Emily Young was finishing up with the last table of her shift Monday afternoon at Flatbread Company in Portland when the customer called her over.
She had had a miserable day for tips, waiting on just four tables. Now, she had a customer who wanted a few words.
“It seemed like he might complain. Then I saw him smiling,” Young said. “Then he gave me the money.”
Young got a $500 tip around 2 p.m. from an apparently super-satisfied diner named Seth Collins.
Collins, of Lexington, Ky., has been traveling the country for more than a year giving $500 tips to servers at random in memory of his late brother, Aaron.
When Collins called Young over, he stood up and explained quietly that he had been giving out big tips around the country in memory of his “little brother.”
Young stood motionless with an almost blank look on her face. When Collins held out his tip for her, a fan of $20 bills, Young laughed a nervous laugh and strained to find a few words of thanks.
“I feel very lucky,” said Young, 30, a Portland resident who also writes fiction and works part time at Longfellow Books. “Maybe I’m just in shock.”
Collins’ lunch bill Monday was $43.90, for him and two companions. So the tip was comfortably over the 20 percent standard.
Collins’ travels have been well-documented on social media and by newspapers and TV. He’s given out 82 really big tips, totaling $41,000, since July 2012.
In fact, Young and her co-worker Marcus O’Toole were talking about Collins, sort of, Monday morning. They had heard that someone was going around giving generous tips. Because Monday’s lunch shift was so slow, they joked about how wonderful it would be if that big tipper walked in.
And he did.
“I was just wondering what I was going to do about not making much money today,” said Young.
Her immediate plans for the money were to give some to O’Toole, the only other server on duty Monday afternoon, and to buy a round of beers for friends she meets up with regularly on Monday nights.
“Maybe I’ll have two beers,” Young said. “And pay some bills.”
BROTHER LIKED TO REWARD SERVERS
Aaron Collins died unexpectedly in July 2012 at the age of 30, and wrote in his will that he wanted his family to have a meal in his memory and leave a really, really big tip. A video of the first $500 tip and the reaction it got went viral and prompted people to donate more money to the Collins family, enabling them to do more big-tipping in Aaron’s name.
An organization was founded, Aaron’s Last Wish, and about $50,000 was raised to keep the tips flowing.
Aaron’s Last Wish is not a federally recognized nonprofit and does not have tax-exempt status. It is registered in Kentucky as a nonprofit limited liability company.
Collins, 34, said his brother was always taking friends out to dinner, leaving big tips, and generally giving his money to others. He said he remembers his brother giving a waitress a $50 tip because she confided in him that she was thinking of quitting. Aaron Collins gave her the money and said “don’t give up,” his brother said.
“When we were kids, Aaron would add money to the tip if he thought my parents hadn’t left enough,” said Collins, who worked in information technology for years before beginning his tipping journey. “He always had an appreciation for people in the service industry and wanted to make sure they knew they were appreciated.”
Aaron Collins was a “jack of all trades” said his brother, working in construction and computer repair and as a handyman. His family has not disclosed the cause of his death.
BIG TIPS TOTAL SO FAR: $41,000
Seth Collins said his goal is to leave at least one $500 tip in every state by the end of January, and he still has about 10 states in the East to go.
He said he picks places to visit based on where he might have friends and family, and stays with people he connects with through aaroncollins.org or his Facebook page, where visitors can see videos of his big tips.
For his stay in Portland, a friend in Vermont found him some folks in southern Maine who were willing to pay his bill to stay in a hotel.
Of the $50,000 raised for tips, Collins has given out $41,000 so far. He also has raised $12,000 to help cover his travel expenses.
Last week, Collins was in Springfield, Vt., where he handed out $500 to a young woman at a Friendly’s restaurant.
He said he wants to pick restaurants that aren’t “super touristy” or expensive. He favors places that are locally owned and cater to families, like pizza places. He said he picked Flatbread because he heard “they have really good pizza.”
As for picking a server, he figures that “anyone working at a pizza place and living off tips can use an extra $500.”
LOOKING TO GIVE AWAY MORE
Collins likes to go into each restaurant without letting the staff know. A reporter and photographers joined him at Flatbread on Monday, waiting for the big-tip moment.
Young said repeatedly that she never suspected Collins and his table mates were up to anything more than eating lunch.
Collins and Young interacted only a few times during lunch.
Collins said he hopes the publicity that his big-tipping journey is getting will spur others to do good in unexpected ways.
“After I hit every state, I’ll go back home (to Kentucky) and try to figure out new ways to give money to deserving people in surprising ways,” he said. “Maybe I’ll try to get somebody to let me do a TV show, giving out tips. It would be great to do this full time.”
Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at: