VOL. 41 | NO. 14 | Friday, April 7, 2017
Fresh concept, familiar faces on Buchanan Street
Co-owner Derrick Moore stands near the patio of his restaurant. The line behind him is growing. -- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger
Other than the time I interviewed Al McGuire about Magic Johnson while we used the facilities during a March Madness regional round 38 years ago in Murfreesboro, I don’t usually write about visiting the bathroom.
But after spending a couple hours at the brand-new Slim & Husky’s Pizza Beeria in North Nashville, well, it’s time. I knew it as soon as I began “singing” in my head the theme song to the old Will Smith sitcom “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”
Not my favorite song – though, when we first brought her home from a Romanian orphanage, it was one of the first things Emily learned in English (I had been hoping for “Love Me Do” or “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” … but there’s no controlling what songs will catch on with a 2- or 3-year-old.)
Those same “Fresh Prince” lyrics play a prominent role in the interior of the S&H men’s restroom, which I visit soon after my arrival at 911 Buchanan St. – less than a half-mile west of Rosa L Parks. Blvd – where hip-hop and R&B stuff decorates much of the restaurant.
I’d stopped here because, when I drove by in my free-styling column-topic hunt, at least 20 people were lined up on the sidewalk outside.
I parked the old Saab and went toward the back door, where I met Derrick Moore, one of the three co-owners of this addition to our city that – if he and his partners are right – will provide a secure foothold in the drive to spark commercial development in this previously ignored stretch of town.
Slim & Husky’s is the sparkling centerpiece of the Buchanan Street Business District (so designated on nearby signs). It’s clearly nirvana (the state of being rather than the band that was better than Pearl Jam) for folks who calmly follow that line as it snakes through the dining room before ending on the sidewalk.
Near the front of the line, customers pick toppings to customize their pizzas, sort of like when Subway folks add requested toppings to your Italian BMT.
Derrick’s happily slammed, so I venture inside and meet Barbara Morrow, a mental health caseworker who “blames” a friend for her virgin Slim & Husky’s visit.
“By the time you pay for your order, your pizza gets delivered to your table,” Barbara says. “I really like it. (My friend) had been here before and she loves it.”
Whether it’s fate or obvious need, the next person I encounter inside is another mental health caseworker. Shayra Horn flashes a double thumbs’-up as she and Ryan Cartwright polish of their “California Love” pizza pie, loaded with spinach, artichokes, red onions and fellow veggies.
“This is my second time here,” she explains. “Everything is real good.”
“We added shrimp and salmon,” adds Ryan as he sips on one of 14 local brews offered on tap.
Ryan, visiting from Memphis, says he first ventured to Slim & Husky’s “because I heard about it.”
“This is the seventh time I’ve been here,” he points out, rubbing the bill of his Vancouver Grizzlies cap – “you know they were in Canada before they came to Memphis,” he adds, before further elaborating on the power of the street-level marketing that lured him.
“This place caught fire through word-of-mouth,” Ryan says, nodding toward the patient and hungry line of people. “I haven’t seen anything on social media, no advertisements. Word-of-mouth, that’s the best way.”
Not wanting to be a pest, I clamber through the rows of communal dining tables and encounter one of S&H’s managers, Daemon Watson, a 40-year-old former Tennessee State football player who took this job after a career mostly spent in marketing for churches.
His boss, Derrick, had told me I really need to see the bathrooms to get the real flavor of what is being accomplished here, so I ask Daemon about that.
“I’ll be your tour guide,” he says, before taking me into the men’s room, where a lyric from that “Fresh Prince” theme song is painted – graffiti-style – on the inside of the door.
After we both knock on the door of the women’s room to see there are no occupants, we push open the door.
One wall is covered with hip-hop lyrics about women. “Around the Way Girl,” by rapper-turned-“NCIS: Los Angeles” star LL Cool J (Ladies Love Cool James, even by his non-showbiz moniker “James Smith”) is just one example: “I want a girl with extensions in her hair, bamboo earrings at least two pair.”
The back of the door – the part that faces into the restroom – is painted with a lyric by Biggie Smalls – aka The Notorious B.I.G., Big Poppa or just plain Christopher Wallace – the New York-based hip-hop superstar and apparent ultimate victim in the East Coast-West Coast rap rivalry of a couple decades back. Tupac represented the West Coast.
Pizza boxes also come in Slim and Husky sizes.
“To all the ladies in the place with style and grace,” reads the line from the song “Big Poppa.” The next line of Biggie’s song gets a tad graphic, but that’s not on the door.
Daemon finishes our restroom tour and returns to his computer, where he is programming a non-stop soundtrack of 1990’s hip-hop and R&B music, painstakingly selected to suit the restaurant’s Old School vibe.
“It’s been a lunch spot for companies in the surrounding area,” he notes of the chirping spectrum of state workers, TSU and Fisk students, the white-collar curious. Every flavor of humanity has decided to venture onto Buchanan Street – historically out-of-the-comfort zone for many white people – to sample this unique restaurant.
Derrick, who is spending most of the time assembling and customizing pizzas during the rush that began mighty early – I was there before 11 – is one of three owners. The others aren’t in the house right now, but they, like Derrick, are 32 and they were his TSU classmates.
“I played football. Linebacker at TSU and Maplewood. Clint (co-owner Clinton Gray) played center at TSU and Hillsboro. Emanuel (Reed) didn’t play any sports,” adds Derrick, with a smile. “He had an academic scholarship.”
His partners have business degrees, Derrick says, adding: “I made it in poli sci.” The trio tried other ventures, individually and collectively, before hatching this dream of “making a footprint for us on Buchanan Street.”
