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people on a line for cuts and slices
Photo Credit: Abe Beame for Okayplayer

Exploring Cuts & Slices, Brooklyn’s Most Viral Pizza Shop

Cuts & Slices is a Brooklyn-based pizzeria that serves unconventional pies featuring ingredients like shrimp, truffles, and oxtail. We take a look at why the shop has become such a viral phenomenon.

In October of 2021, a TikTok video caught my attention. In it, Lil Yachty — the beaded, dread-sporting rapper turnt singer, turnt psychedelic rocker — is far from his native Atlanta. He was on the border of Bed Stuy and Bushwick, on a largely residential Howard Avenue block, eating a slice of chicken and french toast pizza at Cuts & Slices, a pizzeria that serves unconventional pies featuring ingredients like shrimp, truffles, and oxtail. Cuts & Slices is not far from Sal’s Pizzeria, a restaurant/figment of Spike Lee’s imagination “at” the intersection of Lexington and Stuyvesant. The pizzeria presents an alternate universe in which Buggin' Out didn’t settle for brothers on the wall, but instead demanded they write the menu, make the pizza, work the register, and surrender the house aux to Radio Raheem.

In the video, Yachty is being goaded by a voice behind the phone recording him, which belongs to Randy Mclaren, the pizzeria’s co-owner (with his wife Ashlee) as well as the narrator and director of this video and many, many like it. Mclaren cuts between Yachty and his full pie in its box, with an almost bleached crust, with brownish yellow chunks of french toast and yellowish brown chunks of chicken, drizzled in maple syrup. He refers to Yachty as “beloved,” practically a catchphrase of Mclaren’s small, five-year-old slice shop that is currently taking over the online food community — as evidenced by the daily massive line it attracts, populated by thrill seekers coming from hours away and waiting for hours more, just to try their pizza.

A second location of the shop in Jamaica Queens is slated to open later this Summer, so in the video, as Mclaren tells Yachty, “We might have to take this to ATL” — suggesting a branch in Atlanta is an inevitability — any viewer with a passing familiarity of the burgeoning franchise tends to believe him, and may wonder, why stop at Georgia?

@cutsandslicesnyc @lilyachty On the pull up 🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥⛵️💪🏾🙏🏽❤️👨🏾🍳 #frenchtoast #chicken #pizza #nyc ♬ original sound - CutsAndSlicesNyc

Black Cuisine’s influence in New York

Cuts & Slices borrows from a number of culinary traditions, but is essentially a marriage of two core ideas. There is an emergent style of restaurant all over the city which I will gently and cautiously label as “Nouveau Black Cuisine.” These menus aren’t exactly Caribbean, and they’re not exactly Asian, and they’re not exactly Italian, and they’re not exactly Southern. But they are their own mutant genre that incorporates elements of all the above. They have essentially taken the pan-Black New York experience (That of course incorporates Chinese food and pasta, and pizza) and created something new.

The restaurants I’m referring to are likely Black owned and fiercely marketed as such. There may be optional outdoor hookah service. There may be a DJ at brunch. There is likely a clever neon sign set in a “living” silk vine covered accent wall intended as an Instagram backdrop. A harmonious union of jerk spices, cream sauce, and tubular pasta will show up somewhere. The cocktail list will feature colorful drinks, both strong and sweet, which generally owe a debt to Tiki and Caribbean flavors. Truffles or truffle condiments were smuggled onto the flavor roster at some point. Peruse the menu at Sweet Catch Brooklyn, or Suede, or Negril BK, and you’ll see traces of what I’m clumsily attempting to posit (my personal recommendation would be Charm, a narrow cocktail bar and restaurant in the shadow of Barclays Arena which ironically, is an ideal spot to catch a Knicks game). What Cuts & Slices has effectively done is taken this cuisine, this experience, and scooped it on pizza.

