You might say it started with Wu-Tang Clan.
Although the group’s song “C.R.E.A.M.” (“Cash Rules Everything Around Me”) cemented itself into the minds of longtime friends and college roommates Clint Gray, Derrick Moore and E.J. Reed, they never knew it would one day inspire the business model for their fast-casual restaurant empire.
For the co-owners of Nashville’s Slim + Husky’s Pizza Beeria, PREAM (“Pizza Rules Everything Around Me”) is their business mantra. To them, it encompasses everything they can achieve through pizza, which includes using food as a vehicle for social change.
To understand how the friends went from living together at Tennessee State University and sharing a love for WWE wrestling, to spearheading a business that became a 2023 semifinalist in the prestigious James Beard Foundation Awards for Outstanding Restaurateur, you must first understand one thing: Everything is easier when you’re doing it with your best friends.
That’s what Gray, Slim + Husky’s (S+H) chief marketing officer, believes. And it might just be the secret sauce of the trio’s remarkable success.
“It doesn’t feel like work,” he says, almost making the long journey to get to where they are today look easy. It was, of course, far from it.
Slim & Husky’s origin story
Gray recalls the time the friends started their first business together—The Green Truck Moving & Storage Company—in 2010.
“We had $3,000 and an idea,” he recalls. “We each put $1,000 into the pot and rented trucks because we didn’t have money to buy one. Once we made a dollar from the business, it went right back in the bank account. That’s what allowed us to buy our first truck, then our second and third.”
They went on to own many trucks and had 45 employees on their payroll before selling the company for seven figures in 2017, always knowing that venture was the seeding ground for something much bigger.
Bigger means different things to different people, but for Gray, Moore and Reed—S+H’s chief financial officer—it didn’t mean more money. Instead, their sights were set on amplifying their community in every way possible, with a focus on showcasing the work of Black artists, offering scholarships to high school students who work for the company and expanding into neighborhoods that have been historically passed over for economic development opportunities.
How Slim & Husky’s transitioned to pizza
Some may think the transition from moving trucks to pizza ovens is a disjointed leap, but years of on-the-ground research fueled their most successful business venture to date. Because it was cheap and portable, the friends found themselves eating so much pizza during moving gigs, they deemed themselves connoisseurs.
“We knew what good pizza was,” Gray laughs. “It came into the picture when we started to think about our exit plan in the moving industry. Everyone at some point thinks about owning some sort of restaurant or hospitality venture. We’re from the land of hot chicken, and there are tons of burger joints and taco shops, but we didn’t want to do that.”
Pizza, art and music
Moore, S+H’s president, suggested a pizza shop that played nonstop hip-hop. Then, the group discussed their shared love of the arts, and suddenly the business idea (and subsequent tagline) was solidified: pizza, art and music.
“We want the art and music side of our business to be on the same playing field as the pizza,” Gray says. “We’ve got Music Row [in Nashville]—Sony, BMG, Universal and Empire—and want to give emerging artists platforms and serve as a bridge to [those studios]. We’ve hosted our S&H Unplugged music series at Analog at Hutton Hotel and the National Museum of African American Music on Broadway [volume 7 was in June], and Domani, the son of rapper T.I., closed out a past performance for us. We are also looking to create our own music label.”
The music they play in their shops is distinctive for many reasons. For one, it’s loud, and initially garnered complaints from customers not used to the vibe. But as ’90s kids, Gray says he and his partners were regularly asked by their moms to turn their music down. It’s a request they ignored then and continue to ignore, out of respect for music they believe deserves attention.
It’s the artists, of course, whom the trio believes deserve the most attention, and they want to be intentional as to whose music they showcase.
“It wasn’t a normal thing to walk into a pizza shop and hear Southern-based hip-hop,” Gray says, “so we have a huge focus on Southern artists like OutKast, Master P and Goodie Mob. We’ve even got a mural on the ceiling of our original location in North Nashville, with the third stanza from the Arrested Development song, ‘Tennessee.’”
Slim & Husky’s art gallery
The art featured in their spaces became complementary to the music, with murals and canvases adding vibrance and personality to each location.