Fact is, they studied the concept a long time. “About two years,” he points out. “We wanted to make sure we had the property and the concept right. A lot of it was making sure that this was going to be right for the neighborhood, the community and us.
“And we had to make sure we had a good product that was good for the community.”
The young men saw gentrification beginning its inevitable assault on North Nashville, where new houses are being built and older houses rehabbed to suit hipsters from around the country.
“We needed to make a footprint, because eventually the area is going to be like 12South, with no African-American businesses, if we don’t,” Derrick explains.
Buchanan Street is, for now, one of the last great African-American business avenues, he says.
Derrick and his partners saw an opportunity to shine a bright light on the community, attract other black investors and businesses to the worn-by-age-and-rep neighborhood.
A satisfied customer crosses Buchanan. The end of the line can be seen at the door to Slim and Husky’s -- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger
For too long, Buchanan and much of North Nashville has been ignored by businesses. And white people. But the sounds of backhoes and nail guns loudly signal the determined hipster advancement.
From the very beginning of the dream two years ago, Derrick and his partners knew that if they could succeed, they could make a difference in Buchanan Street’s future and that of the neighborhood.
I’ve been around long enough – about 43 years as a professional journalist, some of it as a columnist for newspapers for which I often sought the opinions and life-tales of society’s underdogs – that I’ve had a lot of experience driving up and down Buchanan.
And I’ve experienced the ups and downs. For example, I did a column about a quick-shop worker who had to report for dawn duty after the overnight guy was killed in a robbery. There were bloodstains on the floor when I went there to get a story. Don’t think that was ever solved. Such events were not rare.
I once rode with Metro vice cops through the neighborhood for a story on the local war on drugs.
But there’ve also been many happy tales, like a morning spent with a fellow who farmed turnips off Clarksville Highway and was selling them in a parking lot not far from S&H. Even got turnips out of that tale.
And then there was my old friend Elzy “E.W.” Mayo, who made the best fried pies and fried chicken livers (and other fowl products) down at the very end of Buchanan, not far from TSU.
I did a column on him once and continued to drop in when in the neighborhood, not for the pies and certainly not the livers, but for good tales from a fellow who had an autographed photo of Bill Clinton displayed on his desk and repeatedly motioned at it, labeling Slick Willie “my good friend.”
This new pizza place will draw more people of all shades and professions to Buchanan Street, and maybe draw more business development.
“This is one area of Nashville that is not oversaturated with gentrification,” says Derrick. “We wanted to come here and be a part of a community that NEEDED to succeed. We wanted to provide food to a neighborhood that is pretty much ignored.”
He and his partners are trying to resuscitate a Code Blue neighborhood.
A lyric from the Notorious B.I.G. is on the inside of the women’s restroom. -- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger
“History-wise it’s important,” he notes, adding that so far most of the customers have been African American. “But we definitely get white people and Asians. One of our managers is Asian. We got a nice combination of folks coming in.”
While likely 75 percent of the crowd was black when I visited, there was a contingent of white people, mostly young and many without socks, enjoying the food, the hip-hop party atmosphere and the fellowship that comes from eating communal style.
I would guess it an exciting new frontier for most of the white visitors. On my visit, the last guy in line outside was a particularly white Patrick Schiebe, a 27-year-old state worker: “My wife told me about it and told me to check it out.”
“Business is good,” Derrick says. “Doesn’t matter if it is black business, white business, Asian business, Hispanic business. It doesn’t matter where the business comes from.”
A part of the guys’ mission is to employ and mentor young people from the community. “It is very important for us to be an example for African-American youth,” Derrick points out. “We want to show that if you get an education and set some goals, success is there.
“You got to work hard for it. But if you work hard, take school serious …. Well, if you have dreams, you can make them happen….
“You don’t have to be an athlete or a rapper or a drug dealer or a hustler or a gambler. A lot of those things they see first-hand in the community. We want to prove that you don’t have to do that to be successful.”
And he also knows the steam-shovels growling on the horizon are just the beginning of the first wave.
“It‘s not like it’s an isolated situation. It’s happening all across America. The wealthy population continues to grow and they want to be able to live in town. It’s where everything is happening.”
He laments that gentrification often means long-time residents can no longer pay escalating rent nor afford the property taxes required to build a bridge from The Gulch to SoBro and other “improvements.”
“The bad thing is those people, the ones who have been here. I definitely feel for old people and disabled people. …”
He knows those folks will have to move. “Antioch,’’ he says.
“I do feel this is kind of hurtful to see this happening. I do. But at the same time, this is going to happen. And, hopefully, those people will catch their wind and know better than to sell their houses to the lowest bidder and have a plan for the revenue they get for their houses.”
What bothers him most is that the people forced out no longer have voices or political representation in the community they called home for so many decades.
He knows it is happening all over the country. What he hopes is that this business will help jump-start a trend of bringing more employers – white, black, otherwise –to Buchanan.
The three owners already are spreading their footprint in this community. They’ve recently purchased an old garage down Buchanan, just across from Bud’s Hardware & Key Shop, where they plan to bring an event space for private parties, weddings and the like. Again, they hope to offer more opportunities to the neighborhood, to be good stewards of the street they’ve adopted.
Manager Daemon looks up from the computer where he assembles the soundtrack.
“Our purpose is to infuse art,’90s R&B, good pizza and great service,” he says. The artwork is not just faux graffiti on the restroom walls. High on the wall above the front door is a large outline of Volunteer State, filled with the lyrics of “Tennessee” by Arrested Development.
You could also say there is artistry in the way the pizzas are efficiently custom-made for hungry folks from all over town.
Oh yeah, to get back to the “Fresh Prince” flavor mentioned earlier, a lyric from that theme song decorates the inside of the men’s room door.
“Yo Homes Smell Ya Later.’’