Shaina Brown works the late shift at Waffle House, serving cups of second-wind coffee to wobbly diners with butane breath.
After seven years, she’s 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 Mother’s Day, when a patron eating a Texas bacon patty melt called Brown over and said, “I’m 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.
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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 wouldn’t 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 Brown’s story with the customer who left her a tip the size of a mortgage payment, a Raleigh businessman who didn’t 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. You’re 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.
I’ve never worked in a diner. Only a Hardee’s, where nobody tips. But it seems to me that if Waffle House didn’t 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 there’s a transaction fee, or some cost associated with moving the money from place to place, credit to cash, it could have been deducted from Brown’s tip. Even if it cost $100, which I doubt, she’d still walk out with $900 for a job well done.
Didn’t feel like bothering
I think they didn’t let Brown keep her money because they didn’t feel like bothering with it. It’s 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 didn’t know Brown’s name or number. So I gave it to him, and he’s writing her a personal check for the tip.
But to me, you don’t put up roadblocks to charity. You don’t make it hard for people to be nice, or they’ll give up trying. And more than anything, you don’t dump on your own people as a matter of policy.
I’m guessing Brown’s co-workers are wondering what’ll happen the next time they get rewarded for a good deed. I’m also guessing that any of the Waffle House managers who made this call would feel differently if they’d 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 Brown’s table. Bring cash. Write her name on the bills. And don’t let management take it.
Josh Shaffer is a local columnist for the News & Observer.