It was the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic when people in Philadelphia’s Center City first noticed that pizzas were dropping from Ben Berman’s second-story apartment window.
“I had 40 feet of string I’d ordered from Amazon, so I made a little pulley, bagged them up and gave them to everyone that way,” he said. “I came up with the idea because I didn’t think it was a good idea to eat 16 pizzas all by myself.”
Berman, an MBA student at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, soon decided he might be onto something.
The pandemic had become more dire by the summer, and he was wondering how he could help people in need and boost the spirits of his neighbors, many of whom were also staying in their apartments.
“I was talking to my girlfriend, and she suggested that pizza was the way to do it,” said Berman, 28. “So I decided to make free cheese pizzas and lower them out my window to anyone who wanted one, with a suggestion that they make a donation to charities that help people who are hungry or homeless.”
“I thought, ‘If I can make people smile by dropping pizzas down to them from my apartment, why not?' ” he added.
There was also a second reason for his desire to provide comfort food to strangers. Berman’s grandmother had died of covid-19 in April.
“I thought this would be a good way to honor her and give people hope,” he said.
Berman gave his crusade a name — Good Pizza PHL — and started an Instagram page to share photos of his pies, thinking that he might raise a few hundred dollars for his two favorite charities: Philabundance and Project HOME.
Instead, by the first week of January, he had raised more than $32,000.
Some of that success was because of celebrity blogger Dave Portnoy, who has a huge following and posted a positive Barstool Pizza review in November about Berman’s pizzas. Berman quickly got more than 17,000 new Instagram followers.
“Donations started coming in from everywhere and so did the requests for pizza,” said Berman, who uses his own funds for ingredients and boxes.
He soon realized that he would have to fine-tune his pizza drops.
He now makes a giant batch of pizza dough and a big pan of sauce once a week, then holds a lottery online to select 20 winners to pick up pizzas below his one-bedroom apartment window every Sunday. He bakes the pizzas in his apartment oven using two steel baking plates.
Gabrielle Manoff is among those who have taken home one of Berman’s 12-inch, fresh-from-the-oven cheese pies.
“What (Ben) is doing with Good Pizza is incredibly inspiring — he somehow finds the time and the heart to make pizza for the sole purpose of giving back to the community and making people smile,” said Manoff, 26, a Wharton student who has donated to Berman’s cause multiple times.
“I believe strongly in the mission-driven aspect of Good Pizza,” she added. “But now, so many people want Ben’s pizza, I can no longer get any.”
Students from the University of Pennsylvania are among Berman’s most loyal free pizza customers.
Nirali Sampat, an MBA student like Berman, felt fortunate to get in on one of his early pizza drops in March.
“During such an uncertain and isolating time, it meant a lot that Ben was going out of his way to give back and bring joy to others,” said Sampat, 28. “He puts so much care into each pie, and his pizza is truly one of the best pizzas I have ever had.”
Berman, who estimates that he has given away more than 500 pizzas, said spending hours in the kitchen has always come naturally.
While growing up in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, he said he often helped his mom and two younger brothers prepare family favorites such as beef brisket and chicken Parmesan.
“Cooking became a language of love,” said Berman. “I’ve never felt comfortable in a bar, but I’ve always loved sharing time around the table with my family.”
After he left for college, Berman continued to return to Maine each summer and started a food truck business with a friend.
“We had two trucks called Mainely Burgers, and another truck called Mainely Treats,” he said. “We’d make and sell burgers, fries and shakes all summer long.”
Berman has since sold his interest in the food trucks, but he’s hoping to continue cranking up his oven to bake pizzas (two at a time) in the months and years to come.
“It brings people joy to watch a pizza coming down from the second story, just for them,” he said. “This is something positive that I can do from my own apartment.”
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