Southerners love their black-eyed peas and turnip greens. They’re pretty fond of pizza, too. But a pizza topped with black-eyed peas and turnip greens—well, that dog, as folks down South like to say, won’t hunt. Or so you might assume, until you try the Soul Pie at Slice Pizza & Brew (slicebirmingham.com), a Birmingham, Alabama, pizzeria that specializes in gourmet pizzas, craft brews and old-fashioned Deep South hospitality.
The Soul Pie, which also features smoked sausage from Conecuh Sausage Company in southern Alabama, bacon, grilled red onions and pepper jack and cheddar cheeses, has become one of the most popular items on Slice’s menu. It’s the brainchild of Slice’s genial chef Terrill Brazelton, who has become known throughout the region for his boldly original pizzas, and it’s a testament to Slice’s owners, the broadminded Bajalieh brothers—Chris, Jeff and Jason—that such an unusual pizza ever made it onto the menu in the first place.
“It’s very good, but it doesn’t sound that good,” Chris says. “Terrill didn’t think people would be receptive to it, so he would tell them, ‘This pizza comes with a money-back guarantee.’ He has yet to have to give anyone his money back. In fact, he no longer has to give that guarantee. It’s probably our fourth most popular pizza.”
The Soul Pie is also a notable example of what makes Slice stand out in a city that’s known for its discerning culinary tastes, thanks to the influence of famed chef Frank Stitt III, who owns the Highlands Bar and Grill, Bottega Restaurant and Chez Fon Fon in Birmingham. The Bajalieh brothers have taken the classic pizza-and-beer concept and raised the ante, focusing on gourmet ingredients and local beers and packaging the enterprise in a cozy, rustic bungalow—complete with a front porch and a side deck—in the city’s Lakeview district. “We consider ourselves a boutique pizza place with fine-dining overtones,” Jeff says. “We offer fine-dining flair, but you’re not paying fine-dining prices. We’re taking an everyday product and stepping it up a notch. This is not a pizza from Little Caesars or Domino’s—this is something to be proud of.”
Co-owned by the Bajalieh brothers—Jason, Chris and Jeff—Slice Pizza & Brew appeals to “adventurous” eaters with its innovative menu and beer selection.
Like Father, Like Sons
Not that Jeff and Jason haven’t learned a thing or two from Domino’s. Before opening Slice in June 2011, they were partners in a Domino’s franchise for 10 years, but the restaurant business was already in their blood. As kids, they watched their father, Sol, slice cold cuts and bake bread in the family-owned sandwich shop every day. A Palestinian Christian from Jerusalem, Sol Bajalieh immigrated to the United States in 1965, set up his diner in the basement of a downtown high-rise and put down roots in the Deep South town that he loved—and which adored him in return.
“He was a very hardworking man, a family man,” Jeff recalls, fondly. “He stayed on course as far as operating his business. He felt that being there from open to close was a necessity for success. He treated it like a family atmosphere—he got to know his customers and knew them by their names. They became his friends, not just his customers. And he wasn’t one to take orders down on a guest check. He had it all registered in his head. We learned a lot from him.”
The three brothers worked for their dad after school, washing dishes, mopping floors and running the cash register, until they eventually learned every aspect of the business. Sol ran the shop from 1968 until 1993, finally closing it down due to problems with asbestos in the building. Seven years after he passed away, his sons paid tribute to him by reopening the store, now called Sol’s Sandwich Shop & Deli, across the street from its original location. Their mother, Nadia, a Jacksonville, Florida, native, runs the shop, but her sons take an active hand in its operations as well.
After Jeff and Jason’s stint with Domino’s, Chris joined up with them to launch Slice, and at least one of the brothers is on duty in the pizzeria at all times. The restaurant business, it seems, is their first and only true love. “You have to be a lifer,” Jeff says. “When you open a restaurant, you’re married to it. It’s yours, and you take it with you wherever you go. It’s hard to date a person when you’re at work on a Friday or Saturday night, so none of us are married, and none of us have children.”
“We’ve got a 50-person family inside these walls,” Jason adds, referring to Slice’s staff. “That’s our family.”
