Spreading good vibes, one pie at a time
By Amile Wilson
Though not from the Delta, Mississippi restaurateur Chris Sartin spent some of his most formative years as a college student and young adult in Cleveland giving him the skills he needed to build a successful business.
“My senior year of high school, I’d never even been to Cleveland,” Sartin says. “I think I might have been to Greenwood once in my life.” One could say the education department at DSU attracted Sartin to the Delta, but it would be much more accurate to say it was his best friend who sealed the deal.
“I always wanted to go to Alabama,” he says, “but my best friend was going to Delta State and convinced me I could always go to Alabama for my masters degree so I should come with him to Delta State. They had a great teaching program, class sizes were smaller so I’d likely do better in school, but the thing that convinced me was when he said they had a three-to-one ratio of women to men.”
“I remember the first time I drove over that Yazoo bridge just before sunset and all I could think is ‘this is a desert,’” Sartin says. “Then the sun started to set and I was sold. The sunsets are gorgeous.”
Sartin studied history at Delta State and soon realized he was not cut out for the years of work it would take to earn a Ph.D. and become a professor. He transferred to Alabama but soon realized it was not a good fit and came back to Cleveland to complete his degree.
The entire time he was in Cleveland, Sartin worked in local restaurants as a server and bartender at Rumors and eventually at Crawdads in Merigold.
“Crawdads had a lot of soul,” Sartin says. “It was small, everyone was treated like family, and was just a basic building. All the money was put into making good food. It had character and lots of things for people to look at on the walls. I learned about the soul of a restaurant there. Rumors was high volume. I learned a lot about booking bands and charging covers while working there.”
Sartin loved history but realized that even teaching history was not a job he wanted. “I always figured I’d end up in my dad’s insurance business,” he says. “I wasn’t a good student and saw the writing on the wall that I wouldn’t be a good professor. I knew teaching couldn’t keep me in the lifestyle I had grown accustomed to. At the time a history teacher made $373 per week after taxes. I could make that in just two nights bartending.”
Eventually Sartin left Cleveland for a “real job” in McComb but hated it and landed back in his hometown in the Jackson area where he again took jobs at restaurants.
Despite financial success, by the time Sartin hit age 30, however, he had hit an emotional rock bottom. “I was making more money than a lot of people my age but especially back then you were supposed to ‘be an adult’ and ‘get a real job,’’ he explains. “I was depressed and trying to do something different.”
First, Sartin tried to purchase the restaurant where he was serving at the time —Walkers Drive In—but the deal fell through. One day while returning a video to Blockbuster, he noticed that the Little Caesar’s Pizza next door was for sale. Sartin called the owner and began negotiating the deal. He didn’t want the Little Caesar’s name—just the lease and furnishings. The asking price was $50,000, but Sartin negotiated down to $35,000. That deal launched the Soulshine Pizza franchise. Soulshine now has five locations including Jackson, Oxford, Nashville and Franklin and does over $8 million in sales annually.
Sartin named his pizza company after the Allman brothers lyrics and nurtured the vibe of a “hippy deer camp” in all his locations. He lives in Nashville with his wife and three daughters and homes to grow the business but not sacrifice vibe or quality in the process.”
Sartin still loves history and reads constantly. He also teaches history to his staff in regular examples that illustrate business operations. Sartin also continues to love music and is involved in that industry as well. In this, he considers his life in Nashville to be living the dream. “I get to see my music heroes all the time up here,” he said. “Just a little while back I heard a song I wrote play on the radio in here Nashville. I’m 47 years old and for the first time I got to hear my music played in Nashville. I love it.”