RALEIGH - Shaina Brown works the late shift at Waffle House, serving cups of second-wind coffee to wobbly diners with butane breath.
After seven years, shes learned to coax a good tip with a smile and quick refill. Even the barroom crowd will throw her $5 extra.
But nothing short of greasy spoon magic can explain what happened at 3 a.m. on Mothers Day, when a patron eating a Texas bacon patty melt called Brown over and said, Im going to bless you tonight.
He paid his bill with a credit card and wrote $1,500 on the tip line, asking Brown to share $500 with a haggard-looking woman at a table nearby.
Then he vanished into a cab, telling Brown, You have a good spirit.
If this were a fairy tale, Brown would have taken that money home and spent it on her three kids. She might have fixed the broken transmission on her car. A thousand dollars presents endless opportunities to a single mother working two jobs.
Money gets sent back
But this is Waffle House, where magic gets poured out like cold coffee. They wouldnt let her keep the money. They sent it back to the angel with the late-night appetite.
I feel like they stole from me, said Brown, 26. They did exactly what they teach us not to do.
This really happened. I confirmed Browns story with the customer who left her a tip the size of a mortgage payment, a Raleigh businessman who didnt want public attention for his deed.
Then I contacted Kelly Thrasher, a Waffle House spokeswoman, who told me that large tips are refunded to patrons as a regular procedure. Generous tippers are asked to tip again by cash or check. The restaurant handles it that way, she explained, in case the customer decides to dispute the tip later or ask for a refund.
It sounds weak to me. Youre denying your workers a benefit based on a worst-case scenario. Nobody carries $1,000 in cash to a Waffle House, and plenty of people leave the checkbook at home.
Ive never worked in a diner. Only a Hardees, where nobody tips. But it seems to me that if Waffle House didnt have the cash on hand, it could wait for the $1,500 to land safely in its account, and then pass it on to the waitress who earned it.
If theres a transaction fee, or some cost associated with moving the money from place to place, credit to cash, it could have been deducted from Browns tip. Even if it cost $100, which I doubt, shed still walk out with $900 for a job well done.
Didnt feel like bothering
I think they didnt let Brown keep her money because they didnt feel like bothering with it. Its easier to disappoint a hard-working waitress than lift an extra finger and maybe ruffle a feather or two up the corporate ladder.
When I called the businessman, he told me he didnt know Browns name or number. So I gave it to him, and hes writing her a personal check for the tip.
But to me, you dont put up roadblocks to charity. You dont make it hard for people to be nice, or theyll give up trying. And more than anything, you dont dump on your own people as a matter of policy.
Im guessing Browns co-workers are wondering whatll happen the next time they get rewarded for a good deed. Im also guessing that any of the Waffle House managers who made this call would feel differently if theyd had a bonus swiped from them.
So I suggest everybody visit the Hillsborough Street Waffle House on Thursday, Friday or Saturday night and specifically request Shaina Browns table. Bring cash. Write her name on the bills. And dont let management take it.
Josh Shaffer is a local columnist for the News & Observer.