It had already been a rough week for Wendy Mosko, a longtime server at the Brick Tavern Inn in Quakertown, Pennsylvania. Then a customer at one of her tables said she wanted to talk to her.
The server’s eyebrows arched slightly above her face mask. What could this be? But always the pro, Mosko approached the table politely.
“For the last 10 weeks, I’ve been doing a Venmo Tip Challenge,” said the diner, Emily George.
Mosko’s eyes popped wide open.
“I’ve heard wonderful things about you,” continued George. Words, words, and more words. And then a number: “$600.”
“Are you serious?!?” Mosko shrieked. “Oh my God!!”
In the past year, people everywhere have found ways, big and small, to say: Pandemic, you don’t get to win. One of those people is George, 39, a wife and mother of two teenagers who lives in Quakertown.
George, a nurse, considers herself fortunate. Throughout the pandemic, she has had stable employment. But, as she put it, “Pre-pandemic, I had a life; I would go out and do things.”
Including dining in wonderful restaurants in and around Upper Bucks County.
But with COVID-19, of course, came restaurant shutdowns or reduced operating capacities — and dwindled tips, the lifeblood of most restaurant workers.
“I just know how hard they work on a normal basis and what the pandemic was doing to them financially,” George said.
Then she heard about people using social media to raise money to do “tip challenges,” in which the cash is given as a surprise, inflated “tip” to favorite restaurants or their servers. And she decided to give it a go.
In mid-January, she raised money to do her own tip challenge: She’d ask people to donate to a fund and, after a week, donate whatever was raised to a server at a local restaurant. She wasn’t expecting much; after all, times were hard for everyone. She directed people to her Venmo account, and solicited “anything from $.50 to $5 (or a donation of your choosing), and every week a different server in the community gets the pot. (Or, if it’s really good, multiple recipients) …I will post updates and post the recipient weekly so you know where the money is going.”
“I threw something up on my Facebook and put it out there. By the end of my first week, I had $280,” George said.
That weekend, she and some girlfriends went to the Karlton Café, one of their favorite breakfast spots. At the end of the meal, she got hold of their server Patrick Kevin Finnegan, explained the tip challenge, and handed him a $280 tip for their $20 breakfast.
“He didn’t know what to say,” George recalled. “He was at a loss for words.”
“It was a magical moment,” said Finnegan, who is the café’s front-of-the-house manager and shared the tip with his staff.
As word spread about what George was up to, more money came in. Sometimes, the tip went to a restaurant’s staff; other times, it went to a specific server nominated by donors.
By the time the 10-week campaign concluded, George had tipped more than $5,100 to servers at 17 restaurants.
Many of the recipients cried. Others, like Carrie O’Connor, a waitress at Giovanni’s Pizza in Quakertown, were initially perplexed — then totally dumbfounded.
As George explained to O’Connor what the challenge was about, O’Connor thought that George was asking for help with it.
“I was like, ‘Cool, cool,’” said O’Connor. “She was like, ‘No, it’s for you.’
“I was in complete shock because that kind of thing never really happens to me — it made me so grateful and happy,” said O’Connor, 19, a Lehigh University computer and pre-med student, who is putting her $200 tip toward college tuition. “It definitely made me feel a lot better about humanity.”
That’s a common reaction to what George does, said Jeannine DeFalco, one of the friends who tagged along with her for the tip presentations.
“She is a true believer in community and giving back to community. She inspires others to do good deeds because she gives so much of herself,” said DeFalco, a New Jersey school district superintendent.
Active in Quakertown Community Outreach, a local group that helps those struggling with homelessness, DeFalco said George recruited and organized volunteers last winter to make sure the group’s Thanksgiving and Christmas meals program went on despite the pandemic.
“She wasn’t going to let that stop her from helping,” said DeFalco.
Neither were personal difficulties. George’s husband, a maintenance worker, was laid off and out of work during the pandemic, so George worked extra hours in addition to her volunteering. And then she came up with the tip challenge.
George said doing the challenge has done her good. She got to spend time with girlfriends, try new places to eat, and let people know they were appreciated.
“I loved it,” she said. “It was exactly what my heart needed.”
For a lot of the tip recipients, the boost couldn’t have come at a better time. As George discovered, “Everyone has a story.”
One server’s husband had been gravely ill all year and almost died. Another had just gotten her first apartment and did not know how she was going to pay the rent.
“I definitely teared up,” said Kiersten Hickman, 21, a waitress at Casey’s Place who split her $300 tip with Casey’s bartender. Hickman, who has a toddler and is studying elementary education at Gwynedd Mercy University, was grateful for the extra cash and touched that it came from people in her own community.
The next morning, she was still so moved, she even paid for somebody else’s coffee when she was in line at Dunkin’.
Wendy Mosko, 50, the Brick Tavern Inn server who was so warmly nominated, said her tip experience has her, too, thinking about new ways to help others — like volunteering with feeding programs, for example, or donating to a food pantry.
“I always tell my sons: Actions speak louder than words,” Mosko said. “It definitely made me want to get out there and do something. This was a very humbling experience for me.”
Now that business is increasing at restaurants, George said the tip challenge isn’t needed on a weekly basis anymore, though she intends to resurrect the challenge now and then to show some love and appreciation to local eateries and staff.
Just don’t try to give her credit for what she’s done. She shakes it off.
“I’m very lucky to live in a community where I put up a Venmo and I say, ‘Help me with my tip challenge,’ and for 10 weeks, people throw in money every week,” George said. “That’s pretty awesome.”