Last Tuesday afternoon, Matt Porter loaded up a car with 40 pizza boxes and drove 15 empty blocks through New York City's Midtown East neighborhood. His mission: to deliver pies from Sofia Pizza Shoppe, the pizzeria he's co-owned with Tommy DeGrezia for four years, to hospital staff at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center at no cost.
The delivery is part of a new fundraising campaign called Pizza vs. Pandemic. Its mission is twofold: to support health-care workers fighting against the pandemic in their communities while helping small business owners as coronavirus shutdowns disrupt the daily lives of millions of Americans.
Pizza vs. Pandemic is a partnership among three organizations: Slice, an ordering and delivery platform for local pizzerias; Slice Out Hunger, a nonprofit that raises funds for local food banks and pantries; and Pizza to Polls, a nonprofit that delivers free pizza to people waiting in line to vote.
Donors contribute through the campaign's fundraising page, and they can also nominate a hospital, clinic, shelter or other care center to receive a free delivery. Organizers take those donations and use them to order pizza for the nominated health-care workers, placing the order to a nearby pizza shop in the Slice delivery network, which includes roughly 13,000 independent pizza shops and Italian restaurants across 3,000 U.S. cities.
The past few weeks have been a blur for Porter. Following New York City's ban on in-restaurant dining on March 16, Porter and DeGrezia transitioned their shop to provide takeout and delivery only. Sales dropped by roughly 25% within a week. Six staff members, including pizza makers, delivery messengers and a cashier, grew concerned about taking public transit to come into work.
On Sunday, March 22, all six employees told management it would be their last day.
"We completely and entirely understand," Porter tells CNBC Make It. "We're in the middle of this pandemic, and we still don't know a lot about it. They've got to do what's right for them and their families."
Still, "as a business owner, it's a tough pill to swallow."
Porter and DeGrezia decided to close Sofia to the public completely starting that evening.
The following day, however, an opportunity came from friend and pizza expert Scott Wiener of Scott's Pizza Tours, a comprehensive guide to New York City pizzerias. He encouraged Porter and DeGrezia to get involved with the just-launched Pizza vs. Pandemic efforts.
The Sofia owners got on board, with DeGrezia agreeing to spin the dough while Porter would make deliveries by car, starting with the Tuesday lunch order for the hospital workers in Manhattan.
Health-care workers nationwide are logging countless stressful hours treating patients with coronavirus, as confirmed cases in the U.S. reached at least 143,055 on Monday morning, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. The influx of patients has left health-care workers strapped for masks, gowns, ventilators and other equipment; retailers, manufacturing companies and citizens have stepped up to help.
"We know how much they appreciated it," Porter says of the donated pizza delivery to Memorial Sloan Kettering. "It's our little part to do something for the greater good on some level, even if it's only pizza."
Porter also delivered 30 pizzas to families staying at Ronald McDonald House New York Thursday.
The nonprofit provides pediatric cancer patients and their families temporary housing near hospitals and medical centers while they seek treatment.
"It is critically important that we continue providing care for families as they fight against cancer and other serious pediatric illnesses," said Ruth Browne, president and CEO of Ronald McDonald House New York, in a statement to CNBC Make It. "We are beyond grateful to each of our partners for their generous contributions so that we can stay focused on maintaining a safe and supportive environment for our families," she said of donations from the community, such as free pizza delivery to the New York house.
Ilir Sela, founder and CEO of Slice, spearheaded the Pizza vs. Pandemic campaign efforts.
Sela tells CNBC Make It he wanted to help Slice's small business partners following state-wide bans of in-restaurant dining. He also wanted to support health-care workers who are on the front lines of the pandemic.
Sela called up organizers with Slice Out Hunger and Pizza to the Polls the afternoon of March 21, and by 6 p.m. they had a fundraising site up and running. Managing partners from venture capital firm GGV Capital, which invests in Slice, kicked off funding with a $3,000 donation. Word spread across social media, and more donation dollars came through.
"Within the first hour, we had raised over $5,000," Sela says. "Every penny we raise is used to place an order. We pay the pizzeria or restaurant for the food, and that food is delivered back to the front lines."
He adds that restaurant owners have volunteered to discount the price of their pizzas in order to deliver bigger orders — as many as 150 pies in one go — to hospital staff in their area.
As of Monday, the campaign has raised roughly $150,200 to deliver 2,700 pizzas and counting to hospitals, clinics and shelters across the country.
Sofia Pizza Shoppe has since resumed carry-out and delivery service with a limited menu. Still, given the decrease in sales from the public, Porter says Pizza vs. Pandemic donations are helping keep the restaurant in operation.
"Anything helps right now," he says of campaign donations.
The co-owners plan to continue fulfilling free pizza delivery orders to medical centers as long as they're able to.
"Seeing the smiles of people enjoying the pies — that helps," Porter says.