“Slingin’ pies, savin’ lives” is Down North Pizza’s mantra. Unlike other rallying cries, it’s not the least bit hyperbolic.

Opened in the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood of North Philadelphia in 2020, Down North Pizza makes unique food: Detroit-inspired square pies with a chewy crust, or what the pizzeria’s ownership likes to call “Philly-style pizza.” The pizza itself was named Best Square Pie in Philadelphia by Philly Magazine.

The pizzeria also has a unique mission. Founded in 2020, the shop exclusively hires formerly incarcerated individuals and gives them the opportunity and support required to reduce their chances of recidivism—the term for being incarcerated again. Some estimates place the recidivism rate in the U.S. as high as 83 percent across nine years. This figure can be viewed as directly tied to another statistic: The unemployment rate amongst formerly incarcerated individuals is said to be around 27 percent. The number moves to 35 percent amongst black men and 43 percent amongst black women.

Related: Ex-Offender is Now One Of Philly’s Leading Chefs

Though Down North Pizza opened in 2020, its origins date back further than that. Owner Muhammad Abdul-Hadi grew up in West Philadelphia, where he witnessed formerly incarcerated people struggling to get back up on their feet after being released. Just about anything—from violating a curfew to moving without telling a parole officer—could land them back behind bars.

Muhammad Abdul-Hadi owns Down North Pizza.

Muhammad Abdul-Hadi

Once Abdul-Hadi had made some money as a serial entrepreneur and real estate developer, he purchased the building in North Philadelphia that would ultimately become the space where Down North Pizza now resides. He wanted to use the building as a place to give back to the surrounding community and figured lowering recidivism rates would be a great place to start. That’s where his gameplan to exclusively hire formerly incarcerated employees was hatched.

“The shop was located in an area that needed a lot of TLC, but also had a lot of potential,” Abdul-Hadi said. “Having a mission-based nonprofit was something we wanted to do. Not just collecting money, but actually using profit for a mission that would benefit the area and the city by addressing a big issue in recidivism.”

Abdul-Hadi’s first hire wasn’t a home run—it turned out to be a grand slam. Michael Carter, executive chef, had an extensive culinary background and was eager to create a menu that aligned with Abdul-Hadi’s nostalgic vision for the square pies he grew up eating in Philly at Ellio’s and in the school cafeteria.

Using the meteoric rise of another type of square pie, Detroit-style pizza, as a guide, the duo came up with Philly-style pizza and went to work creating signature pies. To further emphasize the Philly-ness of it all, each menu item takes its name from an iconic hip-hop song recorded by a Philadelphian artist.

One of the best selling pies from Down North Pizza: four-cheese blend, beef pepperoni and Norf Sauce on a square pie.

The menu’s bestsellers include the Rock the Mic (the name is a nod to the Beanie Sigel song): a four-cheese blend with beef pepperoni and Norf Sauce—the shop’s signature sweet, smokey and tangy tomato sauce. The No Betta Love pie, a nod to the Young Gunz song, is simply the four-cheese blend with Norf Sauce and may be the best way to sample one of Carter’s creations.

“If you have a pizza shop, the cheese should always be a top seller,” Abdul-Hadi said. “Because that’s where you really find out how good the shop is. All the toppings and different flavors on other types of pies can cover up things, but with a cheese pie, you get to see everything for what it’s worth: the sauce, the cheese and the dough.”

The menu is also filled with menu items beyond pizza, including wings, fries, lemonades, milkshakes and a ton of vegan options that Abdul-Hadi reports have “converted” many an omnivore to just how good a vegan pie can be.

Carter, who has been dubbed Down North’s “flavor regulator,” has attracted news coverage from publications such as Bon Appetit and Today. He was also featured on a Chopped episode, and he and Down North Pizza appeared in Hulu’s Your Attention Please, a show hosted by actor Craig Robinson that looks at black leaders in the entrepreneurial space. Just about every news story about Down North Pizza and Carter gives rave reviews of Carter’s culinary innovations and also covers his past: locked up by the age of 16, Carter is living proof that formerly incarcerated people can thrive when given a chance.

“Down North Pizza is about dope food—Detroit-style square pizza that’s nostalgic and reminds people of Pizza Fridays as a kid,” Carter said in the Bon Appetit story. “But it’s also about training, hiring and housing people like me.”

Down North Pizza executive chef Michael Carter.

Michael Carter

Abdul-Hadi isn’t just giving folks like Carter a job, either. He has two furnished apartments above the shop that are available to new hires—they are welcome to live rent-free there for up to six months. This type of support may seem unusual, or above and beyond, to some. For Abdul-Hadi, it’s just a part of running a successful business.

“You look at companies that thrive, whether it’s Google or another big conglomerate like that, and they have a lot of support for their team,” Abdul-Hadi said. “Our formula is no different than that, I don’t think. There’s a unique set of needs for people who are formerly incarcerated, but I don’t know a thriving company that’s not supportive of their staff. Where companies are thriving, look at what they do for the people who are working for them.”

Down North Pizza is just the first step of Abdul-Hadi’s vision. The pizzeria exists under the umbrella of the Down North Foundation, a larger nonprofit that Abdul-Hadi runs alongside an impressive team that has grown to five people. The foundation recently launched Down North Treehouse, a space designed to introduce inner-city children to tech opportunities that could be in their future. There will soon be more developments, according to Abdul-Hadi, including potentially opening up more Down North Pizza locations.

Everything Down North Pizza and the Down North Foundation do can be viewed through the lens of how it will help reduce recidivism rates and bring some much-needed humanity to a process that has historically been devoid of it. As an example of what that looks like, consider that Down North Pizza is only open Thursday through Sunday. Could the shop make a lot more money if it was open six or even seven days a week? Absolutely. But at what cost?

“We do a lot of community-based stuff to make sure [our team members] have time with their families,” Abdul-Hadi said. “All of them have spent plenty of time in prison. So they still need some time to live.”

For those looking to support the cause, the Down North Foundation accepts donations