ITHACA, N.Y. — The owner of the Center Cafe is connecting people in need with hot meals with a whiteboard, sticky notes and a good amount of community generosity.

Terry Little, owner of the Center Cafe, has created a small, but successful “pay it forward” program in Ithaca.

How it works is customers stopping by for a burger or sandwich can pre-purchase a meal for someone who might need one in the future. When they pay, Little will add a colorful sticky note to the whiteboard behind the display case of baked goods. Customers can pre-purchase any amount, whether it’s a $10 meal or a cup of coffee.

Little said he was inspired to start the program by Rosa’s Fresh Pizza in Philadelphia, which has given out more than 70,000 slices of pizza to needy Philadelphians. There, the program started with one customer, one dollar and a Post-it note. That one sticky note turned into thousands covering the pizza shop’s wall.

When Little read the article, he said he thought it was a great idea and wanted to try it out in Ithaca.

“It was like a little lightbulb went off and I thought ‘Why don’t I try to do that here?’ There’s transient people here, people down on their luck, same thing, and if it brightens their day or whatever or makes them feel good or puts food in their belly,” Little said.

Little opened Center Cafe, in Center Ithaca, about four years ago and has more than 25 years of restaurant and dining experience behind him. The pay-it-forward program has been in swing at the Center Cafe since early summer 2016. Since then, Little estimates customers have pre-purchased more than $2,000 in meals for people in need.

The program helps people in need, or even the forgetful. Terry said one day a businessman forgot his wallet and asked if he could take a meal. The man returned a couple days later and pre-purchased a meal.

“It’s turned into a neat little program,” Little said. He said he hopes the idea will catch on at other shops.

Featured image: Terry Little, owner of Center Cafe in Center Ithaca. Kelsey O’Connor/Ithaca Voice

Kelsey O'Connor is the managing editor for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at and follow her on Twitter @bykelseyoconnor.