little training—required.
At Dough Boy, customers place their orders via kiosks, and the entire restaurant is run on digital screens that can be updated in real time. “If the customer’s putting in their own order, there are a couple of advantages,” Barrett says. “You get automatic consistency, and the machine will upsell them every single time: ‘Would you like to add a drink or a combo?’ You don’t have to remind an employee to say that. It’s gonna do it every time. So you can increase sales by 30% by just doing that.”
“Our franchise fee is $25,000. And then a typical build-out is between $25,000 and $40,000. So, all in, you’re probably looking at about $60,000 to $80,000, which are low numbers.”
— Erica Barrett, Dough Boy Pizza
And if the customer’s order gets screwed up, she notes, it’s their own fault. “It’s not, ‘he said, she said.’ It’s whatever you put into this computer. I’m gonna make what you told me to make. We rarely have orders come back.”
Barrett’s business model also solves the problem of food consistency. She imports all of her Neapolitan-style dough from a commissary in Italy, while the sauce is made at Southern Culture Kitchen, her own company. Once an order is placed, Dough Boy employees merely have to assemble the pie on a premade crust, pop it into one of four compact, ventless ovens that reach up to 650°F, and box up the baked pizza for the customer, who gets notified via a text message when it’s ready.
It’s as “smart” as a restaurant can get without actual robots. “Full automation is, from a chef’s perspective, too sterile for me,” Barrett says. “I would still like to see a human assemble my food, to know that it’s real, to know that it’s good. I don’t wanna see a machine put pepperonis on my pie. It feels too industrial, and you lose the connection with the customer.”
Dough Boy also offers delivery through third-party providers. “So we’ve literally taken all the hard stuff away,” Barrett says. “We don’t have to worry about delivery drivers; let Uber Eats and DoorDash do that. We don’t have to worry about making crusts; let our Italian commissary do that. We don’t have to worry about customers putting in their orders; let our self-ordering do that.”
In fact, Barrett adds, “Labor at Dough Boy on average is 11%. Crazy number, right? Our food cost is around 32%. We’ve outsourced almost everything outside of pie assembly, and that’s why our franchise is growing so fast.”
Barrett’s first franchisee was Ryan Cameron, a popular radio host in Atlanta. He opened his Dough Boy store in The Gallery in Decatur, Georgia, in February 2023. And Cameron’s fame has ignited a firestorm of free publicity for Dough Boy through social media influencers who love his show and rave about the pies. Meanwhile, other entrepreneurs have stepped forward to become franchisees, with 15 deals in the works, according to Barrett. Two more stores are planned for Alabama, and locations are coming to Denver, Washington, D.C., and New York.
Barrett says a Dough Boy Pizza franchise is highly affordable for a newcomer to the restaurant business. “Our franchise fee is $25,000,” she says. “A typical build-out is between $25,000 and $40,000. So, all in, you’re probably looking at about $60,000 to $80,000, which are low numbers. The kiosks are financed through Toast, so there’s no up-front cost with that. And we lease our ovens from our dough supplier, so the same company that’s making our dough also offers the ovens, free of charge.”
“If the customer’s putting in their own order [via kiosk], there are a couple of advantages. You get automatic consistency, and the machine will upsell them every single time….So you can increase sales by 30% by just doing that.”
— Erica Barrett, Dough Boy Pizza
Additionally, the ovens, Barrett points out, don’t need a vent hood or grease trap. “It’s a completely ventless restaurant. So you can literally put our pizza shop anywhere, with no barriers.”
Barrett is especially excited to help business owner wannabes build the pizzeria of the future. “We’re able to help a lot of entrepreneurs get into the restaurant industry without losing the shirt off their back, and, of course, we help with equipment financing and financing their pizza shop. So I feel good about helping people make their way to financial freedom….and invest their money in something that’s going to build generational wealth.”
To succeed as a restaurateur of tomorrow, she notes, “You have to be on the cusp of innovation. The pandemic taught us that we can’t be stuck in our ways. We have to adapt to trends and what’s going on economically and socially in the world….And one thing that I’m not afraid to do at any given time is to change, because the world is changing, and everything around me is changing. If I don’t change with it, I get left behind by somebody that’s willing to accept new human behavior. And that’s what a pizza shop of the future, a ‘smart’ pizza shop, really stands for. We understand where the world is going. We want to be a part of that wave.”
Rick Hynum is PMQ’s editor in chief.