A sign of a raised fist inside Cuts and Slices pizzeria.A bit of Juneteenth artwork inside Cuts and Slices pizzeria.Photo by Abe Beame for Okayplayer.

In the century since it passed through Ellis Island, we’ve come up with a staggering number of both creative and profoundly dumb ways to fuck with a piece of pizza. You can replace the crust with a pounded and breaded chicken cutlet. You can transform it into an artichoke dip casserole or stretch it paper thin. You can grill or fry it. You can sprinkle it with a cheese blend, or provel, or, as we do in New York, processed, pre-shredded low-moisture mozzarella coated in cellulose. You can cook down your tomato sauce with vodka and blend it with cream. You can stuff the crust. But the area that has proven itself the most welcome to experimentation has been toppings.

The second key culinary idea Cuts & Slices expands on is it essentially makes “Toppings Pizza,” and in this, it joins establishments as diverse as your local corner slice featuring “Veggie Pies:” large and fat slices laden with peppers and broccoli and black olives and mushrooms that resemble isosceles slivers of jungle. Or the famous pizzeria/restaurants of Northeast Brooklyn that tell you where they source the heritage pork sausage they lay alongside broccoli rabe, and devise pairings like satellite dish pepperoni coins with chili-spiced honey, so you won't notice the actual pizza isn’t very good. And of course, gimmicky chain pies that play around with fusion and take the elements of staple sandwiches and throw them on pizza that may or may not be creative vehicles for garlic dipping sauce. These places are not austere dough temples who worship at the altar of minimalism and abstract pleasures like a light char on the underskirt, or a sour chew on a crust with nickel-sized crumb. They feature largely silly ideas and ingredients (often heaped atop the pie liberally) that have expanded our idea of what qualifies as pizza, and have effectively rendered the slice of pizza a triangular plate made of bread, sauce and cheese.

The rise of Cuts & Slices

Cuts & Slices entranceThe entrance of Cuts & Slices. Photo by Abe Beame for Okayplayer.

It's important to define what Cuts & Slices “is” because its concept is both obvious and brilliant (To recap in elevator pitch form: a Black Toppings shop), but doesn’t really explain why it’s so wildly, immensely popular. I can’t claim this restaurant was first to the idea. In my neighborhood, a now-closed restaurant called Zurilee had opened three years earlier, in 2015, serving pizzas with Caribbean-inspired toppings like jerk chicken and oxtail (Randy and Ashlee told me they’d never heard of any pizzeria putting jerk chicken or oxtail on pizza before). Those pies hewed closer to delicate Neapolitans and were served whole, which is a far cry from the esoteric, Wonka-esque New York slice shop maximalism of Cuts & Slices. But Zurilee had a relatively good, Covid-shortened run as a well-liked neighborhood restaurant, then closed to little fanfare. Because it's not the brilliance of the concept that makes Cuts & Slices worthy of the many weeks of time and thought I have put into this piece, as expressed by an already bloated word count. It’s the packaging.

The rise of Cuts & Slices is a story about luck, about savvy decision-making, about creativity and dogged determination, but above all else it’s a story about posting. I spoke to the 30-something couple, Ashlee and Randy Mclaren the day after July 4th, on Ashlee’s phone, from their home in Long Island. Cuts & Slices is closed every Wednesday to give the Mclarens and their staff a day to restock and catch their breath. The couple were coming off a busy, long holiday weekend and were figuring out the logistics of grabbing the week’s oxtail order from a butcher.

Randy began his career at a Pizzeria Uno in Bayside, working his way from busboy to manager, through several different restaurant corporations in outer boroughs over a decade. His last real job was managing a Baskin Robbins/Dunkin Donuts in Long Island that burnt him out on the entire industry; he was working 12 hours a day, six days a week. Randy was a cog in a giant corporate machine that treats its employees as disposable inconveniences, but also forces the individual who works their way through its intricate systems to learn its organizing principles: how to order, how to delegate, how to work for people and get people to work for you.

