MILLION-DOLLAR SLICE
New York magazine|January 18–31, 2021
CHRIS BARRETT HAS MADE BANK ON THE GRAY MARKET SELLING PIZZA LACED WITH 40 MG OF THC PER SLICE. CAN THE PIZZA PUSHA SURVIVE POT LEGALIZATION?
Jay Bulger

Three hours before his most recent arrest, the Pizza Pusha, a.k.a. Chris Barrett, leans back in the executive seat of a private jet. He’s in a white Hugo Boss sweatshirt and black Air Force 1’s. Stacked high on the seat next to him are Stoned Gourmet Pizza boxes, the logo printed in kelly-green Batman letters with a marijuana leaf replacing the first O. The boxes are for piping-hot Sicilian slices drizzled with THC-infused olive oil.

Distributing recreational cannabis is still illegal in New York, where the pizza is coming from. It’s still illegal in Florida, where the pizza is headed. The co-pilot, after being asked if the delivery crew could pose up front with a pizza box for Instagram, scurries back to the cockpit to report this drug-smuggling operation to the Florida authorities. Barrett shrugs off the potential implications. “I’ve done a lot of risky things in my life. Selling pizza ain’t one of them,” he says matter-of-factly, with a fuhgeddaboudit salami-shop accent and the hand gestures to match. “Besides, it’s good content.”

In the soon-to-be 15 states (including, this year, New Jersey) with recreational marijuana already approved, it is sold in slick packaging through user-friendly websites and at catered dinner parties. But back in NYC, the state may have decriminalized possession of small amounts, and the NYPD may have cut down on marijuana-related arrests (especially if you’re white or live in an affluent neighborhood), but cannabis delivery services still operate underground. Sellers can’t officially advertise. Craigslist pages offering Astor Place Starbucks meetups at 4:20 are quickly taken down. To grow, pot businesses rely on word of mouth, one text and friend of a friend at a time; it can take years to build a client base.

Barrett, though, has skipped the furtive Craigslist stage. He broadcasts his offerings—THC-infused sodas, garlic knots, and chicken wings, plus an assortment of marijuana strains—on Instagram as customers follow his deliveries in real time. “It’s by no means genius,” he says. “I deliver Stoned Pizza to famous people, and they post videos eating it, getting stoned.” In the Instagram tradition of trading free product for exposure, a celebrity would tag @pizzapusha, their curious followers would follow Barrett’s account, and, if he was lucky, they’d order a pie. The strategy has worked well enough to make the Pizza Pusha the most talked-about cannabis distributor in New York. On this day, the famous client is former heavyweight champion of the world Shannon Briggs, who is waiting in the airport parking lot for his pizzas.

The plane lands outside Miami, and with a mischievous grin, Barrett skips down the steps onto the rain-slicked tarmac. Unaware they are starring in a commercial for pot pizza, two masked police officers emerge from the reception area. “You got anything to tell us, sir?” says one confronting Barrett, grabbing the pizza carrier from his hand and placing it on a dolly. Barrett becomes apoplectic, playing to the camera as if he were being interrogated in a Scorsese film. “Do your own fucking investigation!” he says. “You guys don’t know what you’re talking about!”

Apparently expecting to find pounds of drugs, the officer opens the box, and the cheesy steam dissipates to reveal a thick Sicilian covered in secret sauce. “Okay, you’ve got me … you found the pizza,” Barrett admits, as if he were talking to Mystery Incorporated.

Instead of sending the pizza to a laboratory to test it for THC, Miami-Dade police arrest Barrett for “resisting an officer without violence,” and he is taken to the county jail. Meanwhile, marketing director and comedian Young Jack Thriller recovers the pizza and delivers it to Briggs, who endorses the Pizza Pusha to his 350,000 Instagram followers.

A WEEK LATER, Barrett invites me to his Harlem brownstone for dinner. At 47, the stoned Mighty Mouse is a wiry five-foot-seven with a scarred shaved head and a blunt-stained perma-smile unsettled only by a persistent hacking cough. “It’s not COVID,” he assures me. “I just smoke a lot of these,” referring to the comically large blunt hanging from the corner of his mouth.