Slice’s bartenders serve up 10 local craft brews on tap
Every Night’s a Friday Night
As native sons of Birmingham, the Bajaliehs’ lifelong ties with the city provide a key marketing advantage, notes Krista Conlin, principal at KC Projects, Slice’s local PR firm. “Their dad was instrumental in the community, so a lot of people here want to support them,” Conlin notes. But the brothers aren’t content to coast on good will and the family name. They’re very serious about Slice’s motto—“Eat Local. Drink Local. Be Local.”—and go out of their way to live up to it.
“Whether it’s beer on draft or arugula from that farmer around the corner, we try to buy everything that we can locally,” Jeff says. “Support local people, and locals will support you as well.”
MANAGING SOCIAL MEDIA
From touting local high school and college sports to showing off their specialty pizzas and latest brews on tap, Slice Pizza & Brew in Birmingham has made social media a key component of its local marketing strategy. As of presstime, its Facebook page had 5,378 likes, and its Twitter account boasted 3,726 followers. Krista Conlin, principal of KC Projects and Slice’s PR guru, offers several tips for managing social media:
Timing is everything. Pay attention to how your guests make their lunch and dinner plans. “A lot of studies show that, around 9:30 or 10:30 a.m., people are wondering what they’re going to eat for lunch,” Conlin says. “If that post comes out then, showing an amazing slice of pizza or a batch of baked wings, and it hits their senses, it’s like, ‘That’s what I now want.’ You’ll also want to hit the happy hour crowd around 3 or 4 p.m., when people have a lull in their work schedule and they’re surfing the Web or on the phone.”
Show, don’t tell. A mouthwatering picture of a pizza paints a thousand words. “With restaurants, it’s about the visuals,” Conlin says. “What we have here is a product that’s so appealing visually. But it’s also about showcasing the personalities, the operations and everything that’s happening here. It might be a matter of showing someone picking fresh tomatoes from a local farmer or cutting up the housemade sausage for the day to show what goes into the final product or showing the new brew on tap.”
Know your audience. Facebook is still the No. 1 tool for reaching the masses, while Twitter users may be more specialized, Conlin says. “Twitter isn’t so much your everyday customer. It’s people who are food industry-related—writers, bloggers and foodies. They’re not even necessarily in our area, but they’re interested in what Slice is doing.” Keep an eye on Instagram, too—it’s a visual medium with a fast-growing user base.
“It’s hard work,” Brazelton admits. “It’s hard to get the farmers to work with you and bring product to you. So we’re very flexible with our growers. We source things like collard greens locally, and our goat cheese is local. We had local beets, so we created a dates-and-beets salad (the Rockin’ Moroccan). Our goal is to do as much local produce as we can.”
Meanwhile, the Bajaliehs have a simple, if lofty, strategy for boosting profitability: Make every night a Friday night. The pizzeria serves between 600 and 700 guests on a typical weekend night, but even an average weeknight draws between 200 and 250 guests, Jason says. That’s due in large part to Slice’s local outreach effort, which targets specific groups on specific nights, from executives in business suits to nurses in scrubs. Located near St. Vincent’s Hospital, Slice hosts a weekly Medical Monday promotion, offering 25% off the total bill for all hospital employees who present proper identification. Monday is also College Night, with a 25% discount for college students from nearby University of Alabama-Birmingham, and Banker Nights offer similar specials to bank employees on Wednesdays.
The Bajaliehs keep things friendly with competing restaurants and bars, too. Slice is the place to be on Sundays for employees of the service industry, with 25% discounts on all regularly priced menu items, plus mimosas for $3, Bloody Marys for $5 and other specials on cocktails and shots. “That’s now our third-biggest day of the week,” Jeff notes.
But if you really want to see community spirit in action, drop in on a Tuesday night. That’s when Slice hosts its weekly Raise Some Dough promotion, in which local groups receive 10% of the night’s sales. “Every Tuesday for the past 22 months, Slice has designated a nonprofit or school as the recipient of 10% of that day’s sales, excluding alcohol,” Conlin says. “The selected organizations promote their night in the weeks leading up to the event to encourage donors to eat at Slice, then set up onsite on the day of the event to spread the word about their cause. They also connect with Slice on social media to further their reach and encourage participation.”
Since the concept’s inception, nonprofits and school groups have participated in 94 Dough Raisers and generated more than $40,000. “We’re already booked through 2014,” Jeff says. “It’s not necessarily about making money for us on that Tuesday; we’re just trying to build a rapport with our customers so that, hopefully, they’ll come eat with us on a Friday night.”
