“Are you gonna finish that?”
It started with a simple question. But anyone who has spent time in New York City has been confronted with the reality of homelessness. According to the Coalition for the Homeless, there are 63,343 homeless people in the city and countless others who are food insecure.
Enter a classic New York breakfast: the humble but hearty bacon, egg, and cheese on a roll. That’s what inspired Teddy Fitzgibbons to take action. In 2014, Fitzgibbons was a newly minted New Yorker working as an associate at Bain Capital Ventures, when he had an encounter that led to the creation of his nonprofit organization, Hearty Start. Last year alone, Hearty Start delivered 45,000 breakfast sandwiches to homeless and hungry New Yorkers.
As Hearty Start grew, the organization hired homeless and formerly homeless people to be part of the staff. As Fitzgibbons says, “One of the best things about this model is creating meaningful career opportunities for people getting back on their feet. They are the best people for this job. They know what it’s like.”
When he’s not working at his day job and running Hearty Start, Fitzgibbons is exploring New York, enjoying late-night tennis matches, and preparing for his move to Brooklyn. We caught up with this very busy young man on his way to the airport and asked him all about Hearty Start and the city that spawned it.
What Should We Do?!: How did Hearty Start begin?
Teddy Fitzgibbons: When I first moved to New York in 2014, I was living in the East Village. That year, I was walking to work and would grab the same breakfast sandwich every morning. I rounded the corner on 7th Street and Avenue A eating a bacon, egg, and cheese and heard someone call out, “Are you gonna finish that?” It caught me off guard. I turned and saw a kid who was probably my age—I was 22 at the time—and clearly homeless. I got halfway down the street and realized that the second half of the sandwich only cost me a $1.50. Every single deli on that block and the next block could make me the same one. I could afford another $3 or $1.50, so I turned around and gave him the other half of my sandwich.
It was a much more powerful interaction than I would have expected. I don’t know who was more surprised, him or me. It definitely meant something and felt like more than handing someone $1.50. I realized how easy that was, so I started buying two sandwiches in the morning and handing one out along the way.
WSWD: A lot of New Yorkers see things they’d like to change about the city. What made you the type of person who took the next step and started an organization?
Fitzgibbons: Most New Yorkers probably want to do something, but they’re not sure what to do or they don’t have time. I’ve always been someone who’s been very action oriented and entrepreneurial. I started side-project businesses in high school and college. This is my first foray into a nonprofit, but I was raised with an eye for giving back. My mom volunteered three days a week at the local hospital. This seemed like a great undertaking. I couldn’t believe how easy it was. That was a driving force: I wanted to get other people to give back and find a tangible, fun way for them to get involved.
WSWD: Do you have plans to expand Hearty Start to other cities?
Fitzgibbons: For the foreseeable future, there are a lot of people who still go hungry in New York, so that’s our singular goal. What’s interesting about this model is that it can be picked up and dropped off anywhere. You need an accessible population of food-insecure people and those in need. The fun thing about expanding to different cities is finding the local item that people can rally around. I think breakfast sandwiches have a really unique place in the culture of New York. If it were L.A., it might be a breakfast burrito. That will be fun when we get to that stage.
WSWD: How has this organization changed you?
Fitzgibbons: I appreciate New York and the generosity of New Yorkers far more than I did going in. The biggest thing that’s changed for me is my perception of people’s willingness to give back.
WSWD: How do you balance your work with running your organization, as well as having a life?
Fitzgibbons: Well, I don’t have too much time left over. It’s a balance. I count my lucky stars I met Munoz Price. I lean on him for just about everything under the sun, and he’s risen to just about every expectation. A lot of the success of Hearty Start I credit directly to his hard work. When you have a project that’s near and dear to your heart, and it’s working and the impact is tangible—we gave out 45,000 sandwiches last year—knowing all that makes it easy to find time even in a hard New York schedule.
WSWD: What do you do for fun?
Fitzgibbons: Two things: New York has a lot to give in nightlife and bars and restaurants. What I love about the city is you could go out three nights a week for 10 years and never go to the same place twice. I really enjoy trying new places. You don’t need an agenda to find an exciting afternoon in New York. You will pop into restaurants you had never seen before and discover a really fun time.
WSWD: We understand you are moving from Tribeca to Brooklyn’s Dumbo neighborhood—how do you feel about that?
Fitzgibbons: I’m excited! My girlfriend is the driving force. She has worked there for years and knows everything it has to offer. I’m excited to explore a part of the city I don’t know that much about.
WSWD: What are some of your favorite things you’ll be bidding farewell to in Tribeca?
Fitzgibbons: I’m going to miss my local bar, 1803. It’s a really cool spot and you can always find a seat. Good food, good drinks, and it’s right across the street [from me]. There’s a tennis court on Chambers Street and the West Side Highway. The lights are on until midnight every day. I will miss 10 p.m. tennis games on that court.
WSWD: If WSWD were to plan a day for you in NYC, what would it include?
Fitzgibbons: I would love to have an afternoon/evening planned to explore Dumbo/Brooklyn and get to know the neighborhood I’ll soon call home. Any chance to get off the beaten path is a welcome adventure!
Teddy Fitzgibbons’s Faves…in a NY Minute
Third Rail Coffee.
Taking a run on the West Side Highway and giving yourself permission to stop when you see something very weird, which you will.
Miniature golf on Pier 25. It’s the best $6 you can spend.
Fun thing only you like?
10 p.m. tennis would probably fit that bill.
Best breakfast sandwich?
I am a huge fan of the $3 breakfast bodega sandwich. But the Hampton Market on East 13th Street and First Avenue is the original Hearty Start breakfast sandwich, and I’m going to have to say the title stays with them.