I follow him down a long corridor into his kitchen. Nadia Day, Barrett’s 40-something business partner–chef–girlfriend, is waiting to greet me. She offers me an $8 bottle of Pizza Pusha’s Stoned Soda, which contains 30 milligrams of THC. (A typical serving of THC for a newbie is around 10 mg; for a stoner, it might be 50 to 100 mg; any more brings the possibility of going full Maureen Dowd.) “This is just the events space,” Day says of the apartment. She wants me to know this is no longer a mom-and-pop shop run out of this place. Plus it isn’t zoned for commercial use. “We used to cook here, but the Fire Department came.”

It’s a warm September night, so we walk to the backyard, which is tremendous by New York standards. There’s a Jacuzzi built into the deck, which leads down to patio seating for 30, where the Pizza Pusha team has been hosting socially distanced “stoned speed dating” nights. I sit across from Barrett at the end of the 20-person marble table as he presses a button, lighting a gas fire that rips down the center from end to end.

Barrett’s journey to pot pizza began in 2015. Looking to get in on the marijuana gold rush, but not sure what part of the industry to focus on, Barrett relocated to America’s cannabis capital, Humboldt County, California, where he rented a five-acre property in Eureka and started growing. “These hippies had me over, served me a gourmet cannabis-infused meal, and I’m thinking, This is the future. This is what’s missing in New York City,” he says. “A lot of people like me would rather eat and smoke weed with their friends than drink.” The next year, Barrett moved back to New York, and by 2017, he had hatched a plan to start a cannabis-pizza delivery service. He sourced the best supplies and recipes Bensonhurst could offer and taught himself to cook pizza. He lived in a basement below a kitchen, where he tested different infusions, the exact ingredients of which he will not reveal. “It’s a science,” he says, raising his eyebrows to emphasize that I should not ask about the recipe again.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, the Pizza Pusha’s Instagram DMs were flooded with stoners hoping to purchase $55 pepperoni pizzas. Barrett says the business grew from 20 employees to, at its peak, 70; today, 35 team members cook and drive pizzas to 50 to 100 distanced and isolated customers per day in the tristate area.

Chris Barrett and his fellow inmates in 1996, serving time at a medium-security federal prison in Pennsylvania. One of the men pictured, Kevin Kelly (bottom row, middle), was a prominent member of the Irish American gang the Westies, which was once allied with the Gambino crime family in New York.

Peeking out behind Prodigy, Havoc, 50 Cent, and Busta Rhymes at a Mobb Deep album-release party in 2014.

Receipts pile up in an April 19, 2020, Instagram post with the location tag “Harlem Baby !!!!”: “Busy Day!! #pizzapusha.”

Rapper ItsBizkit performs outside St. Ned, the East Village brick-and-mortar restaurant Barrett opened in October.

At Sendapackage.com’s New York warehouse in 2013.

Instagram Influencer Megan the Kim poses with stoned Pizza.

“I’VE DONE A LOT OF RISKY THINGS IN MY LIFE. Selling pizza ain’t one of them.”

LEFT: The @pizzapusha account documents glamorous days in the life flying private to celebrities like the rapper Twista: “On our way to Chicago to get @twistagmg #ST NED.”

BELOW: In another post, Barrett memes his arrest by Miami-Dade authorities: “They act like they never saw pizza before!!”

Receipts pile up in an April 19, 2020, Instagram post with the location tag “Harlem Baby !!!!”: “Busy Day!! #pizzapusha.”

As we sit outside, Day offers me a slice. A thick-crusted, rectangular Sicilian pie, it’s an above-average pizza by New York standards. If you’re reading this anywhere outside NYC, it would be the best pizza you could get your hands on. Reviews on weed-centric blogs have been mostly favorable. (“The pizza is a 6/10. Not bad,” New York Magazine restaurant critic Adam Platt tells me when I give him a pie to review. It’s “a 10/10 on the weed-pizza scale,” he adds. “I awoke in a daze of camel-tongued paranoia, however. Maybe a little less kush next time.”)

