How Philly’s Down North Pizza Makes Jobs for the Formerly Incarcerated

On top of making around 150 pizzas a day, Philadelphia’s Down North is also working to lower prison recidivism rates by providing formerly incarcerated individuals with jobs, housing, and legal representation.

Executive chef Michael Carter himself spent 12 years incarcerated and explains that his love of Detroit-style pizza comes from the significant role its played throughout his life: “…Pan pizza had a special place in our hearts because every Friday we had it at school and on special occasions we had it at the penitentiary.”

To make the pan pizzas at Down North, they start with a very hydrated dough. (The signature over-hydrating began as a happy accident when, on a particularly humid day, they noticed the dough responding well.)

“Our dough is so resilient under the temperatures we put it in, and it remains soft,” says Carter.

The pizzas are put into square pans and then Carter and chef Jamal Johnson press down to get rid of any air bubbles. By condensing the dough, they achieve the desired chewiness.

“In order to get this perfect square pie, you have to press it into the corners,” says Carter. “It’s real laborious work, but it’s worth it, it’s part of the craft. You’ve got to put that love into it.”

Once the dough starts rising and filling the corners of the pan, it goes into the oven and gets baked at 650 degrees. After it’s done baking, it gets topped with a four-cheese blend, and is returned to the oven. It’s then topped with lines of the sauce that’s made in house.

The ultimate goal for Down North is to remove the employment barriers that formerly incarcerated individuals face when they leave prison. By providing people with these opportunities and offering resources, they are working to de-stigmatize incarceration and lower recidivism rates in their community.

“We’re not just in it to make a dollar. It comes as a part of what our mission is, our premise, as far as what our goal is. It’s to make change,” says Johnson. “We don’t hire nobody unless they’re previously convicted.”