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Can Rosa's Fresh Pizza - a hit with Ellen DeGeneres - spark revitalization in Philadelphia's University City?

Mason Wartman has just opened a second Rosa's Fresh Pizza, in West Philadelphia, where University City revitalization advocates hope it is a catalyst for change in a business corridor with a vacancy rate of nearly 50 percent.

Owner Mason Wartman stands for a portrait at the new Rosa’s Pizza location in West Philadelphia on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2018. The restaurant, Rosa’s second location, is slated to open in February. TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Owner Mason Wartman stands for a portrait at the new Rosa’s Pizza location in West Philadelphia on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2018. The restaurant, Rosa’s second location, is slated to open in February. TIM TAI / Staff PhotographerRead moreTIM TAI

In 2013, Mason Wartman quit his "monotonous" job at a Wall Street research firm to open a pizza shop in Center City Philadelphia. His goals for Rosa's Fresh Pizza were fairly ordinary: "To make a lot of dollar slices and sell a lot of dollar slices." He's done that and more.

Wartman got invited to appear on the Ellen DeGeneres Show in January 2015, where the comedian host called him "awesome" for Rosa's pay-it-forward social mission of feeding the homeless or those in deep poverty through customer donations. As the studio audience cheered, she presented a wide-eyed Wartman with an oversize check for $10,000 from internet firm Shutterfly.

"Our business doubled or tripled overnight," as legions of Ellen viewers made a point of stopping in to experience Rosa's, pay for an extra slice and post their own note of encouragement on the walls that the homeless can exchange for a free meal, Wartman said.

Three years later, the 30-year-old Plymouth Meeting native has moved out of his parents' house and is opening a second Rosa's, in West Philadelphia. Although it might not generate another invite to Hollywood, Rosa's 2 is getting the red carpet treatment from University City revitalization advocates hoping for a catalytic effect in a business corridor with a vacancy rate of nearly 50 percent, with about a dozen empty storefronts, said Ryan Spak, project rehab manager at University City District.

He defined that corridor as along 40th and 41st Streets, between Market and Ludlow. Pending a final health inspection, Rosa's 2 was expected to open the first week of February at 16 S. 40th St., formerly occupied by a clothing and shoe store that lasted less than a year.

If plans come to fruition, a few new sources of potential customers for Rosa's will be joining the neighborhood. Among them, a restaurant and offices for small businesses and nonprofits are planned for a Frank Furness circa-1870s building at 40th and Ludlow; at 40th and Market, a 24-unit residential building is proposed, with another 119 apartment units planned farther south at 40th and Pine.

"There's opportunity there [that] folks aren't seeing that Mason and Rosa's see," Spak said. "And that opportunity is that 40th Street is the bridge between what this neighborhood is — it's the eds and meds and institutions and this vibrant neighborhood. And 40th Street is literally the bridge between the two, and Rosa's is going to be a part of that, which is quite, quite awesome."

Truth be told, University City — about 2.4 square miles from west of the Schuylkill to 50th Street, and Woodland Avenue north to Market and Spring Garden Streets (the northern boundary is crooked) — was not Wartman's first choice for a second pizza parlor.

He was looking to match the demographics and other attributes of Rosa's 11th Street neighborhood, where the restaurant, situated between Ludlow and Chestnut, is a block from Thomas Jefferson University Hospital and in the heart of the hot redevelopment zone of East Market. Wartman was interested in another high-density site with considerable foot traffic and easy access to public transit.

He shopped for a site in Rittenhouse Square and Old City, where "there was either nothing available or nothing in our price range, nothing that could be turned into a restaurant," Wartman said.

"I'm glad that none of that worked out because I think the University City district is the right spot," he said. "It has all the fundamentals behind it to make it a beautiful area of the city, especially the block I'm on. Two, three, four years, this place is going to be beautiful."

Like East Market, University City is an "up-and-coming area," Wartman said. It is close to universities and hospitals (ideal for catering opportunities), along with public transit, and it has a wide range of incomes, a blossoming start-up community and something not typically considered ideal by many business owners: a significant presence of homeless and addicts, the focus of Wartman's giving-back initiative.

He didn't have the funds to do what he did to get the first Rosa's open — invest $120,000 to $150,000 of his own funds to turn a former health food store into a pizzeria. So Wartman turned to the University City District for help, which directed him to a number of government agencies and nonprofit groups, including Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp., the city's Commerce Department and the Merchants Fund. Collectively, they provided $130,000 in grants and matching funds to enable the extensive build-out needed at the 40th Street location.

"What's not to love? Pizza and free pizza for those who need it?" said Patricia Blakely, executive director of the Merchants Fund, which provided a $20,000 grant.

The business model "highlights all that is inherently good in mankind," she said. "Given the right opportunity, we are all prepared to help in some small way.  It is also really respectful of individual humanity. Nobody has to stand on a street corner and beg for food. You can be just a customer like everyone else with your dignity intact."

Rosa's has made it into the curriculum at the Busch School of Business and Economics at Catholic University of America in Washington, where "we try to champion a people-centered approach to business," said Brian Engelland, a marketing professor. He also has mentioned Rosa's in his recently released book, Force for Good: The Catholic Guide to Business Integrity.

"What Mason is doing to feed the poor and the struggling … is a great application of the principle of solidarity," Engelland said. "The idea of solidarity says each of us has a responsibility to lend a hand to those in need. He's made a way for people to connect with the local community."

That also makes good business sense, said Engelland, noting that millennials, in particular, are drawn to socially responsible companies.

Wartman's expansion timing is ideal, said Blakely.

"His downtown location would never be an option now. He got in before the market blew open," she said. "The same is true of University City. The youth and university demographic is his niche, but just look at the boom in West Philadelphia."

Since March 2014, when the first patron paid for a slice to be given to someone in need, Rosa's has donated more than 120,000 slices, or roughly 60,000 meals, assuming two slices a meal. Rosa's serves roughly 100 needy people each day from its 11th Street shop from 11 to 11:45 a.m. Wartman expects the daily total on 40th Street to be between 50 and 80.

Total revenue in 2017 was $300,000, he said.

"That's not a ton for a restaurant concept like Rosa's," Wartman said. "It allows us to pay our bills and grow slowly, but in order to really open up quickly, we'll have to increase sales. To do that, we'll likely have to add a few things to the menu and increase the prices on the current menu items by just a little bit."

Slices are currently $1.25; the workforce about a dozen, with formerly homeless among the employees.

If all goes well in University City, Wartman, who now lives in Center City, will be in the hunt for a location for a third Rosa's, and likely more.

"Five Rosa's would make a tremendous impact in the city," he said. "That's a substantial difference in the lives of people with deep poverty. I want to build an organization that helps its neighbors."