Don Hernandez helped open many restaurants and bars. A veteran of the food and beverage industry, he has worked at The Patterson House, 21c Museum Hotels and both B1281 and the deer, outlets at the BentoLiving Hotel in Wedgewood-Houston. In October, he turns the key to a first: the first restaurant he owns. Not only that, it was also the first restaurant he had opened since he was sober.
Several months ago, Hernandez, a career bartender who served as vice president of the local chapter of the US Bartenders’ Guild, quit drinking. These personal and professional firsts frame his vision for Pinky Ring Pizza, his new restaurant in Madison. He wants Pinky Ring to be a fun linchpin for the Madison community, a place where people can hang out after work or school, or grab a slice and a non-alcoholic beer before heading to the upcoming opening. Timberhawk Hall or the farmers market at the Amqui train station.
To achieve his vision, using local ingredients when possible and always mixing things up with new menus and new approaches, Hernandez has harnessed Wes Scoggins aka the Jewish Cowboy, to lead the culinary program as Executive Chef. Scoggins did pop-ups all over town – at Rosemary & Beauty Queen, Culture + Co. and elsewhere — and he and Hernandez struck up a friendship. Scoggins hopes to open his own restaurant in Nashville in the future, and working at Pinky Ring allows him to expand his creative wings. There’s a stack of cookbooks by the front door, and if you have a few minutes with Scoggins, he’ll share his thoughts on everything from the best flour for pizza dough (King Arthur) to vegan alternatives and how to get the perfect arctic char on a crust. Working side-by-side with Hernandez also means giving him a masterclass on opening a restaurant and all that it entails, from finding investors to working with owners, to hiring and training of staff.
One of Scoggins’ first acts was to convince his brother Kameron, also a chef, to move to Nashville from Texas to work in the kitchen. He’s not the only family member to participate in Pinky Ring. Hernandez’s partner, Karen Kops, who also owns Poppy & Monroe – the Germantown nail salon that’s a Best of Nashville voter favorite — was instrumental in shaping the aesthetics and branding of the restaurant, not to mention working behind the counter on a night out with friends and family.
Hernandez’s father helped him completely renovate what was once a modest Sir Pizza restaurant. Now there’s a patio out front, with six picnic tables surrounded by planters that Scoggins plans to fill with herbs, microgreens and produce he can use in the kitchen; the lettuces will arrive soon. From the deck, you can look through a window and watch the dough being made with the restaurant’s carefully cultivated appetizers (named Miriam and Delgado). A walk-in window lets you grab a slice to go. Inside is a row of counters, with live plants hanging above them, light pink walls, and dark green modern tiles. Hernandez was saved from a project at the BentoLiving hotel. There is also a matching green sidewalk in front. Posters from local printer Boss Construction hang on the walls.
Pinky Ring doesn’t look like a pizzeria of the past, nor will its menu look conventional, especially when it comes to soft drinks. When Hernandez got sober, he started noticing how few options there were at his hangout spots.
“I was offered a strawberry soda,” he says. “I didn’t drink strawberry soda before, and I’m not going to drink it now.” Pinky Ring’s coolers are stocked with non-alcoholic beers, and Proxies non-alcoholic wines are expected to arrive soon. A tap was installed to serve other non-alcoholic options from a keg. Once Pinky Ring obtains its liquor license, there will be both craft cocktails and craft mocktails on the menu. As someone who has spent much of his career mixing drinks, Hernandez says, he wants to create an environment where drinkers and non-drinkers alike can socialize easily. “Sometimes you can feel uncomfortable around drinkers because you don’t have a glass in your hand. So we are looking for how we can meet in the middle and bring everyone together. He is also considering scheduling with a nearby recovery center.
Scoggins is working on a menu that will also promote connections. As he, Hernandez and their team opened Pinky Ring, people stopped by to share their memories of Sir Pizza as an after-school hangout and community gathering. Hernandez and Scoggins think they can build on that. The pizzas will run the gamut from a traditional vodka sauce to a spicy red sauce and white mushroom sauce. Look for lamb on a Mediterranean pie and seasonal vegetarian slices. (Think asparagus or squash roasted in miso butter.) Scoggins plans to set up his smokehouse in the aisle, which will allow him to make brisket pizza. At Rosemary & Beauty Queen at Five Points, Scoggins was known for their vegan dishes, so there may be some plant-based choices too.
The kitchen team bakes 20-inch pies from which Pinky Ring will sell large individual slices. If you order a whole pie, these will come in 18 inch pizzas. Sunday, says Scoggins, will be like going to your grandmother’s house. “We’re going to have a special menu with an Italian-American dish,” he says. The pizzas are baked in a specialist pizza oven (designed by a Swedish company with an eye on Old World Italian pizza ovens), which gets the pizzas just right shaded.
Pinky Ring serves lunch and dinner six days a week (closed Mondays) and will not offer the traditional delivery of most pizzerias. You can, however, order pies to take away, and they will set up to sell in bars around town, including the nearby Dee’s Country Cocktail Lounge. Hernandez knows how difficult — and important — it is for bars to keep customers at home, even when they’re hungry.
As for the name? “A lot of pizzerias have mafia names, and we’re not into that,” Hernandez says. “It’s good healthy food. We’re not nostalgic for the gangsters, but it’s the nostalgia for what the gangsters would have been nostalgic for – basically, their nonna’s cooking.