Down North Brings Detroit-Style Pizza With a Mission to Strawberry Mansion

Kurt Evans's new restaurant won't just be a pizza shop — it'll also be a place of new beginnings.

Kurt Evans making pizza at Down North | Photo by Ted Nghiem

The restaurant industry has always been a place of refuge for people who’ve been deemed “unemployable” by the powers that be. Those without a formal education, those lacking documentation, those who were formerly incarcerated, historically have flocked to the restaurant industry. There, they were welcomed with open arms, because restaurants are all-hands-on-deck businesses. The HELP WANTED sign never comes down.

So for many people, by happenstance, a job in the restaurant industry means new beginnings. And Kurt Evans, the chef-about-town and architect of the End Mass Incarceration dinner series, is intentionally building his business around new beginnings. In two weeks, on December 17th, he’ll open a mission-driven restaurant in Strawberry Mansion (2804 Lehigh Avenue) that’s been two years in the making

Down North is a pizza shop — which, given that this is the Year of Takeout, is a pretty smart restaurant concept to open in 2020. Even smarter is that it’s going to specialize in Detroit-style pies (so hot right now). The rest of the offerings are exactly what you’d expect from a pizza shop: wings, fries, shakes. Except that the wings will be sauced with harissa honey, and lemon pepper, and tamarind malta. They won’t have been frozen. Neither will the fries. Evans and his exec chef Michael Carter will scratch-make almost everything in-house except the ice cream in the milkshakes (which they’ll source from Franklin Fountain).

But Down North isn’t just a pizza shop. In a Heated article from September, Carter called it “a conduit for people leaving the penitentiary who want to break into the culinary industry” — a “launchpad” exclusively for formerly incarcerated people looking to reenter the workforce. Down North’s overarching mission isn’t just to spread awareness — about our nation’s prison-industrial complex; about how a lack of job options and stability can so often lead to recidivism. Its mission is to do the thing — by establishing relationships with halfway homes in the region, by carving out legitimate career paths through training and mentorship, by paying fair wages (everyone gets paid $14.50 an hour, regardless of position). By providing employees with housing: Above the restaurant, Evans and his business partner and lifelong friend Muhammad Abdul built out two two-bedroom apartments where employees can live rent-free for up to six months.

In the weeks following its opening, Down North will play host to a star-studded list of guest chefs doing their own takes on the square pie. Michael Solomonov, Chad Williams, Marc Vetri, Ben Bynum, Bobby Saritsoglou and Omar Tate are all on deck. Follow along on Instagram for details as they develop.