RIDGELAND — When Chris Sartin was 30 years old, he knew he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life working an office job.
“I knew I needed to be doing something creative, and I wasn’t very good with somebody telling me what to do all the time — how to dress and what to say,” he says. “I was more into expressing myself than I was fitting into a mold of what someone wanted me to be.”
He wound up building a business from the ground up — a pizza place he describes as “a deer camp for hippies, except you don’t have to be a member.”
Before his foray into the restaurant trade, Sartin didn’t want to hang around his dad’s insurance business, so he painted, listened to music and learned to cook. And when Walker’s Drive-In in Jackson came up for sale, he decided opening a restaurant was the career for him. Unfortunately, another buyer beat him to Walker’s.
But one night on his way to rent a movie at Blockbuster Video near Castlewoods, he happened across a Little Caesar’s for sale.
“It was cheap, and no one else was making gourmet pizzas around the area at the time, so I thought, ‘I’ll try it,’” he says. “At that point, I realized I could turn on the music that I wanted to hear and put the artwork on the walls that I wanted to see.”
From there, Soulshine Pizza Factory was born. The first restaurant, which opened in 2001, could seat approximately 60 people, but Sartin has come a long way since then. Today, he has four locations — Ridgeland, Flowood, Oxford and Nashville — with another one set to open in Franklin, Tenn., next week.
Sartin, now 47, took a bit of his personality and threw it into the restaurants. He is a big fan of blues, psychedelic rock and roll of the 1960s and early 1970s, plus jazz and bluegrass. That’s what plays on the speakers throughout Soulshine dining rooms.
“I’m into the stuff you don’t really hear on the radio,” Sartin says, noting that he brings in live performances, too.
And, though he has more than one location, Sartin tries to keep his restaurants from being “cookie cutter” versions of each other.
“But the vibe is the same,” he explains. “The artwork on the walls is different. You might see a portrait of Willie Nelson in one but Gregg Allman in another.
“I just try to keep a theme of music and history,” he says. “When I say ‘history,’ I mean old Pabst Blue Ribbon tin signs, something on the wall with a story to tell. I would say the walls of Soulshine look like my dorm or apartment in college.”
To Sartin, it seems like yesterday that Soulshine first opened its doors. But each time he meets a young adult who remembers eating in his restaurant as a child, he realizes how far he has come.
“They remember me taking them into the kitchen to make a pizza when they were young, and you realize you aren’t that young. It’s humbling,” he says. “But it really is a family, and every day we grow and learn and get better.”
And Soulshine hasn’t just been about pizza.
“Soulshine has been a platform for me as an artist, whether it be music, art, food or entertaining and talking to people,” Sartin says. “If I were working a 9-to-5 job, I’d be pretty miserable. Not using my creativity, I’d be very unhappy. But this is what keeps me going — especially thinking of the next new idea to come up with for it.”