Will 2014 be the year of the big tipper?
An 18-year-old server working at a Cracker Barrel in Lincoln, Neb., to pay her way through college got the surprise of her life when a customer left her a $6,000 tip. According to the Associated Press, two men came into the restaurant last Thursday and “asked the hostess to give them her grumpiest server. The hostess responded that no one was grumpy, so she would seat them with her happiest server.”
(Let's hope that hostess got something from the windfall for her savvy customer service—or at least something from her employer for sticking with the company line that no one is unhappy when working at Cracker Barrel.)
The happy-go-lucky soul turned out to be one Abigail Sailors, and what ensued sounds like something at once extraordinary and all too familiar—like, haven’t we all seen this on Oprah before?
As in any good deserving-person-gets-financial-windfall narrative, Sailors has had a rough life: mother injured in a car crash; father ill-suited to fatherhood for undisclosed but easy-to-imagine reasons. She and her four siblings ricocheted from foster home to foster home, sometimes split up, but as she told her inquisitive customers, she still “felt blessed.”
About nine years ago, Sailors and her siblings landed in the home of John and Susi Sailors; that Abigail took their name should tell you all you need to know about what the couple ended up meaning to her—she felt like she was part of a family.
On that fateful Thursday last week, Sailors told her customers/newfound friends/complete strangers that she was taking a semester off from her studies at Trinity Bible College in North Dakota because she couldn’t afford the tuition. She was waiting tables and saving her tips to return to school in the fall.
Thankfully, her story turns out better than other news stories you might read that involve an overly chatty young server and a pair of older male customers asking all sorts of prying questions.
“When the men were finished eating, one told her he had graduated from Trinity,” reports the AP. “He opened his checkbook and wrote the checks”—one for $5,000 made out directly to Trinity to cover Sailors’ tuition and a thousand-dollar check to Sailors for personal use.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Sailors tells the AP. “I tried to thank them, and they said, ‘Thank God.’ ”
To cast any aspersions on a story like this feels insufferably cynical and mean, like siding with the fire in Bambi. And no doubt, in a world weary of copycat crimes (which tend to involve pipe bombs or automatic weapons and acts of violence no less random than Sailors’ good fortune), it’s heartening to think that we may see something like copycat kindness in the works here.
Indeed, Sailors’ experience in Lincoln appears to be completely unrelated to the Tips for Jesus phenomenon, whereby an anonymous big tipper (recently outed as Jack Selby, former vice president of PayPal) has been gallivanting across the country, quaffing $70-an-ounce whiskey in Phoenix, say, or sipping a $3.99 Oreo Blaster at a Denny’s off Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles and leaving breathtaking tips: $1,000 here, $5,000 there. LAist reports that Tips for Jesus doled out more than $9,000 in tips in L.A. last weekend alone.
I get it. I was a child reared on Hollywood happy endings—the first strains of “Let the River Run,” Carly Simon’s theme song for the movie Working Girl turned anthem for the American dream still stirs a kind of mental chub of optimism in me, embarrassingly enough. But for most men and women working in the restaurant industry in the U.S., the chances of landing a four-figure tip from some Good Samaritan are only a little more likely than your average sex worker finding herself at the opera with Richard Gere.
Fact is, Congress hasn’t raised the minimum wage for tipped workers in more than two decades; it still stands at a meager $2.13 per hour. Although some states have raised it on their own, a fair number haven’t, including (you guessed it) Nebraska, where Abigail Sailors works.
I’m all for celebrating the spirit of generosity that would lead some rich guys to pay for a struggling young server's college tuition for a semester, instead of, say, splurging on this ridiculous pool table. But amid the outpouring of feel-good sentiment these stories provoke (see the gushy comments on Tips for Jesus’ Instagram page), there’s something a little dark and Dickensian about the big-tip phenomenon.
After all, at least in the case of Tips for Jesus, this guy is dropping big bucks at some of the country’s most expensive restaurants. When you’re putting $2,078.46 for dinner at Acabar in L.A. on your AmEx Black Card, you’re decidedly among the 1 percent. A $6,000 tip may make for a good story—definitely more viral than one about the legion of U.S. restaurant workers trying to make ends meet without, say, a living wage or paid sick leave or other benefits.