In about five months, if all goes well, Certified Pies of Little Rock will be moving from a curbside- and delivery-only restaurant to a 2,000-SF dine-in space, a culmination of a three-year plan that began during the worst of times: a pandemic.
Certified Pies has evolved from a side hustle to be one of the city’s only Black-owned pizza restaurants.
And it began with a birthday celebration.
Harlem Wilson, who enjoyed making pizza from scratch, was prodded by his longtime friend, Kreg Stewart, to make him one. “His birthday came. I came to his house and made a pizza from scratch, and he took a bite of it and said it was the best thing he’d ever had in his life,” Wilson said.
Kreg and Samantha Stewart had been developing a meal prep business out of their home as a side business. “We basically had to graduate into a commercial kitchen space,” Kreg Stewart said. So the couple had rented a space in Arkitchen, a commercial kitchen and food truck commissary at 9813 W. Markham St.
“And then he came over on my birthday and fed me his pizza, and it just switched everything up,” Kreg Stewart said. “I talked to Sam and said, ‘I know we just spent all this money on a logo and all this stuff to rebrand for our meal prep business, but something’s telling me this is what we’re supposed to be doing. Something’s speaking to me.’ They just believed in it, and they’re here today.”
The Stewarts and Wilson are partners now in Certified Pies, which in addition to pizza serves chicken wings, salads, calzones and, on Sunday, pasta. It’s currently open Thursday through Sunday, but the partners have signed a lease for a space at 9807 W. Markham, in front of the shopping center that houses Arkitchen and in a storefront formerly occupied by Art Is In Cakes, Bakery Supply.
They hope to open their sit-down restaurant in August, but know that pandemic-related supply chain snarls may affect that timeline.
As for the name, “Certified,” it stems from the partners’ desire to communicate the genuine excellence of their product. “It really put a lot of pressure on us to make sure that we are on top of our game and bringing what our name stands for, which is Certified Pies,” Kreg Stewart said.
Starting a business from scratch is hard at any time. Starting a business from scratch during a pandemic should have been overwhelming. But the Stewarts and Wilson had a plan.
They also have the advantage of long association. Samantha Stewart, originally from Conway, met her husband, Kreg, when they were both students at Bryant High School. They’ve been a couple since 2009 and have been married for seven years. Kreg and Wilson are from southwest Little Rock and have been friends since middle school.
As for the plan, when Certified Pies opened for business in October 2020, although the state-ordered restaurant closures of the COVID-19 pandemic were over in Arkansas, many restaurants were still focusing on takeout and delivery. In addition, finding the space for a dine-in restaurant while making the numbers work could have been problematic, Samantha Stewart said. “That was a major concern for us,” she said. So Certified Pies decided to open anyway, but only for curbside and delivery service, and build its brand.
“We wanted to get it out there and at least start building our customer base,” Samantha Stewart said. But the plan was always to eventually open a sit-down restaurant.
Kreg Stewart, who lost his job as a truck driver during the pandemic, was able to focus full time on the restaurant. Samantha Stewart only recently quit her corporate job to work exclusively on Certified Pies. And Harlem Wilson has kept his full-time job at the Dee Brown Library in southwest Little Rock.
Kreg Stewart and Wilson are the creative side of the enterprise, developing recipes through “extensive trial and error,” and Samantha Stewart handles operations.
Adding to pandemic complications, starting a business can be more difficult for African American entrepreneurs, who often lack access to capital.
The Pew Research Center reported last month that in 2020, there were an estimated 140,918 U.S. employer firms with majority Black or African American ownership, up 14% from 124,004 in 2017, according to the latest data from the Census Bureau. “Those firms brought in an estimated $141.1 billion in gross revenue in 2020, an 11% increase since 2017,” Pew said.
“Despite this growth, businesses majority-owned by Black or African American people accounted for only 3% of all U.S. firms that were classifiable by the race and ethnicity of their owners in 2020. And Black-owned firms accounted for just 1% of gross revenue from classifiable companies that year. By comparison, Black adults comprised 12.4% of the overall U.S. population in 2020, according to the Census Bureau.”
Only about 9% of restaurants in the U.S. are Black-owned, according to the National Restaurant Association.
Samantha Stewart put the business partners’ investment in Certified Pies at between $100,000 and $200,000. They worked with Arkansas Capital Corp. of Little Rock to obtain a Small Business Administration loan. They also have received guidance from Southern Bancorp of Arkadelphia, which helped them in completing the loan process as well as with marketing and obtaining insurance.
“We definitely made sure we took this time to build our foundation of the business because we want it to last,” Samantha Stewart said.
Asked whether the partners had anything to add, Wilson, laughing, said, “Insert motivation quote here: Delayed is not denied.”