(Above) Soulshine Pizza Factory founder Chris Sartin.
The feeling one gets walking into Soulshine Pizza Factory near the Castlewoods subdivision in Rankin County must be similar to what Dorothy felt when she found herself in Oz: “We’re not in Kansas anymore.”
Someone who visited the tiny pizza place once said Soulshine must be the “most Bohemian place in Rankin County.” The psychedelic, colorful mushrooms that cover the walls and the founder and long-haired, bearded-owner Chris Sartin, who can frequently be found behind the cash register, are admittedly a little out of the ordinary for the stereotypical Republican county.
But that’s the idea.
“When I first opened Soulshine, many of my family and friends thought that being in-your-face was not the way to go — I felt the opposite,” Sartin said. “If you’re not the norm, instead of hiding it, exploit it and use it to your advantage.” Doing so, Sartin said, has made Soulshine “hard to put out of your mind.”
But if for some strange reason customers do forget the atmosphere, it is likely they won’t forget the list of specialty pizzas, such as The Magic Mushroom, The Bob Marley, The Kitchen Sink and a host of others — not to mention the soups, calzones, salads, po-boys, homemade cheesecake and lasagna.
The restaurant, which is now also located in downtown Jackson at Hal & Mal’s, is an “explosion” of all Sartin’s restaurant experiences, which include everything from fine dining to casual as well as almost every ethnic food imaginable.
“I think that’s why the menu is so crazy,” Sartin said. Sartin’s partner and Soulshine executive chef Will Brady helped tweak the menu and recipes Sartin had created.
Sartin and Brady opened Soulshine Feb. 7, 2001, at Castlewoods. They opened the location at Hal & Mal’s just under a month ago.
The restaurant business and Sartin may sound like a match made in heaven — the 32-year-old held his first job at the age of 14 at Cerami’s in Jackson. In actuality, however, Sartin’s first love is history. He attended Delta State University and then the University of Alabama where he earned a BA in history before deciding the restaurant business was his true calling.
“I wanted to be a history professor,” Sartin said. “That was really my passion.” But, he said, “When I got into history it was just mainly to get a degree in something I liked. I figured I would end up selling insurance for my father.”
Selling insurance was not Sartin’s cup of tea, however, and he eventually ended up working at Walker’s Drive-In with Brady. The two discussed buying the restaurant when it went up for sale, but it was not to be.
Then, driving home from work one day, Sartin noticed that the Little Caesar’s near Castlewoods was closed. After some discussion, Sartin and Brady purchased the space and converted it to Soulshine.
“We wanted to give it a loose, casual, relaxed atmosphere,” Sartin said. “And it was cool to me to call it Soulshine. That’s what you ought to do all the time in life — let your soul shine.” The name comes from an Allman Brother’s song.
Sartin said opening the restaurant was the beginning of a new chapter in his life.
“I finally accepted what I was — a restaurant man,” Sartin said.
About six months later, Sartin ran into Malcolm White, the owner of Hal & Mal’s. Sartin thought the downtown location of Hal & Mal’s would be a great new location for Soulshine.
“We had only been open for six months when we started talking,” Sartin said. “That was just a compliment to have someone of Malcolm’s stature come here. He could have gotten more established places to come in but he thought we could do it.”
Sartin wanted the downtown location, but did not want to handle the aspect of selling the alcohol, so the two came to an agreement. Sartin and Brady would run Soulshine and Hal & Mal’s would run the bar.
Already, Soulshine has garnered quite a following. Sartin said he and Brady have been able to do that merely by treating people the way they want to be treated.
“People have so much fun here,” Sartin said. “I roll out the red carpet for them.”
He compares Soulshine’s treatment of customers and employees to a story about Charlie Jacobs, who had played in a legendary band called the Tangents. As the story goes, Jacobs had a remarkably similar scratchy voice to singer and songwriter Dr. John.
“People told him he sounded too much like Dr. John for his own good. But when Dr. John met Charlie Jacobs he told him, ‘just throw it out the window.’
“I think that’s how we like to view things. Move on and improve and don’t worry about what people say. Just throw it out the window.”
Contact MBJ staff writer Elizabeth Kirkland at email@example.com or (601) 364-1042.