By my third slice, I am staring in wonder at the star etched onto the glass eyeball of Jack Thriller, who has joined us around the fire. Born blind in his left eye, the stand-up comedian spent his childhood as the victim of bad one-eye jokes. “So I became quick,” he says in his proper Georgia drawl. Last spring, Thriller, who had spent the past several years on MTV’s sketch-comedy show Wild N Out as well as hosting 50 Cent’s podcast, was booked to do a 50-city comedy tour with Martin Lawrence. Then COVID hit and the tour was canceled, and Thriller needed work. “That was my break. I was going to make $150,000, buy myself three eyeballs. I was real down on my luck until the Pizza Pusha handed me that bag.”

Thriller took over the brand’s social media. With his help, @pizzapusha gained 50,000 more followers in about six months as the company created Instagram memes and comedy skits and sent pizzas to musicians like Method Man and Ty Dolla $ign and comics like Michael Blackson.

Does Barrett worry about getting busted? He takes a moment to think about it. “We’re in the middle of the worst economic crisis of our generation,” he says finally. “I provide jobs. Tax dollars. You want to live in the past or the future?”

Besides, cops have mostly turned the other way. Retired NYPD lieutenant Dave Siev told me, “Police are out looking for violence. If the pizza is leading to gang activity, money laundering, other criminal activity, he could be on their radar. But no, from what I am aware of, there is no weed-pizza task force at present.” I heard much the same from other officers and elected officials. “My guess is that, at some point, law enforcement is going to put a stop to this pizza enterprise,” Janos Marton, then a progressive candidate for Manhattan district attorney, told me over a slice of Stoned in Washington Square Park. “But in 2021, the State Legislature will figure out a way to make the process legal so there can be more Pizza Pushas. Especially with the budget deficit we are facing.”

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM NEW YORK MAGAZINEView All

The Fixer

DJ Khaled is not a rapper. But he does always seem to know a guy.

6 mins read
New York magazine
May 10 - 23, 2021

Science of Us: Katie Heaney

The Clock-Out Cure For those who can afford it, quitting has become the ultimate form of self-care.

6 mins read
New York magazine
May 10 - 23, 2021

THE Destroy-It-to-Save-It Plan FOR East River Park

The city’s first real battle over climate adaptation has arrived.

10+ mins read
New York magazine
May 10 - 23, 2021

You'd Be an Iconic Guest

A ruthless Instagram interviewer brings her knowing wink to cable.

5 mins read
New York magazine
May 10 - 23, 2021

The Great Indoors

A critic reacclimates to the now-unfamiliar terrain of the dining room.

4 mins read
New York magazine
May 10 - 23, 2021

Political Animals: Olivia Nuzzi

The Crisis Crisis How the White House polices language in Washington—including the president’s.

6 mins read
New York magazine
May 10 - 23, 2021

What Was the Office?

It Was Stressful, Filthy, High Stakes—and Where the Action Was

10+ mins read
New York magazine
April 26 - May 9, 2021

ANDREW YANG'S INSIDER CAMPAIGN

How did a former CEO of 100 employees become the front-runner to govern a city of 8.5 million? Not simply by being a national celebrity and an excellent campaigner.

10+ mins read
New York magazine
May 10 - 23, 2021

The Group Portrait: Little Pot

The activists and entrepreneurs intent on making New York’s new cannabis industry more equitable, less corporate.

2 mins read
New York magazine
April 26 - May 9, 2021

Tech vs. Journalism

Silicon Valley feels picked on by “woke” journalists “who can't code." Reporters feel picked on by petty zillionaires with anger-management problems. Inside the nasty clout battle for how the world’s most influential industry gets covered.

10+ mins read
New York magazine
May 10 - 23, 2021