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Oakland’s New Soul Food Restaurant Wants to Make Biscuit-Crust Pizza a Thing

Karter Louis couldn’t afford to go out for pizza when was growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, so he and his brother would improvise: They took biscuit dough, straight out of the tube, and loaded it up with whatever toppings they had on hand. 

Now, Louis is turning that simple idea into a bona fide restaurant. Located at the former Noodle Theory Provisions space in North Oakland, at 5849 San Pablo Ave., Soul Slice will be a soul food restaurant first and foremost—a place for customers to enjoy collard greens and black-eyed peas, fried oysters and lemon pepper catfish. But Soul Slice’s main point of distinction is that it serves all those dishes and more on top of its proprietary biscuit crust. As a pizza, in other words. To Louis’s knowledge, it’s the first dedicated biscuit pizza restaurant anywhere in the country.  

The restaurant will open on Saturday, June 19, or Juneteenth, the holiday celebrating the emancipation of enslaved people in the United States— a “dream day” to open, Louis says, because he sees the restaurant as a celebration of Black culture.

“The goal,” he says, “is to glorify and bring more focus on the origins of African American cuisine.” 

Louis, a self-described serial restaurateur, was an operating partner at San Francisco’s Samovar Tea Lounge in the mid to late aughts, after which he ran a chain of Appalachia-themed restaurants called Hillbilly Tea based in Louisville. His dream, however, was to open a soul food restaurant, especially as he learned more about this history of the cuisine over the years—about how Carolina Gold rice was brought over to the U.S. in the pockets of enslaved West Africans, and the way that biscuits themselves evolved from hard, cracker-like objects eaten by British sailors to a staple of the American South. 

For years, Louis had assumed that biscuit-crust pizza was just an odd thing that he had done as a child, but when he started talking to people about it as an adult, he realized that many Southern folks, in particular, had done the same thing growing up. Google “biscuit pizza,” and you’ll find several dozen recipes, though very few that incorporate any soul food ingredients. For Louis, however, the combination struck him as being “as American as you can get.”

At the end of the day, Louis says, Soul Slice is a pizza restaurant. The chef’s biscuit creations look like pizza; you cut it into slices and eat it like a pizza. The main difference is that the pizzas don’t draw on Italian or Italian American flavors. “We don’t have mozzarella in our profile whatsoever,” Louis says. “I don’t even think we have oregano.”

Instead, the pizzas are mostly made up of the kinds of things you’ll find in the American South. One pizza features okra, smashed potatoes, crispy black-eyed peas, mustard greens, collards and tomatoes. You can get hot links or cornmeal-crusted fried oysters on your pizza. You can get Alpine cheese, cheddar or a vegan cheese. And while there is a house tomato sauce, customers might instead choose the hot sauce or the “mac cheese” sauce, which Louis says captures the “gooey, cheesy essence” of his mac and cheese recipe. 

The Okra and Tomato pizza. (Soul Slice)

Louis says when he moved back to the Bay Area in 2017 after living abroad in China and Taiwan for several years, he wasn’t necessarily looking to open another restaurant. But then the pandemic hit, and Louis says he saw the ways the restaurant industry was ravaged—the way so many cooks and servers lost their jobs, or felt compelled to keep showing up to work at risk of their own health and safety: “I just asked myself, what can I do?”

The same week he came up with the idea for Soul Slice, protests broke out all over the country in response to George Floyd’s murder at the hands of a white police officer, and Louis took that as a sign that focusing his efforts on celebrating Black food culture was the right thing to do.

“People don’t take into consideration the contributions that Black and brown people have made to this country,” he says. “This is an important cuisine to engage in.” 

Karter Louis is a self-described serial entrepreneur. (Soul Slice)

With all of the cracks in the restaurant industry’s existing business model that were exposed by the pandemic, Louis says he realized that he wanted to create a restaurant that would be more equitable and humane—no more nickel-and-diming employees for an hour here or there; no more elitist, fine-dining hierarchies where a server might make $100,000 a year while the dishwasher scrapes by on $30,000. “I’ve been a restaurant consultant, and I’ve trained people on how to cut costs—how to keep people in poverty, basically,” he says.

At Soul Slice, Louis says, every worker—a staff of seven to start out—will be a full-time salaried employee with health benefits, paid vacation and a 401(k). Everyone will work in both the front and back of the house, and they’ll all be paid according to their training level. It’ll be a five-step scale, with the goal of getting everyone to at least the fourth level. As Louis puts it, “Everyone gets the same pay at the same level. Everyone shares the tips; everyone works a full day; everyone takes two days off. It’s like a real company. That was the dream.”

Once the restaurant opens, Louis says he’ll begin the process of applying to have it certified as a B Corp—a business legally required to have a positive impact on both its workers and on the world at large. Eventually, he wants to open 20 outposts of Soul Slice all around the country in the next three to five years. But Oakland seemed like the perfect place to start.

“I want to hang my hat on Oakland,” Louis says. “Oakland is the beacon to me in terms of being able to prove the model and having a community of people who understand what we’re trying to do.”

Soul Slice will open for both takeout and indoor dining on June 19 at 5849 San Pablo Ave. in Oakland. A back patio with outdoor seating will open later this summer. See the opening menu below:

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