Clint Gray, EJ Reed, & Derrick Moore of Slim & Husky’s: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became a Restaurateur

An Interview With Martita Mestey

Martita Mestey
Authority Magazine

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Hire people with an entrepreneurial mentality. In a nutshell this means hire problem solvers, go getters and team members that will value your business as much while you are gone as they do while you are in the building. This will allow you the confidence to grow as a business. Many of our corporate team own their own businesses outside of Slim + Husky’s. We support the idea of entrepreneurship within our culture and also utilize their services internally when an opportunity is there.

As a part of our series about “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became a Restaurateur”, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Clint Gray, EJ Reed, and Derrick Moore.

Slim & Husky’s is a story of three friends, Clint Gray, EJ Reed, and Derrick Moore, with a mission to empower communities while using pizza as their vehicle to engage. Slim & Husky’s aims to offer quality food, employment opportunities, and community events as the company expands across the nation. Slim & Husky’s was founded on a shared dream inside of a garage in 2015. The clever name came from a joke the longtime friends have been laughing about for years. One of them has always been a slim guy, but the other two were always big fellas, forcing their mothers to shop for clothing in the children’s husky section.

The Tennessee State University grads started the fast casual, gourmet pizza joint as a way to serve unique pies and provide jobs to their neighborhood in North Nashville. Now, Slim & Husky’s offers build-your own pizzas, take out options, catering services, and delivery through third party vendors.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know’ you a bit. Can you share with our readers a story about what inspired you to become a restaurateur?

Yes, we actually consider our brand a story. A story of 3 friends & former college roommates on a quest to create a restaurant that would empower our North Nashville Neighborhood (37208) through Pizza, Art & Music. Growing up in Nashville, TN we noticed that the hospitality scene was growing around the presence of Country Music and tourism. However, we saw a need for more investment into our communities that we viewed as neglected by the local resources. We made a commitment to open a fun fast casual concept using pizza as our vehicle to connect to the community to provide jobs, quality food, and youth education.

Do you have a specific type of food that you focus on? What was it that first drew you to cooking that type of food? Can you share a story about that with us?

Yes, Slim + Husky’s is a Pizza Concept that also serves Gourmet Cinnamon Rolls, Salads, Cheese Breads, etc. As young entrepreneurs S+H Founders started a moving company that would require travel across America to service our customers. During our travels we became fond of eating pizza due to its affordability and ability to eat while driving. During this quest we quickly became self -proclaimed pizza connoisseurs. This sparked our interest in wanting to explore the concept of pizza as our next business.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a restaurateur? What was the lesson or take away you took out of that story?

In 2019, we were invited to Good Morning America to compete in their National Cheese Pizza Day competition. We were up against other great pizzerias from the New York City area. After a tough competition we came out victorious. It was amazing to see that our southern flavor inspired pizza could outweigh pizza staples from what many consider the Pizza Mecca. At that point we knew we had a product/brand that could thrive anywhere.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? How did you overcome this obstacle?

Our journey actually began with our first company “Green Truck Moving Co.” My partners and I started that business at 24 years old. In 2010 we all made a commitment to invest $1,000 a piece to start that business (which was pretty much all we had). During the course of 7 years, we faced many obstacles such as a city-wide flood, searching for capital to grow our business, finding quality labor, racist customers that didn’t want a black owned moving company within their home, and sacrificing our personal salaries to ensure our staff would be paid. We also managed and built that business while working on MBA and Law School degrees from Belmont University, Tennessee State University and Nashville School of Law. The lessons we learned during this time period provided us with the business acumen necessary to enter the hospitality industry. Once we sold the moving company in 2017 for a 7-figure deal, we reinvested those earnings into what has now become Slim + Husky’s.

In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?

We like the idea of meshing different taste textures combined with sweet and savory flavors. Our crust is thin but has both crispy and chewy components. Our Cheese & toppings are rich, bold and on the saltier side while balanced out by a level of sweetness in both our base sauces and drizzles.

Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal for you’?

Being from the south, we like a full meal topped with a heavy dessert to finish it off.

Where does your inspiration for creating come from? Is there something that you turn to for a daily creativity boost?

Our brand is all about Pizza, Art & Music. We are always inspired by emerging artist in both art and music. While visiting our stores you will notice this type of expression on the walls and across the speakers. Creating a concept like S+H allows us to think freely within our ideas because at the end of the day we consider ourselves artist. Our stores are our canvas and the communities that we serve are our canvas.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?

