by Elizabeth Coady
A mixture of grit and glamour delivered pizza maker Mason Wartman to his latest venture inside the sparse storefront at 16 S. 40th St. in the city’s University City neighborhood.
Wartman, 30, snared his proverbial “15 minutes of fame” when Ellen DeGeneres invited him to her daytime talk show to tout how he was “paying it forward” at Rosa’s Fresh Pizza, his simple no-frills dollar-per-slice pizza shop at 11th Street near Market in Center City.
The idea came from a customer who asked if he could pay in advance for a homeless person to have a slice. Both recognizing a good idea and wanting to do good, Wartman immediately seized upon the concept and began soliciting donations, then affixing colorful post-it-notes on the pizzeria’s interior displaying comments from the donors. A customer would pay a dollar, put a post-it note on the wall, and any homeless person could turn in the note and get a (free for him) slice of pizza.
The idea, ahem, flowered. And soon Wartman had thousands of colorful notes on his walls and was fielding phone calls from bloggers and TV reporters about his winning recipe combining commerce and caring. The next thing he knew, Wartman was being whisked to Los Angeles to appear on the Ellen DeGeneres Show on national TV in January of 2015 to bask in the success of the do-good concept and where Ellen gave him an oversized check for $10,000 from Shutterfly, an internet business.
“We’re just a little pizza shop,” Wartman said humbly during the interview with Ellen. “The work is harder than (his previous job) on Wall Street, but it’s a lot more rewarding. I started the business to make money, like any other business, and business was slow at first. It was temping to stop, but I couldn’t because a lot of these homeless people were being fed. And it was great to see homeless people and paying customers sitting next to each other and communicating as equals. (One homeless customer who was filmed for the show said, ‘This gives you a sense of humanity that people care.’)
“This is a good business model that others could follow. Let’s take Chipotle, for example, which has 1600 restaurants all across the country. Each customer at Chipotle who has a meal might be willing to pay an extra $2 for a homeless person to have a meal. Imagine what could be done. The business makes money, and homeless people get fed.”
Wartman, who was born and raised in Plymouth Meeting, told us during a recent interview, “Everything about that (‘Ellen’) show is just so magical. I was definitely super-privileged to have my story showcased on there. I was very lucky to have met Ellen. She’s super-awesome.”
Almost overnight, the local guy’s simple-concept business nearly tripled. And Wartman, who had quit his boring job as a stock analyst on Wall Street in New York City to open his own small storefront in Philly, became a lifeline for the city’s downtown homeless.
“I’ve become a zealous believer in a good education system,” said Wartman, who attended Germantown Academy and Babson College in Massachusetts. “Most of the people who are homeless have very few or no skills to offer to employers. They grew up with not much opportunity around them. No healthcare, no education system … They were kind of condemned to this.”
Growing up, Wartman’s father owned his own business selling farm and golf course supplies, while his maternal grandfather owned the haberdashery B&G Silverman’s at 9th and Spring Garden.
“They talked about their businesses frequently, and that was something discussed at the dinner table,” Wartman recalled. “I was exposed to small business at an early age. I would go on road trips and sales calls with my dad.”
Now Wartman is expanding upon his own small business legacy. Pizza slices at the new spot will still cost one dollar, although the cost at the downtown shop has increased to $1.25. The new Rosa’s debuted Feb. 9 with little fanfare, but Wartman expects that to change.
“We didn’t really promote it at all,” he said. “It was slow. I didn’t have any signage out front. But in the next couple of years I think it will pick up. There’s a lot of new blood coming to the block, which should be good.”
While the area known as the “40th street corridor” currently suffers from a nearly 50 percent vacancy rate, an influx of new office space, an international food market and two new apartment developments are expected to invigorate the area, said Ryan Spak, a project manager at the University City District.
Once Wartman settled on the area for his new location, he approached the University City District which helped him secure $130,000 in grants and loans from the city’s Commerce Department, the Merchants Fund and the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp.
The store’s exterior front is still being constructed, and the “pay it forward” pizza plan is on hold here until a regular clientèle is built up, but Wartman says he is “proud of the fact that we now have a couple locations. I’m trying to do much more complex things than I envisioned Rosa’s being capable of.” Things like salads, catering, pop-up events and delivery.
The man who didn’t know how to make a pizza four years ago can bang one out in 30 seconds today. His pies are made with butter and whole tomatoes in the sauce. Wartman, who took a personalized pizza-making class at a culinary institute before opening Rosa’s, is proud of how his plans have, well, panned out. To date, Wartman has given more than 150,000 slices to Philadelphia’s homeless. Rosa’s store in center city serves about 100 homeless or impoverished people on an average day from 11 to 11:45 a.m. Wartman expects the total at the new location will be less. Mason also sells Rosa’s sweatshirts with the schedules of local food pantries and kitchens printed on the interior, and for every one he sells, he gives one away to a homeless person.
“Each little thing you do can have a tremendous impact and a huge ripple effect,” Wartman said. “It makes me excited for the future.”
For more information, visit mail www.rosasfreshpizza.com.