At one time or another, we’ve all seen the effect of a pebble thrown into a pond, its ripples expanding outward in concentric circles, traveling as far as the watery surface will allow. Similarly, a small movement in Salt Lake City, known as the $100 Dinner Club, has already begun to experience a ripple effect in their efforts to show appreciation for restaurant workers throughout Utah and across the country.
This spring, Kate Strong asked her friend Mary Crafts to join her in starting the club as a way to help an industry devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic—hospitality and restaurants. In particular, the goal was to show gratitude and support for restaurant staff who work so hard to create an enjoyable space and a good meal for those who need an escape from the hustle of everyday life.
Here’s how it works: Every month, Crafts chooses a locally owned restaurant in need of a financial boost that can also accommodate a sizable crowd. Things are worked out with the owner or manager, and a date is chosen. Strong and Crafts announce the opportunity on social media, and the spots fill up within a few hours. The commitment is simple—eat good food, enjoy yourself, and tip $100 before you go. How that money is divided amongst the servers and other restaurant staff is left to the discretion of management.
Strong’s club was actually inspired by her friend Jimmy Rex, a Utah real estate agent. Rex came up with the idea after watching a video posted by his friend that showed him and a few others each giving their server a $100 tip. The server was brought to tears by their generosity, and Rex decided at that moment to do something similar.
“After seeing that video, I thought it was the perfect way to help servers in the restaurant business,” he says.
What started out as a simple invitation on social media turned into more than 18 straight weeks of large groups gathering at restaurants—where accommodations and safety protocols were possible—where each person committed to leaving at least a $100 tip. Rex says that anywhere from 20 to 100 people showed up, and seeing the joy brought to the servers and other restaurant staff is something that he’ll never forget.
“Even more than the money, people are like, ‘Oh my gosh! Somebody cares about me.’ And that has been one of the coolest parts about it.”
Bringing Cheer to a COVID-Ravaged Industry
Out of all the industries that have been affected by COVID-19, the National Restaurant Association reports that the restaurant industry has been one of the hardest hit. In fact, as of December 2020, more than 110,000 eating and drinking establishments have either closed temporarily or for good.
“So many people who are open took out loans to stay open,” says Crafts. “Can they pay it back? Are they going to be able to come back? Are they still going to declare bankruptcy?”
Crafts knows all too well how badly the pandemic can devastate a company in the hospitality industry. She founded Culinary Crafts more than 35 years ago and had just retired and handed off the business to her children when the pandemic struck. She painfully watched as the company she’d founded through blood, sweat, and tears lost nearly 80 percent of its business. That’s why she jumped at the chance to help support locally owned restaurants in such a unique and inspiring way.
In March, the two women held their first $100 Dinner Club at Saffron Valley, an Indian restaurant in Riverton. “Like most other restaurants, we had to cut back on shifts and hours. We had to recreate our menu to offer fewer options because no one was coming in,” says Lavanya Mahate, the restaurant’s owner. “What these ladies have done is boost morale and help restaurant workers feel seen and appreciated. We thank them for their kindness, and I encourage all of us to take inspiration from them to find our own ways to show kindness and generosity to others.”
Mahate is also quick to point out the sacrifices that people in service industries have made over the past year. “Restaurant workers and hospitality workers are risking their health and safety to serve the public,” she says. “They don’t get to work from home like so many others have been able to during the pandemic. Please treat them with kindness and compassion. Be patient. Be generous.”
Roy Alvaro was one of four servers who the $100 Dinner Club surprised with a $3,000 tip to split amongst themselves. “That night was one of the best experiences of my life,” he says. “It has also helped me to become more generous toward others. I want to pay it forward.”
Alvaro says that he will use the money to catch up on child support. “All that money will be for my three kids.”
The next month, the $100 Dinner Club dined at Stoneground Italian Kitchen in Salt Lake City. Hannah Prospero, who has worked as a server at the restaurant for five years, vividly remembers when the restaurant shut down last March due to the pandemic. “We had served only two people that day, and then we shut down,” she recalls. Thankfully, Prospero was able to come back to work less than two months later. “I’ve been grateful that I’ve been able to come back to work, but I’ve seen so many restaurants close and people lose their jobs,” she says. “I feel like if we can get through this, then we can get through anything.”
The night of the $100 Dinner Club, Prospero and two other servers were each presented with a $700 tip. In addition, cooks, dishwashers, and other back-of-house staff received $100 tips. “Receiving that tip was such a generous surprise,” she says. “I feel very grateful. Money doesn’t create happiness, but it can sure get you out of a lot of jams.”
The servers shared what each of them intended to do with the money, and their answers show just how important the extra income was to help them meet basic needs. Prospero says that she is going to put the money toward earning her real estate license. Another server is going to buy desperately needed new tires, and the third is using the money to pay rent. In addition to the welcome economic relief, the servers were touched by how the $100 Dinner Club attendees treated them throughout the evening. “They were so polite. Always share and always be kind. That’s what these ladies showed us,” says Prospero. “I hope that I can tip my server $100 one day.”
“In my 18 years in the restaurant industry, this is the first time that I’ve ever seen anything like this,” says Justin Shifflett, head chef at Stoneground Italian Kitchen. “I think it’s a great uplifter for the staff to know that there are people out there still thinking about them and who have always been thinking about them. It’s a great thing that’s going on.”
The Ripple Effect
Perhaps the best part of the $100 Dollar Dinner Club is not unlike the virus that sparked the impetus for its creation in the first place. It spreads. It’s contagious. People who take part want to experience it again and often start their own clubs.
“We’ve been sharing it on social media because I wanted it to be more than just us going to dinner—I wanted it to spread and become a movement,” says Rex. “And because of that, there’s been more than 50 different $100 Dinner Clubs that have happened all over the country. Hopefully it’s going to keep going.”
Strong says that the club is not just about helping those working in the restaurants. She cares just as deeply about the women who come to her club’s dinners and how the experience can positively affect their lives, and then the lives of their families and friends as the spirit of generosity spreads to more and more people. “Instead of impacting 2 servers or 25 or 30 women, it’s impacting hundreds of people in one night,” she says.
Tiffany Peterson, a dedicated club member, agrees. “Gathering with like-minded women focused on building one another up while giving back to our small business community is a beautiful example of a true win for everyone involved,” she says. “It’s one of those positive actions that multiplies itself into a great ripple effect.”
Kind of like throwing a pebble in a pond. And as Crafts says, “If enough of us keep dropping pebbles, the whole world can be changed.”
Watch the reaction of the restaurant staff here.
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