Melanie Dreiblatt, the owner of Emma’s Pizzeria in Pointe-Clare, Quebec, remembers what it’s like to face food insecurity. Now, when a customer comes in with the same problem, she can’t bring herself to send them away hungry.

So Dreiblatt has turned to her customers to help feed people in need, a strategy reminiscent of the late, lamented Rosa’s Fresh Pizza, which earned viral fame back in 2014—including an appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show—for a first-of-its-kind “pay-it-forward” program.

“I know what it is to have nothing and to come from nothing,” Dreiblatt told Global News recently. “I have been there, so I want them to know that we do care and we appreciate this community.”

The Emma’s Pizzeria program started in late 2023. Dreiblatt bought a few of her own pizzas and stuck the paid-in-full receipts for each pie on a bright red door inside the restaurant. Above the receipts, she posted notes on two sheets of paper.

One read, “If you are hungry and have no money, these meals have been paid for in advance.” The second note read, “Give a server your ticket and they will have the kitchen prepare your meal.”

Before long, her customers began chipping in, buying more pizzas to feed people who couldn’t afford their own meals. Each receipt goes up on the wall, and anybody can take one and get free food, no questions asked.

“You don’t have to be embarrassed if you’re struggling,” Dreiblatt told Global News. “You look at the door, you find a meal you like and give it to the waiter. She gives it to the kitchen. Fifteen minutes later, it’s ready. You take your meal, and you go about your day.”

She added that around 100 meals have been donated so far.

Mason Wartman, the owner of the now-closed Rosa’s Fresh Pizza in Philadelphia, started this pay-it-forward trend nearly 10 years ago, and his restaurant became famous for it. He asked his guests to buy extra $1 slices for people facing food insecurity; each purchase was written out on Post-It notes that soon covered the interior walls of the pizza shop.

Wartman was invited to appear on Ellen Degeneres’ show in January 2015 to talk about the program, and Degeneres presented him with a check for $10,000 to pay for more slices.

Since Wartman’s program went viral, other pizzerias around the U.S. have occasionally followed his lead. Recently, the Lansing State Journal reported on a food court pizzeria, Italian Village Pizza in the Lansing Mall, that lets customers pre-purchase meals for others who can’t afford to pay. Before long, two other restaurants in the same food court—Hela’s Kitchen and Looney Toons Catering, began offering their own pay-it-forward options.

Ray Marquardt, owner of Italian Village Pizza, said he used to give away unsold pizzas at the end of the day, working with a local nonprofit called Cardboard Prophets. But it was hard to keep that up on a daily basis, and he preferred to give away fresh meals. Marquardt’s customers are now invited to pre-purchase pizza slices for $3.50 each or a slice and a beverage for $5. Each free slice gets listed on a sticky note that’s posted on the restaurant’s wall.

“I’ve always wanted to feed the homeless and people who are just in tough times and just might need some food in their system and don’t have the money to purchase any food,” Marquardt told the Lansing State Journal. That publication reported seeing 15 sticky notes for free slices on the wall at Italian Village Pizza on a recent Tuesday.

At Emma’s Pizzeria, Dreiblatt said a social media post helped spread the word about her program. “It has just been exploding ever since,” she said in the Global News interview. “So I’m really happy. It’s been helping a lot of people…I love this community for helping out.”

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