This article originally appeared on The Daily Saint.
Walk into Rosa’s Fresh Pizza in Philadelphia, and you are caught in a kaleidoscope of color. The parlor's walls are covered in rainbow Post-it notes, and each one represents an eat free coupon for a person in need.
The place runs on a "pay-it-forward" system. About three years ago, owner Mason Wartman, 28, decided to leave his job on Wall Street and return to the City of Brotherly Love, where he grew up. A year later, he founded Rosa’s Fresh Pizza, a $1 per slice shop similar to the ones New Yorkers enjoy at all hours.
But Wartman took the concept one step further, creating Little Rosa’s Program. It works like this: Customers can choose to pay the pie forward by purchasing slices in advance. Then they post a sort of "Pizza I.O.U." on the shop's walls. That's where the Post-it notes come in. Patrons pen a message, post the note and when needy or homeless people enter the shop, they take a note and hand it to the cashier in exchange for the pizza slice. Today, the walls are covered top to bottom with the colorful pieces of paper, and people of all backgrounds rub elbows with one another as they eat.
“He’s the saint of Philadelphia,” Raul Castro, a regular at Rosa's, said. “I like to call him ‘Doctor Pizza,’” another customer said. Rosa’s gives away about 300 slices and feeds around 100 homeless people per day, all alongside regular business. Several of Wartman’s employees were once homeless.
Last year, the media caught wind of Rosa’s (which is named after Wartman’s mother), and seemingly overnight, the owner and his pay-it-forward program were receiving national attention, including an appearance on "The Ellen Show." “Business exploded after that,” he said. “I was on the plane back from Los Angeles, and my mom emailed me to tell me people were lining up out the door. It was insane and great, but overwhelming.”
The attention has subsided a bit since then, but business continues to boom, thanks to last year’s spotlight. Locals and tourists alike come to eat pizza and buy a slice for someone else, and donations have come in from all over the world. People visiting from France, the Netherlands, South Korea, Mexico, Japan and Syria have written and mailed notes to add to its walls.
Wartman said he’s still stunned by how quickly his business and pay-it-forward program has grown.
“I always thought we’d serve a lot of homeless people, because it’s affordable food, but I didn’t think it’d be to this scale,” said Wartman, who regularly receives calls from people who are looking to enact similar pay-it-forward systems in their own businesses.
When asked whether he’s learned anything unexpected since opening the shop, he thought for a moment.
“Homelessness really doesn’t have a certain face,” he then said. “You never really know who’s struggling.”
Look around the small shop during peak hours, and it is indeed nearly impossible to decipher who is homeless and who is not. Still, there are many people who have Wartman to thank for a warm meal, a conversation and sense of community.
“I wouldn’t eat some nights if it wasn’t for Mason,” one customer said. “Plus, the pizza is so good.”