He was wondering what the next step in his career might be when fortune smiled on him. He had moved to doing some party promotion as a side hustle when one morning, after an event, he saw a line of kids stretching down a block outside a Footlocker at 4:30 a.m. They were waiting for a Nike Foamposite release, and Randy couldn’t believe it. He grew up getting all his exclusive, high-demand gear from illicit Mom & Pop shops, the earliest forms of black market resellers, and discovering you could just stand in line and get an item for half what you could sell it for when the store opened was a revelation.

What Randy had discovered was the power of scarcity. Over the next several years, he built a business out of being the guy that could get his hands on product everyone wanted but no one could get, including shoes, but also items like Playstation 5s. Clients included celebrities from all strata of fame, but crucially, athletes like Draymond Green (Who would wear a Cuts & Slices hat on Sportscenter), and rappers like the Yonkers collective the Lox (Jadakiss would give Cuts & Slices its first viral moment in 2019 when he ordered an all crust pie).

You don’t have to strain to see the couple cannily casting this origin story narrative for the pizzeria as a JAY-Z verse, a grindset bootstraps YouTube motivation clip about finding a classic New York hustler will and a way, inventing the streetwear-ization of pizza. But there’s another story that can be told as you scroll down the gently rocking thumbnails of the C&S TikTok grid. Around this time last Summer, the subject of those thumbnails shifted from overhead shots of the pies, to people. Ashlee explains, “Randy had thought we got shadowbanned. He was annoying me, [saying]: ‘They don't want us to be great. They're shadowbanning us on Instagram.’ I'm like, ‘Babe, it's not that. The content needs to change up. You post the same thing every day. No one cares. You keep posting pictures of pizza. We have people come from all over the world, ask them what they think, start talking.’ So he went in, and the first time he did it, it went crazy.”

Randy added, “I was like, oh my gosh, this girl was right. People are tired of seeing the fucking pizza.” In doing this, Ashlee and Randy created the true commodity Cuts & Slices is offering: Virality. The experience of visiting the shop has supplanted the food it’s offering. Perhaps, if you’re in line at the right time, you too could run into Styles P, or New York Nico, or Jim Jones. You too could be the subject of one of Randy’s man-on-the-street interviews — a blend of Wendy Williams and Dave Portnoy — get tagged on a post, and pick up a few, or maybe even a few hundred followers. Together, the Mclarens created what could potentially be described as New York’s first true Black viral food phenomenon, joining any number of goofy pastries and stunt sandwiches in eternity.

“People don't even know the magnitude of what social media could do.”

Photo by Abe Beame for Okayplayer.

The culmination of this shift, and the explosion of the pizzeria can be followed on a graph. Beginning in August of 2018, Cuts & Slices Instagram account is a modest earner for four years, building up from double to triple digits in weekly follower adds, but never much more, typically adding something like 250-500 a week. Suddenly, the week of September 20th, 2022, they spiked to 1,467, then 2,236, and the account never dips below four-figure weekly adds again, topping out the week of March 12th of this year, when they added a staggering 22,081 followers. The Mclarens attribute this to first, a visit from comedian, podcast deity and TV personality Desus Nice, who Tweeted about an oxtail slice, then brought it on the Jimmy Kimmel Live! show doing its annual weeklong residency in Brooklyn.

Desus Nice on Favorite NY Pizza & Mayor Eric Adams Wanting to Move Madison Square

I asked Ashlee about the role she thought social media played in the growth of Cuts & Slices. She said, “People don't even know the magnitude of what social media could do. The type of people that we meet, the type of lives we change. It's not just about pizza. I think we inspire not just other chefs. I think we inspire other couples, and we want to be an example of a Black entrepreneur couple that works together and is successful and also has a whole bunch of successful employees that are happy where they work. Social media has played the biggest part in our success today.” It appears to be working. The day before July 4th, the shop was closed for their annual Summer staff party at a house they rented with a pool in Long Island. The first year of business the Mclarens simply brought the two employees they had to their house to grill and hang out. This year they had to rent a bus for 35 people.