But it was the PREAM mantra that continued to push the partners into new territory as gallery owners. Their NKA Gallery has two permanent spaces, one next door to the original S+H location in North Nashville and the other on the floor above their Memphis location in a building the partners own.
“It was cool to have art in the restaurant, but we wanted a place where we could house different events that support the arts,” Gray says. “We focus on local African American artists and give them a platform to showcase their talents, rotating one show each month.”
Supporting Black-owned businesses & education
Yet another area of focus for the team is education. Since 2018, they’ve offered $1,000 PREAM scholarships to S+H employees who are graduating seniors carrying a 2.5 GPA or higher. The trio also gives talks in local schools, serving as mentors for kids and sharing about their entrepreneurial journey.
“We’ve always dedicated our success to providing opportunities and education to others,” Gray says. “We bust the myth for kids that you have to have money to start a business. The wealth they need to start their business resides within themselves. By bootstrapping and collaborating with those around them, they can make up the resources they lack.”
The friends are certainly more than qualified to give advice. They created the S+H brand in 2015, turning an old garage into a test kitchen so that they could perfect their recipes. When looking for their first location, they researched more developed sides of town like Midtown, near Vanderbilt University, East Nashville and 12 South, which Gray says is a gentrified area with emerging businesses. But something didn’t feel right.
“It felt like we weren’t needed,” Gray says. “It didn’t feel like our purpose. We all have family in North Nashville, an area of the city that has been neglected for years. What contributed to its downfall was putting Interstate 40 in the middle of it, cutting off economic progress and leading to the same things you’ll see in any African American neighborhood across the country not supported by the city.”
Gray says their first location on 10th Avenue North and Buchanan Street was a food desert and had no restaurants near it for 10-15 blocks.
“Since we opened [in 2017], there is a clothing store and two restaurants and bars across from us, and two restaurants down the street—all Black-owned,” he says. “We’ve seen a huge representation of Black-owned businesses, which was very important to us. We all went to Tennessee State University—a historically Black college and university (HBCU)—and this year, we opened a location at Morehouse College, an HBCU campus.”
Slim & Husky’s: more than ‘just’ a pizza company
What started as one store in North Nashville has turned into 11 brick-and-mortar locations, two food trucks and 10 concession stands—at FedExForum, Nissan Stadium and Vanderbilt’s FirstBank Stadium—in three states. The momentum appears to have no end in sight, as Moore, Gray and Reed plan to expand into more cities in the next four years, hoping to make S+H a household name across America.
“We’ll continue to open brick-and-mortars around the country and ship our pizzas nationwide but hope to be in local retailers with frozen pizza,” Gray says. “We’re heading out on a PREAM tour around the country, introducing ourselves to the rest of America. We’ve got lots of plans.”
And while Wu-Tang Clan had an impact on the S+H team as kids and, later, as pizza industry influencers, the celebrities gracing their Instagram prove that the taste for talent goes both ways. CeeLo Green wants to try their namesake pizza (the “Cee No Green,” with ground beef, pepperoni, Canadian bacon and Italian sausage), while singer and vegan activist Mýa enjoys the “Nothin’ But A ‘V’ Thang,” with plant-based pepperoni and sausage and vegan cheese.
Everyone from H.E.R. and Bell Biv DeVoe to DJ Jazzy Jeff and Gayle King has shown up for the TLC-inspired “Red Light Special” and the “Rony, Roni, Rone!” But the S+H founders know people come for more than just the food.
“We’re not just a pizza company,” Gray says. “We’re dreamers and risk-takers, but the overall definition of who we are is community guys. The more you become successful, the more you reach down and pull people up with you. We want to do things differently, and pizza is our tool to be able to connect with the masses. We knew if we all just stuck together, nothing could really stop us.”
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2023 issue of SUCCESS magazine. Photo courtesy of Anderson Group PR.
Stefanie Ellis is a food and travel writer, as well as PR strategist and content creator for her own company. She has bylines in The Washington Post, BBC Travel, Eating Well, Saveur and more, and her clients are thought leaders in finance, branding, healthcare and the food and beverage space, with a former NBA player and duct work company thrown in for good measure. You can get in touch at stefanieellis.com or on Instagram @40somethingunicorn.