They say a dollar goes a long way.
It can get you a snack from a vending machine. It can buy you a three-month trial on Spotify Premium. It can buy you not enough time on Philadelphia’s street parking, a lottery ticket or five bananas at Trader Joe’s.
Or, in Center City, it can feed someone who is homeless.
When Mason Wartman was working in finance in New York, he noticed how many dollar-slice pizza places there were in the city — and how few there were in Philadelphia.
So the Germantown Academy alum, who had his Bar Mitzvah at Tiferet Bet Israel, moved back to his old stomping grounds and opened Rosa’s Fresh Pizza at 25 S. 11th St. in December 2013, bringing New York’s $1-per-slice pizza model with him.
A couple months after he opened, a customer gave him another idea.
“A customer had read that we naturally serve a lot of homeless people because it’s affordable food. He offered to buy a slice for the next homeless person that didn’t have a dollar, and I thought that was a great idea,” said Wartman.
The customer told him about a tradition in Italy, caffè sospeso, in which you can buy a cup of coffee for yourself as well as for a stranger as an anonymous act of charity.
“The cafe will put an empty cup on the shelf behind the register and someone can ask them to fill it up,” Wartman, 29, explained. “So I started using Post-It notes for that purpose. It got to be too much, so now we keep track on the register and we just have them all out here.”
The walls of Rosa’s are bursting with colorful Post-it notes from strangers who write things such as, “Keep your head up, one day at a time” and “Bad days don’t last long.” Some are signed by people who came in from other states, like one from North Carolina.
Each Post-it represents a paid for slice of pizza for those in need. Wartman added they’ve given away easily 100,000 slices of pizza in the three years Rosa’s has been open. That act of kindness can go a long way in a city whose poverty rate stood at 26 percent in 2016, the highest in the nation’s 10 largest cities, according to a study by the Pew Charitable Trusts.
Wartman never expected the program to get so big.
“I thought that was [a] very clever [idea] because we did have homeless people come in and they didn’t have a dollar sometimes and we’d have to turn them away,” he said. “So this way I just thought that it’d be good for an emergency use like that, but now it’s turned into this big thing where we serve a lot of people and they depend on the availability of food, which is great.”
What his business was doing caught the eye of one person who likes to highlight people who do good deeds in their communities: Ellen DeGeneres.
“We were on the local news and Ellen’s got producers that kind of hear about this kind of stuff, so she heard about it through the local news and thought the story was cool and invited us onto the program,” he recalled.
After his appearance on the show in January 2015, his story exploded. Rosa’s was featured everywhere from People Magazine to NPR. Upworthy made a video about it, which Wartman said is its most-viewed piece.
“It was a neat little brush with superstardom,” he recalled. “It’s great that so many people from all over, different types of people, respond to this story and this type of work. I’m happy if it influences or inspires other people to do more stuff in their communities.”
Instead of letting his sudden brush with fame go to his head, he was only inspired to keep it going.
“It really forced me to focus on the operation side of things so we could make sure everyone was happy with their experience here,” he said. “I didn’t want to be one of those internet sensations that just became nothing afterwards, so I wanted to make sure it became a sustainable thing. Fortunately, it’s keeping pace and it’s good.”
For Wartman, who participated in the Hazon Jewish Food Festival in December, Rosa’s business model aligns with one value he learned growing up: tzedakah.
“The focus on tzedakah and giving back to others is reflected in this place,” he said.
While he is happy with how things are going in the 11th Street store, he also is in the midst of planning to open a second shop in University City, hopefully within the next few months. He is toying with the idea of expanding the menu — which right now keeps it simple by offering pizza and toppings — to include new items such as cold sandwiches.
“I’d like to have a bunch of these throughout Philadelphia and helping more and more people in need and creating jobs and giving back to Philadelphia,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about.”
The idea that his shop can help people get back on their feet is what makes the job so rewarding.
“It’s good to see when people come back and they’re not homeless anymore, and they were able to use this program to feed themselves and save money and reinvest in other parts of their lives, and get jobs and make a substantial improvement in their lives because they were able to come in here. That’s always a good feeling.”
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