The empty pizza boxes tacked onto the wall at a pizza shop in Ronkonkoma serve a purpose.
At Albert’s Pizza, customers have been preordering pies for someone they think is “in need of a little love” and writing messages on the box, said co-owner Richard Baer.
One box reads: “To a family of a deployed soldier. Wishing them a safe return home.” “To a single parent! Keep rockin’ it,” another reads.
Baer started the operation on Jan. 21, the day after the inauguration.
“People were so divided. It felt like they wanted to tear each other apart,” Baer said. “I was sick of the politics, so I just thought, what can I do to bring people together?”
The first pizza was given away by two of Baer’s employees. Catherine McCarthy, 20, said they chose to pay it forward to someone coping with loss. “To someone who just lost a loved one. Here’s your sign that they’re with you,” they wrote on the box, signing on behalf of one of their regulars, a man whose wife had just passed away.
A few days later, that pizza went to a woman whose mother had recently died, Baer said.
“When I gave her the pizza she just broke down crying. And I broke down, too,” Baer said. “That really touched me.”
So far about 20 pies have been given out to either specific people or a type of recipient, Baer said. One pizza went to a man battling Stage 4 cancer, and others were for veterans, cops, teachers and nurses.
The only rule is “the cause has to be positive and it can’t involve politics,” said Baer, who takes a photo with every pay-it-forward recipient and posts it onto his Facebook page.
On Wednesday afternoon, Sabrina Andare, 38, of Ronkonkoma, came to the shop and paid it forward to a “hard-working father.”
“There are a lot of people struggling right now – more than we see,” Andare said. “It’s a small gesture, but I hope this can take the stress off a mom or a dad for a night.”
Not long afterward, Michael Slattery, 20, once a special education student at Sachem High School North who now helps coach football at the school, visited the shop with his father, as he does frequently. He was surprised with a free pizza.
Baer pulled down a box from the wall and handed it to Slattery, or “Slats” as he’s called by his friends. It read: “To Mike Slats, This one’s on us. Thank you for all you do for our community.”
Slattery paid $15 to pay it forward to the next teacher that came in for a slice.
Baer said the program is growing, and soon four other Albert’s pizzerias on Long Island and Valencia Ravioli in Lynbrook are expected to host the program, too.
“It’s a really incredibly feeling, being able to help other people and being able to share that feeling with others,” Baer said.