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Pizza Shop hires ex-offenders, shows how second chances can help economy

pizza shop
Posted at 1:50 PM, Aug 13, 2021

The secret to making a great pizza lies less in ingredients and more in those making them.

“When you’re investing in people, you get your largest return," said shop owner Muhammad Abdul-Hadi.

Beyond quality food options, when Abdul-Hadi bought the building that houses his pizza shop in 2015, North Philadelphia needed opportunity.

“Usually, when they talked about, it's usually in a negative light because so much negative happens in North Philadelphia," he said.

And while a good pie can create positivity, it is the purpose behind his pizza shop Down North Pizza that he hopes can bring change.

“The mission behind Down North Pizza is that we exclusively hire formerly incarcerated individuals," Abdul-Hadi explained.

“Right now, I’m 35 years. I have over 12 years in the penitentiary," said employee Mike Carter.

Carter’s job title is executive chef, but to the criminal justice system, he’s someone on parole. He says the system makes it hard to put his past behind him.

“A lot of people seem to think the dictionary definition of recidivism, which means commit another crime and get sent back to jail. No, I can basically get a better job tomorrow and not tell my PO, and they can violate me and put me back upstate," he explained.

More than a quarter of ex-offenders are unemployed. The numbers are even higher for those who are Black, with men at 35.2% and women at 43.6%, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.

Many times, the result of a background check can be enough for a business to turn the other way.

“You’re missing out on a wealth of good talent, man. Most reliable, hardest working individuals I’ve ever worked around have been people who are formerly incarcerated," Abdul-Hadi said.

More than 10 million jobs are sitting empty across the U.S. More than 40% of small businesses have a spot to fill.

Now, leaders, including President Biden, are encouraging businesses to take this opportunity to give an opportunity to those looking for a shot.

“Give them a chance, because that's all that they're asking for is a chance," Abdul-Hadi said.

At Down North Pizza, Abdul-Hadi pays workers at least $15 an hour and provides housing in apartments upstairs if they can’t find a place to live.

"They’ve been told no on so many occasions and the one that’s willing to take the risk and say yes, gets the reward in my eyes," Abdul-Hadi said.

It’s a risk that’s paid off. This year, Down North Pizza was voted one of the best pizza spots in all of Philadelphia.

Now, people from North Philadelphia have something they can be proud about. It’s Down North pizza," Abdul-Hadi said.

Something Mike Carter, a former prison cook, now executive chef, can be proud about.

“It’s real life. It’s not politics. It’s not a bipartisan thing. This is my life,” Carter said.

The hope is the popularity that comes from his pizza will open the eyes of people to a struggle he knows all too well.

"We’re actually able to start a conversation, an honest conversation that's not politically correct. It is what it is,” Carter said.