ASTORIA — Renee Heitmann wanted to do something sweet — literally — for her favorite neighborhood shops and small businesses in Astoria.
A professional singer and music teacher by day and a lifelong baker by hobby, the 31-year-old Heitmann found herself "baking up a storm" this past fall, when her flexible work schedule gave her ample amounts of downtime.
Surrounded by more treats than she could eat, she started giving the goodies away.
"I started taking them places," she said, noting she brought batches of homemade chocolate chip cookies — a secret family recipe — to the staff at Sorriso's, her favorite Italian deli on 30th Avenue and 45th Street.
"Everybody there is great. I thought, 'I get such good food here, let me do something in return,'" she said.
She enjoyed the good deed so much, she decided to keep it up and expand to other area businesses.
Two months ago, Heitmann launched Single Girl Cookies, a pay-it-forward project in which she surprises a different Astoria business each week with a cookie delivery, chronicling her visits on Twitter and a blog.
"Baking makes me happy, and cookies make people happy, so combine the two," she said. "This neighborhood has given a lot to me, and I wanted to give something back."
She returns to the locations a few days later to pick up her serving plate and to ask the staff there to recommend a place they think deserves the next batch.
"I kind of wanted to foster that community feel," she said, saying the project has given her a chance to try new shops, bars and restaurants in her area and to get to know the workers personally.
"I think it's super important to invest in small businesses," she said. "Those are what really keep a lot of things alive, and they keep a neighborhood like this running."
As for the "Single Girl" name, she said the meaning is two-fold.
"I am single, and that’s kind of part of it," she said, adding that having a group of mostly coupled-up friends gives her plenty of spare time to bake. "But it's also the idea that change can actually be affected by one person."
"I think it's great," said Queens Kickshaw owner Jennifer Lim. "It's a gift that has no strings attached. It's beautiful."
But in typical New York fashion, other businesses were skeptical of the free handouts at first, Heitmann admitted.
"Everyone's like, 'Are you opening a bakery? Are you selling them?'" she laughed. "I have to say, 'There are no strings attached. I don’t want anything. All I want is to make people happy.'"
Originally from a small town in New York's Finger Lakes region upstate, Heitmann moved to the city three and half years ago to pursue a career in music, and fell in love with Astoria.
"It has a small town feel in the big city," she said.
"People ask me, 'Are you going to stay in Astoria?' And I say, 'Where else would I go?' This is the best place ever."