The brothers also know how to throw a party. In 2012, Jason created SliceFest, a food and music festival held every summer in the pizzeria’s spacious parking lot. In its second year, the event drew more than 2,000 people for live bands, moon bounces and face painting for kids, and samples of local brews and unique pizzas dreamed up by Brazelton just for the occasion. Proceeds from the 2013 event benefited two local charities—Alabama Forever and Suki Foundation. SliceFest generates enormous buzz and media coverage every year, Jeff says. “It’s a matter of fostering community spirit, building your brand and showing appreciation for your customers.”
Deep South Gourmet
Ultimately, though, the Slice experience is all about delicious gourmet pizza and expertly crafted local beers. Brazelton and the Bajaliehs are notoriously picky about their ingredients, and it shows in the quality of the pies. This Little Piggy features premium pepperoni from San Francisco’s Molinari & Sons, which Brazelton considers “the perfect pepperoni.” A slice of This Little Piggy, which also includes housemade Italian sausage, bacon, capicola ham, prosciutto, roasted cherry tomatoes and basil, explodes with salty, savory goodness. “We tasted 40 different types of pepperoni before we finally decided on Molinari,” Brazelton says. “It was everything we were looking for—it was well-seasoned and cured correctly; it doesn’t oil up on you; it’s not too fat, it’s not too lean.”
The Molinari pepperoni also steals the show on the Old School, Slice’s best-selling specialty pie, along with house sausage, fresh mushrooms and grilled red onions. The Lakeview is made with braised beef short ribs, caramelized onions, roasted tomatoes, Asiago cheese, arugula, red onions and horseradish sauce, while the Wing and a Prayer comes loaded with smoked chicken, bacon, green onions, red onions, tomatoes, blue cheese crumbs, ranch dressing and hot sauce.
Slice’s menu recommends a craft brew for every specialty pizza, with an emphasis on local and regional brands, including Good People, Straight to Ale and Back Forty. The brewers themselves help determine the pairing choices by sampling the various pies and beers until they find the perfect match. Slice also offers beer flights to let customers sample the beers and choose their favorites. “It’s not just about a pizza and a beer,” Jason says. “It’s about the right pizza and the right beer. That changes the entire experience for you.”
Created by Slice chef Terrill Brazelton, the Soul Pie, featuring black-eyed peas and collard greens, is one of the most popular specialty pizzas on the menu.
Room to Grow
Slice’s high-end ingredients make for a more expensive pie than you’d find at your average pizza joint, but customers don’t balk at the higher prices, Jeff notes. After all, diners may end up spending $200 or $300 at a fine-dining restaurant. “Here, they’re spending $70 or $80 while getting close to the same experience,” he says. “We’re not looking for the coupon shopper. Our beers are $7, and our pizzas are $20. We don’t ever hear complaints about our prices.”
What the Bajaliehs often hear, though, is a question that’s music to any independent operator’s ears: “When is Slice coming to my town?” The brothers have considered adding locations in other cities—Tuscaloosa is one possibility—but they’re in no hurry to expand. “I don’t see this as a 15- or 20-store operation,” Jeff says. “I see it as a maximum of five stores spread out around the Southeast.”
In fact, their next big move might not be pizza-related at all. “We want to take everyday food and step it up a notch—a hot dog with a sriracha drizzle and cole slaw, a unique burger,” Jeff says. A fine-dining sports bar or an Arabic-Lebanese restaurant are other possibilities. “You can get a gyro and hummus anywhere,” he adds, “but you can’t get a gyro and hummus like we can make it.”
Meanwhile, the brothers believe the Birmingham store still hasn’t reached its full potential. “Our sales haven’t plateaued, which shows that we’re still growing,” Chris says. “During the first three or four months [after opening], everybody tries you. Here we are at almost year three, and our sales are still climbing, which lets you know that there are still so many people who haven’t tried us yet and are trying us now.”
The brothers also know that the Slice brand is about more than great pizza and beer—it’s about the Bajalieh family, about their roots and their sense of place. Duplicating all of that in another city will be a challenge. “That’s not to say it wouldn’t be successful,” Jason adds, “but we wouldn’t have fun doing it if it’s not exactly how we want to do it. And once you take the fun out of it, it’s all downhill from there.”