Since the Jimmy Kimmel appearance, C&S has received a staggering amount of attention (Including an in-depth New York Times short film). But that is the power of social media, a forced democratization of coverage, market testing a pitch for skeptical editors. What took so long for the media hoard to come around? When Ryan Sutton (early to the party in March of 2022) first covered Cuts & Slices for Eater, Mclaren put it bluntly, “I’m flying under the radar because I’m a Black-owned pizzeria.” The Mclarens still feel excluded from the New York insular, gatekept community of pizza snobs, Randy said, “It’s because of how we look. Black people don’t represent the pizza community. Most of them don’t even acknowledge us. We’re the black sheep.”

Tasting the pizza

Black guy behind counter serving pizza.An employee serves pizza at Cuts & Slices. Photo by Abe Beame for Okayplayer.

It’s 11:00 a.m. when I arrive on a Friday and seven people are already milling around out front of the shop’s humble storefront on Howard, amidst the grouping of brownstones and smaller apartment buildings that top out around four stories. The door was locked, and would stay that way for exactly an hour, but all the pies were already laid out, on display in their clear counter shelving at room temperature.

The line that began to cue over the next hour, extending first down to, then around Halsey, was almost exclusively Black, but beyond that had no rhyme or reason. It was composed of an older couple who had driven down from the Bronx and were sharing a pre-lunch piece of red velvet cake, mothers and their grown daughters who live in the neighborhood, knew little about the place and were already annoyed by the wait after ten minutes, a pregnant woman in her third trimester who brought a folding chair to stay off her feet, a shaggy Latino 20 something chewing on a bacon egg and cheese wrapped in foil toward the back of the line. He told me he had to have a snack while he waited because he was extremely high, and thus en route to enjoy what is perhaps the most perfect iteration of Cuts & Slices: as munchies.

 sign showing hours and pizzaPhoto by Abe Beame for Okayplayer.

I was first, at the front of the line when the door opened, and proceeded to meander through the space taking pictures (as many people were). I talked through my order with an extremely polite and knowledgeable kid behind the counter, wanting as broad as possible a cross-section of the pizzeria’s offerings. I was wrung up at 12:09. Here is my order:

1 Shrimp & Lobster Truffles Slice $16.64
1 Brown Stew Oxtail Slice $11.44
1 Buffalo Chicken Slice $7.82
1 Jerk Chicken Black Truffle Alfredo Slice $11.95
1 Regular Slice $3.50
= $50.56
Sales Tax $4.14
Tip $8.21
Total= $62.91

When my number was called, I grabbed my box and crossed the street, posting up on a common perch, where New Yorkers have enjoyed their slices for generations: Someone else's stoop.

It was my first (and to date) only visit, so I started with a plain slice because I thought it was important to judge the pizzeria on its merits, with no splashy garnish to hide behind. To its credit, the plain at Cuts & Slices is standard pricing, and as a piece of pizza it’s fine — no better or worse than a replacement level slice from, say, a Brooklyn LIU student and Brooklyn hospital worker lunchtime warhorse like Luv-N-Oven Pizza on Dekalb in Fort Greene.

Because of its density, the sheer tonnage of topping, many of the C&S slices have a high center of gravity. When you fold most slices, you create a fissure in the crisp crust, around the area that marks its bottom third, where the triangle begins slimming to its tip. This Tropic of Capricorn creates a flop that makes it difficult and awkward, and in some cases impossible to lift as a whole or enjoy as a New York slice is meant to, as a handheld item, it’s a borderline fork and knifer... To be fair to the pizza snobs who don’t rank C&S, it only accentuates the impression that what you’re eating is not quite pizza in the traditional sense of the word. The slice simply can’t hold up to several ounces of oxtail, or shrimp, or chicken, and is further degraded by being slathered in alfredo sauce, or braising liquid gravy, and leaves you attempting to tame a piece of pizza that has the structural integrity of a bridge in Minneapolis.

