Pizza It Forward

Pictured above is a wall of Post-it Notes. Each note cost $1 — or they did, once.

The wall of Post-it Notes can be found at Rosa’s Fresh Pizza, a pizza place like any other in Philadelphia. Well, almost like any other. To start, the pizza there is cheap, costing a buck a slice. The price is because Rosa’s owner, Mason Wartman, used to work in New York City, where many shops specialize in generic, quick $1 slices. Wartman believed that the same business could be ported over to Philly. And he was right — Rosa’s has been in business since 2013.

The store does a brisk business, catering to anyone looking for, well, $1 pizza. And that, perhaps not obviously to Wartman when he started the biz, included the area’s homeless population. After all, where else can you get a reasonable meal for such a low price? But for the homeless, even a dollar may be unaffordably high. At least, that’s what one customer of Wartman’s realized one day — and he wanted to do something about it.

The customer, whose identity is long lost, asked Wartman if he could buy a slice for the next homeless customer to come in. USA Today reported that “the customer was inspired by an Italian coffee house practice called caffè sospeso (suspended coffee), by which customers can pre-purchase cups of coffee for less fortunate customers.” Same idea, but for pizza. Wartman agreed and the customer handed over a dollar. To record the purchase of a future slice, Wartman took out a Post-it, wrote something indicating that there was a free slice available for someone in need, and went along with his business. Other customers took notice of the note and added their dollars to the fund, and before long, Rosa’s Fresh Pizza had a pre-paid inventory of slices for those who couldn’t afford one.

In 2015, Wartman told NPR that the program became so popular that the Post-it Note system became unwieldy. (Over a nine-month period ending January 2015, customers purchased more than 8,000 pay-it-forward slices of pizza, which was way more than a sticky-note accounting system can handle.) So now, the notes are more like a community bulletin board, with donors leaving messages of encouragement and hope, and recipients of the pizza leaving notes of thanks. Sometimes, like the below, the notes are more substantive than a Post-it can handle:

In case you can’t read it, the note says: “I just want to thank everyone that donated to Rosa’s. It gave me a place to eat everyday and the opportunity to get back on my feet. I start a new job tomorrow! Everyone wants the world to change but in order for that to happen we have to change ourselves. And Rosa’s is a great idea and an example of that. Thank you!”

All in all, it’s turned out to be a good way to make a difference. If you’re not in Philadelphia, but want to help Rosa’s feed the 50 to 100 homeless people who stop in each day? You can — they accept pay-it-forward pizza dollars online.

Bonus fact: If you are in need of pizza — emphasis on “in need” — there’s a place for that other than Rosa’s. But you have to be active on the website reddit. About six years ago, members of the reddit community created a section (called a “subreddit”) titled “Random Acts of Pizza,” where hungry reddit members could share their story and ask others to send them lunch — and often successfully. Slate called it “a magical place where users fulfill one another’s wishes for a pie,” but really, it’s just a nice way for a community to help those who are one meal short of a day’s worth of food.

From the Archives: Thirty Minutes or Less: How a pizza habit saved someone’s life.