One night back in September, I was grabbing a quick dinner-to-go at the local Chipotle on the way home from a workout. When I approached the end of the line to pay for my meal, the employee behind the counter told me that the customer in front of me in line, a stranger to me, had taken care of it. I was shocked — it was the first time I could recall that someone had done something like that for me.
I imagine that Julie Welsand and her co-workers at the Brief Encounter Cafe in Bellevue, WA, must have had a similar feeling, albeit on a much grander scale, on Dec. 16 when Aegis Living founder, Chairman and CEO Dwayne Clark and his wife, Terese, stopped by for breakfast and decided to leave a $3,000 tip for the $39.60 tab. They’ve been customers of the diner for about eight years, he told me.
“It’s the Christmas season, and you see people in there working very hard, and I think it reminded me of my childhood and it just struck a chord with me,” Clark said. “I grew up in a very difficult economic situation, where my family was very poor. My mom was a single mom with four kids, and she worked in a diner. My sister was the waitress in the diner, and she used to bring me when I was seven years old, and I was the guest dishwasher.”
Clark left the restaurant before Welsand, who had served him and his wife, saw the receipt on which he had written the tip amount with a request that it be shared among the diner’s dozen staff members. On the back of the receipt, he briefly had shared his background, complimented the staff and added: “Hopefully, this will help all of you have a better Christmas.”
Clark later was told that Welsand screamed and cried when she realized his largess.
“I didn’t expect any publicity when we did that,” he said, adding that similar actions of his in the past haven’t elicited as much attention. A telephone number Clark left on the receipt in case his credit card company questioned the legitimacy of the transaction, however, soon led to local media coverage that was shared by employees and then to national coverage by ABC News, the Today Show and other outlets. His return to the diner a few days later to pose for photographs was at the request of the media.
Aegis Living employees whose jobs include tracking such things told him that on Christmas day, the news was among the top 40 trending stories in the world and that by last week articles about it had garnered almost 1 billion combined online page views, no doubt including from friends he’s heard from all over the globe.
Clark’s act was a personal one, but the extension of his philosophy to his leadership of Bellevue, WA-based Aegis Living — which operates 29 assisted living and memory care communities in three states (Washington, California and Nevada) and has 10 properties in development — is apparent.
As I’ve reported before, the company annually holds a “Dream Big Lottery” to give away vacations and other prizes to show appreciation to employees.
Clark and Aegis Living also began the Potato Soup Foundation to help employees and their families in times of extreme need. The not-for-profit organization, which he estimated receives 30 to 40 requests per year, has paid for a wide range of needs, including emergency dental surgery, burial expenses for an employee whose father died unexpectedly, expenses for someone facing domestic abuse, and relocation assistance for someone whose apartment caught on fire.
“I wanted to create a culture of sustainability, to teach people at the lower end of the pay scale that we all have to care for each other,” Clark said. “I told them, ‘This is a family, and this is one of the things that we have to do to help each other, and so even if you give $0.25 to this foundation, there may be a day when you need it.’ ”
Employees can contribute to the foundation through automatic payroll deductions, he said. “It’s not the money that matters,” he added. “It’s the idea that that we’re helping our fellow employees in times of need. It’s the idea that we’re creating a sustainable culture.”
It’s programs such as those that led employees to successfully nominate the company to Glassdoor’s list of best places to work in the country in 2017. So former and current employees ultimately weren’t surprised to learn of the CEO’s magnanimous act at the cafe.
“You are the kind of person you are, so you can’t fake those kinds of things,” Clark said, adding that when news of the tip spread, “the greatest compliment that I got, probably 30 times, came from people who said [that when they had read the news, they thought], ‘Oh, this sounds like my boss at Aegis,’ and then said, ‘Oh! This IS my boss at Aegis!”
Additionally, he said, six people whose employment at Aegis Living had been terminated contacted him. “They said, ‘I just want you to know that you were the best company I ever worked for, and you’re probably one of the best leaders I’ve ever worked for, and I just want to thank you. Your kindness keeps on going.’ I think that’s a true testimony to the kind of culture we have,” Clark said.
I never got a chance to thank the woman who was so generous to me at Chipotle, but just as I subsequently vowed to “pay it forward,” Clark hopes that his effort at the diner will “spread a message of kindness.”
“There’s never been a time in our world where the world needs kindness more, and I think that’s why it resonates so much with people,” he said. “I don’t think it really has anything to do with the money. The money just maybe made it a little bit more newsworthy. But I think it motivated people to look at people differently.”
Clark has used the hashtag #FeedTheSpirit to get the word out. Kindness, he said, “doesn’t have to be to leave a big tip. It could just be to write a note saying, ‘I just want you to know that I know you work hard and you gave me great service today.’ Or if you go through a drive-through, just write a little note and say, ‘Hey, thanks for working on a Sunday today. I appreciate you.’ Or whatever it is. If you go to your dry cleaner, say, ‘Hey, I just want you know that every time I come in here, you have a smile.’ It can be little things like that just so we start being kinder to each other and appreciating each other.”
Clark said the message seems to be taking hold in the weeks since the news of his diner visit first was relayed.
“I got an email from a person in the industry. She went on vacation and sent me a photo of the note they left the housekeepers to thank them,” he said. “So I think, all of us, we have to dig ourselves out of the darkness. We can’t wait for our favorite sports star or political leader or reality television star to dig us out of the darkness. We have to do it for each other. And I think this is the way we do it. Kindness is good medicine.”
Lois A. Bowers is senior editor of McKnight’s Senior Living. Follow her on Twitter at @Lois_Bowers.