The rewarmed slices I had were not piping hot, and as a result didn’t yield much in the way of a cheese pull. On the other hand, and perhaps as a result of a gentle reheat, the shrimp, which I feared would be curls of fibrous chew, retained a springy juiciness on their bed of thickened cream. The brown stew oxtail on its eponymous slice had been braised to a state between solid and sauce, and tasted intensely of a mellow jerk rub, redolent with flavors of all-spice, garlic, and thyme, but lacking an adequate level of scotch bonnet sting. I thought to myself I’d like to try it over rice and peas. The best of the bunch was the most traditional: a Buffalo chicken slice that was dressed with a cross hatch of blue cheese, the sauce lubricating whatever chew the chicken might have, the flavors bright with hot sauce.

What’s next for Cuts & Slices

Different styles of pizza in a shelfPizza selections on display at Cuts & Slices. Photo by Abe Beame for Okayplayer.

As I ate on the stoop across the street, I looked out over the line, a blend of exasperated people and excited people and in most cases, a bit of both. I thought about how all of these people, whether they liked the pizza or not, were getting exactly what they wanted out of their afternoon lunch experience. You can go on TikTok right now, and see reactions and opinions across the spectrum. But even those haters, in a very specifically New York way, as they rage at the time and money they “wasted” with eloquent, descriptive, evocative, gleeful profanity, clearly are having as good, if not a better time than the people who will go through the motions of telling you how great it is.

Some of us were first-timers satisfying curiosity, some of us were rabid and devoted fans that had traveled across bridges and tunnels, and in some cases, continents. But what united us all is we were driven here by content, content we had consumed — or in my case, and for many others — content we were coming to create. And who knows? Perhaps simply having our names attached to this sensation could help bump follow counts, go viral off the virality Randy and Ashlee have established, and lead to opportunities of our own. I certainly would like for this frivolous meditation to do that for me.

What I think will happen to Cuts & Slices is what I think eventually happens to all viral foodstuffs: The rubbernecking crowd will eventually move on (but business will remain steady much longer), powered by the brand inevitably diluting when they open the second location in Queens, then perhaps Atlanta, then anywhere they want. I suspect, and genuinely hope the Mclarens will become very, very rich in the process. I’ve seen far less talented restaurants succeed with worse food for dumber reasons, and they’re almost always white. But beyond that, I hope that when they move on, the crowd finds another Black food phenomena to move onto. I hope that right now, young Black chefs and entrepreneurs are studying the success of Cuts & Slices. I hope places like Cuts & Slices force New York’s food media to pay more attention to Black restaurants, and not just the spot you stumble on that sells doubles for three dollars on a Columbus food tour expedition, and not just in a showcase space in a luxe performing arts center that sells versions of the same dishes for $30, but the great middle of Black restaurants that desperately need attention and are just as deserving of it. Because after all, in the bleak and depressing twilight of empire, shouldn't every American be entitled to their own big dumb lunchline to film themselves waiting on?

After I ate, I left my box of at most half-eaten slices closed on top of a row of trash cans at the bottom of the stoop. I went down the street to grab a seltzer from a bodega, then walked back to the line to do ten minutes of crowd work, so perhaps 15 minutes total. When I was about to head home, I happened to glance across Howard to the can where I left my pizza, and the box was gone. Now, maybe it had been taken by someone who lives in the building, who threw out the trash where it belongs. Maybe, as I had intended, it was taken by a hungry person without the necessary funds who would be grateful for a bountiful lunch. But I’ve chosen to believe it was taken by some young, curious, resourceful, fearless New Yorker, who was paying attention, and capitalized on a rare opportunity to skip the line.