Find your people: Alessandra R. Carreon, PizzaPle...

Find your people: Alessandra R. Carreon, PizzaPlex

It’s not what you do, it’s who you do it with. Here at Detour, we believe fostering connections is part of our mission. Our Find Your People series spotlights Detroiters who are building community through their passions. Get off your favorite barstool and out in the neighborhood to explore the people and projects helping push Detroit forward. And if you see someone you’ve read about here, make sure to say hi.

Alessandra R. Carreon knew she wanted to make the world a more equitable place. But she never thought she’d do it with pizza.

Click here to read about some of Alessandra’s favorite things in Detroit!

Southwest Detroit’s PizzaPlex is many things. For starters, it’s a destination for righteous Neapolitan pies. It’s a community center too, a home base for karaoke nights and nonprofit meetings alike. It has a delicious buy-one-give-one model, sospeso, a pay-it-forward program for individuals in need. And, more than anything, PizzaPlex is the foundation for a very different kind of business.

“We’re on a journey to commit to collective worker ownership,” says Alessandra R. Carreon, a founder and co-owner of PizzaPlex. ”That means any profits will return to the neighborhood, to the city, to our workers, who will own a stake in the business.”

PizzaPlex is a L3C, business-speak for a low-profit limited liability social enterprise. These ventures are created to help bridge the gap between nonprofits and for-profits, and they must be mission-driven. Carreon has an MBA, but she navigated how to build a company that did well while by doing good with the help of Detroit’s Center for Community-Based Enterprises

PizzaPlex (courtesy photo)

“Once we get to a break-even and profitable point, we’ll redistribute the percentages and make our workers owners of PizzaPlex,” she says. It’s a model that’s constantly in a state of refinement. The PizzaPlex crew (six staffers plus some important and ancillary teammates) practices what Carreon calls “democratic decision-making” for the culture of PizzaPlex — who to partner with, which events to throw, and what really matters to the team in terms of priorities.

Alessandra R. Carreon and husband Drew McUsic, co-owners of PizzaPlex.

Carreon is the kind of woman who lives and breathes her values. “I have very blurred lines between the things I do,” she says, laughing. By day, she’s a global sustainability engineer at Ford; her evenings and weekends are spent obsessing about growing PizzaPlex’s sustainably.  “I find the theme that connects all of it and I can’t stop doing it,” she says.

Carreon hails from a Filipino-Neapolitan family of “global nomads” and moved frequently as a child, including a long stint in Italy. Witnessing inequality around the world — from the organized crime in Naples to the rapid resort development in the Philippines — helped Carreon see her place and privilege, and develop her commitment to social equity. “I do expect everyone should have a high quality life,” she says. “The biggest takeaway is that intersectionality. I can’t isolate any one thing, all these pieces came together to form me.”

Still, she says, “I can’t say that there was a moment where I thought I’d be owning a pizzeria.” Inspired by a cooking class at the Naples pizzeria her family has frequented for decades, she and her husband built a backyard pizza oven. A friend who owned a building in Southwest Detroit and knew about their love for pizza suggested they open a restaurant. The seed was planted: a pizzeria that would help redistribute wealth back into the community and support the neighborhood, too. That was 2015. By 2017, PizzaPlex was open for business.

The most important piece of advice Carreon has for any future entrepreneurs, is to have a strong foundation in operations. She says her biggest learnings came from figuring out how to operate a successful business without sacrificing the mission. 

“If you even looked at the first menu, there was no pizza more expensive than $8,” she remembers. (Now, pizza prices range from $5 to $14.)  “And it didn’t work… The central issue is that the plan can only take you so far, it needs to be refined with business realities. The mission can always coexist with that, but you do need to tweak your plan. And in the beginning, I was very resistant to tweaking because it was my original vision.”

Carnavale, a recent community event hosted at PizzaPlex (Courtesy photo).

What comes next for PizzaPlex? Carreon is excited for the future of proving their model and sharing it with others. “I look forward to the focused persistent effort of achieving our goal of collective ownership,” she says, “and then understanding what we’ve learned so that we can be a model for other organizations that want to be worker-owned.”

“As long as we operate in that same system, nothing will change,” Carreon continues. “I believe that the system can change, and it needs to change, and there are enough people here working to change it.” –Ashley Woods Branch

Click here to read about some of Alessandra’s favorite things in Detroit!

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Ashley Woods Branch is the founder and CEO of Detour Media, a local journalism startup that builds community, spotlights neighborhood issues and curates Detroit news through an equitable perspective. Ashley leads Detour’s audience growth strategies, community partnerships, revenue operations and strategic planning. She’s also a sought-after consultant for digital newsrooms and has worked with more than 100 news outlets across America. Ashley previously led consumer experience and digital strategy at the Detroit Free Press and was the editor of HuffPost’s Detroit bureau, as well as a reporter and editor focused on Detroit culture and development for MLive, Real Detroit Weekly and Model D. She was a 2019 Marshall Memorial Fellow and a 2018 Visiting Nieman Journalism Fellow at Harvard University. Follow her on Twitter: @ash_detroit