We are actually working on several projects that will shape our brand for the future. Our team is in the works to open a store on the historic campus of Morehouse College. We are also planning to launch a city to city pop up entitled “PREAM TOUR” that will introduce Slim + Husky’s pizza to cities across America such as Miami, Houston, Dallas, New Orleans, Chicago, Washington DC, Etc.

Our team is also preparing to enter the retail segment with Frozen Pizzas highlighting some of our signature offerings such as our Rony Roni Rone, House Party, Nothin’ But a V Thang, and Nashville Hot Chicken Pizza.

What advice would you give to other restaurateurs to thrive and avoid burnout?

I would suggest building systems within you operation from day 1. This will allow you to take some of the stress off of yourself by being able to rely on valued team members. You can focus on quality and growth while your staff manages the day-to-day operations as designed by your systems and standards. Starting with a digital restaurant checklist is a good beginning to ensuring that your team members are operating your store the same way everyday whether you are in the building or not. I would also suggest including your passion into the branding or culture of your restaurant. For example, if you love plants, make this a part of the restaurant culture. If you love sports, make this a part of your restaurant culture. If you love community service and giving back, make this part of your restaurant culture. This way you operating your business aligns with what you love and won’t feel so much like work all of the time.

Thank you for all that. Now we are ready for the main question of the interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started as a Restaurateur” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.

Keep it simple

In the beginning many restauranters will want to highlight their full culinary resume which can lead to large menus full of extensive items. For a new restauranter this can result in heavy inventory and overhead cost that makes cost harder to manage. I suggest that new restauranters focus on a simpler menu that can be executed in a way that appeals to customers while giving the new business owner time to master the back of the house systems that will result in better cash flow and profitability. Since we opened the first S+H our menu has reduced the number of sauces, toppings, cinnamon rolls, and drizzles we initially started with. This has helped us focus on better consistency, speed and overall customer satisfaction while reducing cost.

Keep it small

Opening a smaller location allows a new restauranteur to see the floor easier (front of house & back of house). This gives them a space that is easier to manage and learn the new operation faster. A smaller store when at capacity also builds the perception to consumers that this is the place to be. In the beginning our first S+H had lines down the block to get into our 1400sq ft location. If this store would have been 2500 sq ft. those lines may not have looked as long which may have not garnered the news stories and popular acclaim that boosted our success early on. Some may even call this manufacturing a line which is a strategy by many people within hospitality. The higher the demand the easier it is to hire, market, and generate revenue in general.

Don’t take reviews so personal

Customers are very quick to publicly call out new businesses when they haven’t even had time to work out all the kinks. This can be hurtful to a new restauranter that has invested all of their hard-earned time and money to create something meaningful to their community, family and legacy. It is important to read reviews and build off of the feedback, but one should never take things too personal. Rather than be upset, take it as an opportunity to connect with the customer. If you can solve their issue and turn them into a repeat customer, then you may have gained a new customer for life. As a new restauranter my mom would sometimes assist with being a front of the house host. I remember someone leaving a review and referencing my mom in a negative way that made me uncomfortable. This was a turning point for me as I realized that people would say anything online when something is of their dislike. At that point we made a commitment to remove emotion while reading reviews and focus on creating solutions based on feedback that results in improving revenue.

Hire people with an entrepreneurial mentality.

In a nutshell this means hire problem solvers, go getters and team members that will value your business as much while you are gone as they do while you are in the building. This will allow you the confidence to grow as a business. Many of our corporate team own their own businesses outside of Slim + Husky’s. We support the idea of entrepreneurship within our culture and also utilize their services internally when an opportunity is there.

Focus on Your Prime Cost.

Spending can be high within a new business. As a restauranter you want to make sure your prime cost (Food & Labor) is no more than 50%. In year one & 2 we made a lot of money but did not have our prime cost in line which meant we were spending too much. If you can manage your prime cost, you will maintain a healthy amount of operating capital that can be used to build your business.

What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment?

The Nashville Hot Chicken Pizza. It is made with Jalapeno Cilantro Ranch Sauce as the base, our S+H House Blend Cheese, White Meat Chicken & Chicken Sausage marinated in S+H Hot Chicken Spices, Banana Peppers, Fresh Jalapenos, topped with our Fresh Dill, Cayan Pepper & Parmesan Sprinkle, and drizzled with our hot honey.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I would focus on implementing mandatory financial literacy education courses within all schools from grades K-12.

Thank you so much for these insights. This was very inspirational!

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