Ben Berman, 27, began baking pizzas and delivering them from his second story apartment to connect with friends at the start of the pandemic. Months later, his hobby evolved into a booming nonprofit that has raised $30,000 to help fight food insecurity and homelessness in Philadelphia.
Berman's passion for cooking for others was inspired by his mother Kerri. Raised in Portland, Maine, Berman grew up learning new recipes from his mom and the importance of gathering around a table to enjoy the fruits of their labor.
"My mom, who's an amazing cook, taught me about food as a love language and a driving force to connect people," Berman told TODAY Food. "I'm never as comfortable as I am with friends around a dinner table."
In high school, Berman worked in the kitchens of local restaurants and, by 2012, launched his own food truck called Mainely Burgers. He sold the company two years later, which by then included two trucks serving sandwiches and burgers and one focused on homemade ice cream and root beer floats. Though Berman never had classical training as a chef, this experience taught him about food production on a larger scale.
Now an MBA student at the University of Pennsylvania, Berman has returned to cooking — only now, he's making pizza for hundreds of strangers and giving all the proceeds to charities.
In March of last year, at the start of the pandemic, Berman was planning a dinner party with a handful of friends. He decided to cancel after hearing news of impending shutdowns — but he didn't let that stop him from delivering a delicious meal to his pals.
Berman ordered 40 feet of thick string on Amazon and rigged a pulley system where he sent slices of homemade pizza (his latest culinary hobby) down in paper bags.
"This was just about making my friends smile. I can be self-conscious about whether my pizzas are good enough, but I knew at least if I dropped it out of it window, people would get a kick out of them," Berman told TODAY.
It turned out Berman's pulley system was successful at lifting spirits — as was his pizza. He continued to experiment with different types of doughs, toppings and grandma-style versus thin crust, all of which he'd send down from his second-story window. After a time, he asked his friends to Venmo some cash for the formerly free pizza, which he'd donate to charities that addressed issues exacerbated by the pandemic. And so his nonprofit, Good Pizza PHL, was born.
"It felt like food security and homelessness needed even a bigger boost this year. And these places in Philly were moving the needle," Berman said about Philabundance, Project Home and Share Food Program.
He began signing people up via email on the nonprofit's Instagram and serving them pies from his window on a first-come, first-served basis for a Venmo donation to Good Pizza, 100% of which he donated to one of the three organizations.
On Nov. 20, Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy reviewed Berman's food and rocketed Good Pizza into Instagram fame.
Since then, Berman created a lottery system and receives at least 900 requests every week, 20 of which are randomly selected for pickup Sunday nights.
"We hit $30,000 before the holidays. My new goal is to keep adding on zeros to that number," Berman, who buys all the ingredients and pizza boxes out of pocket as his donation, told TODAY.
Once he receives his Masters of Business Administration in the spring, Berman will return to a health care consulting firm where he'll work in patient program services for rare genetic diseases and lifesaving therapy. But he hopes to keep Good Pizza PHL part of his life.
"It has just been so fun to see people's reactions (and I've been) excited about the opportunity to make something in my own apartment," he said. "There's so little overhead; every single penny is given away. Good Pizza was a way for me to give back during a really hard year."
This story first appeared on TODAY.com. More from TODAY: