Albert’s Pizza, a restaurant in Ronkonkoma, New York, has had a program since last January meant to spread some unexpected kindness to its customers: a pay-it-forward system, where customers can anonymously purchase a pizza for a stranger who may be going through a hard time.
The simple gesture ended up having a profound impact on one grieving man—and maybe even saved his life.
Richard Baer and Brian Jablonsky, co-owners of the pizza parlor, were fatigued by the negativity following the election season, so in January decided to do something that would provide some positivity to the community.
“Put a smile on people’s faces everyday. That’s what it’s all about,” Jablonsky told CBS New York.
They came up with an “Imagine the Pizzabilities” campaign.
Here’s how it works: for $15, customers can purchase a pizza box and decorate it with positive messages. You can dedicate the box to someone in particular, such as a single mother or a senior citizen.
Then, if someone enters the shop with that description, they get the pizza for free.
For instance, one nursing student was stunned when she walked in and received a free pie because one of the boxes was for a “a student nurse working hard,” according to CBS New York.
In turn, she “paid it forward” by purchasing a box for another stranger, and so on. The campaign has been popular with the community. According to CBS, about 75 customers so far have anonymously bought pizzas.
But for Dennis Kust, it was more than a free pizza—it was a life-changing moment.
When Kust, a 59-year-old Ronkonkoma native, walked into Albert’s in March, the owners immediately knew something wasn’t right.
“I could tell, he looked a little spaced out, a little disheveled,” Baer told Newsday. “He looked like he was struggling with something emotionally.”
He was. Kust’s wife, Cheryl, had recently died of cancer. The grief was overwhelming. Making things worse, it was right around the time of his late wife’s birthday, as well as the anniversary of her death.
It was his low point. Kust was deeply depressed—and on the verge of suicide.
He was also a perfect candidate for a free pizza.
Baer handed him a box that seemed meant for him—not knowing how deep its meaning truly was.
Because when Kust opened the box, he was overwhelmed by the simple words inside:
Because for Kust, these weren’t just words of encouragement—They were a sign from his late wife, who often told him to stay strong as she was dying.
“The last month of my wife’s life, that’s all she kept telling me, ‘you have to be strong, you have to be strong,’” he told CBS New York.
“I wasn’t crying because I was sad anymore. I was crying because I felt like I got a message from her.”
The act of kindness changed Kust’s life. He began attending grief counseling sessions and is beginning his recovery.
But first, he stopped by Albert’s to let them know just how much they impacted him. He wrote a handwritten letter explaining his situation, and gave it to Baer.
“You don’t know me, but on March 25th, you turned my life around,” the letter begins, according to CBS.
“I was thinking of suicide that evening when I received someone’s thoughtful gift [and] it made me a little less depressed,” he continued, according to Newsday.
The owner was immediately moved to tears by the letter, and told CBS he has read it a dozen times.
Because it was a life-changing moment for Baer, too: he realized that his simple goodwill campaign actually, genuinely changed someone’s life—and saw firsthand how powerful human kindness can be.
“I was touched,” Baer told Newsday.