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Rosa’s Fresh, the ‘pay-it-forward’ pizza shop featured on ‘Ellen,’ closes

The business, which got national attention on Ellen DeGeneres' TV show, fell victim to economics, its founder says.

Mason Wartman, owner of Rosa's Fresh Pizza, shortly after his opening on 11th Street in Center City.
Mason Wartman, owner of Rosa's Fresh Pizza, shortly after his opening on 11th Street in Center City.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

Rosa’s Fresh, the Center City pizzeria that gained national attention for its policy of encouraging customers to buy additional slices for homeless people, has closed.

Plymouth Meeting native Mason Wartman, 32, who traded in a career on Wall Street to open Rosa’s Fresh on 11th Street near Market in late 2013, said economics and competition were the main factors. “It’s the same reason for many businesses closing," he said Monday. A second shop, which opened last year on 40th Street near Market in University City, also closed.

Wartman’s initial $1 price point appealed to the budget-conscious, and was a nod to a mini-trend of $1-a-slice shops in New York City. Even a price increase in 2017 to $1.25 a slice did not hurt sales, though he acknowledged that the store was "definitely not as profitable as it could have been.”

Wartman got the idea from an Italian tradition that allows people to pay for coffee that the less fortunate can obtain later. He estimated that in the flagship location’s five-plus years, he had given away from 250,000 to 350,000 slices while feeding 80 to 100 people a day.

Customers came into the shop, bought a slice or two, and handed money that was placed in a fund to subsidize other people’s meals. Contributions were noted on sticky notes that festooned the walls.

After he appeared on Ellen DeGeneres’ show in January 2015, business at Rosa’s soared.

As noble as the idea was, it was not immune to competition in the dining world. The East Market development across the street now offers many options, with wider menus. “I can’t compete against District Taco or Honeygrow or Wawa,” he said. Eating has replaced retail in the area.

Wartman said he was not sure of his next step, whether it’s a return to finance or a shift into “government-type” work in hunger. “I definitely learned a lot about the intersection of business and social missions,” he said.