On a Mission: Down North Pizza

Down North Pizza, empowering formerly incarcerated staff with opportunities and community support, serves unique Philly-style pies as a force for positive change.

8 min read
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"We've been moving and grooving, razzling and dazzling!" 

Jamar Johnson, the sous chef at Down North Pizza, is reflecting on everything he's been involved with, in and out of the Strawberry Mansion pizza shop. Johnson has worked at Down North for the past three years, prepping the dough, executing all the back-of-house knifework, squeezing lemons for fresh lemonade, and meeting vegetable and spice purveyors in the mornings — one of the last tasks of a graveyard shift that typically starts at 11 p.m. and ends when the rest of the world is still waking up. 

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"Everything we do is day-of. We don't keep anything in here over 12 hours," explains Johnson, who is 41. That means making up to seven sauces per week from scratch, including Down North's "Norf" sauce, their base tomato sauce, along with the Zen-like process of converting 50 pound bags of flour into dough for 80 pizzas. "The dough is my favorite," he says. "It's relaxing, not something you can rush." It's a two hour ordeal — with each dough proofed twice in the 10-inch-square, Detroit-style pans the pies are also baked in — but outside of Down North Pizza's walls, he's known for more than his skillful kneading. Twice a week, Johnson participates in regular sessions at Philadelphia's Juvenile Justice Services Center, a city-run youth detention center, and occasionally goes on the road to educate youth, using his own experiences to lead by example. 

"Down North is a lifestyle! At the end of the day, I'm part of the mission. I'm not working a job — I'm investing in myself."

Jamar Johnson, Sous Chef, Down North Pizza

Down North Pizza is indeed a mission. Opened in 2021 by founder and owner Muhammad Abdul-Hadi, all its employees are formerly incarcerated individuals, and even the bones of the building the pizza shop is housed in were built by people who had served time in prisons. Abdul-Hadi, who is 38, has long seen the value of this community, as well as the challenges they face, dating back to when he was solely in real estate development and worked alongside a number of recovered addicts and formerly incarcerated people. "There's a lot of nuances they have to deal with in returning to society," he explains, from finding housing to lawyers. Abdul-Hadi, who also owns Down North Pizza's building, helps provide both, renting out the modest, individual apartments above the shop to his staff.

"When you work in an environment where everyone has similar experiences, you don't have to live in the shadows."

Muhammad Abdul-Hadi, Founder & Owner, Down North Pizza

Where Johnson's workday starts at night, Abdul-Hadi, who was born and raised in West Philadelphia, begins his in the early morning, with an oat milk cappuccino at his desk in his office above the pizza shop. "I stay on top of the dough," he notes, laughing. Abdul-Hadi juggles the backend operations of Down North Pizza with a host of other related projects, all tied to the Down North Foundation, his 501c3 non-profit. Where Down North Pizza focuses on creating opportunities and preventing recidivism for the formerly incarcerated, who are typically hired via word of mouth, the Foundation widens his aim to serve more communities in Philadelphia. Past initiatives have ranged from offering free post-secondary education in tech fields to youth outreach to addressing food inequities through community gardening. Abdul-Hadi works with two social scientists on Growing Freedom Down North to create a new food system in Strawberry Mansion and making fresh food more available in a neighborhood that is considered an urban food apartheid.

The pizza shop, occupying a narrow storefront on Lehigh Avenue, is something of an anomaly in a swath of North Philly dominated by fast-food joints, a megachurch, and a nearby drive-through prayer tent. "It's underserved, poverty-stricken," says Abdul-Hadi of Strawberry Mansion, a neighborhood that is 90 percent African American. "People say it's one of the worst neighborhoods. There's a lot of violence. We want to be a beacon of light."

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As the lunchtime rush gets underway, customers start coming in, perching on bright red metal barstools and digging into signature pies like the Roc the Mic (four cheese plus pepperoni) and the Uptown Vibes (kale, mushrooms, red peppers, onions). One visitor muses that perhaps the Detroit-style pie — the thick and chewy crust, the lacey toasted cheese edges — resonates here in Philly because Detroit is philosophically similar, a working-class sister city.        

"It's Philly-style pizza!" Abdul-Hadi is quick to correct. "We got inspiration from Detroit-style," he concedes, "but we played with the dough. It's not as dense and it's a lot more moist than Detroit-style pizza." And Philly is an unmatched football town. "Football and pizza go hand in hand."

As Down North Pizza continues to churn out pies, Abdul-Hadi has an eye on growth. His seven employees have been with him for years and he understands that to serve more formerly incarcerated individuals, he needs to expand. "The last time I hired," he says, "was a year and a half ago." Thinking of the future, Abdul-Hadi is looking beyond Philly, aiming to give other cities the inspiration to work, hire and help as he does. "We feel like we need to go into a lot of major cities and be that beacon for these individuals who are formerly incarcerated and give them the start that they need," he says.

"We want them to have the confidence — whether it's in the culinary industry or another industry — and to just be that guiding light."

Muhammad Abdul-Hadi, Founder and Owner, Down North Pizza

About Secret Menu

We created Secret Menu, a print and digital magazine from DoorDash, on the belief that one restaurant's story can help or inspire another. We're proud to elevate stories that connect local restaurant communities and celebrate the craft and ingenuity that makes them so vibrant here on the Merchant Blog. Read more Secret Menu stories here.


Kiki Aranita
Kiki Aranita

Chef & food writer

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