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Where in the World Is Tips for Jesus?
Ellen Cushing | Photo: Instagram; illustration by Brecht Vandenbroucke | February 21, 2014
In San Francisco, of course. A first-ever sit down with the mysterious god of gratuities.
The most inscrutable rich person in San Francisco has surprisingly pedestrian taste in coffee. We’re talking utilitarian, non–name brand, get-in-get-out java at a downtown coffee shop with acceptable but not outstanding Yelp reviews. In this Blue Bottle–or–bust town, you’d expect something fancier. Especially because the man who picked out this humble rendezvous has become internationally famous as the nameless mastermind of a syndicate that’s left nearly $130,000 in ultra-outsize tips—all accompanied by the cryptic insignia “Tips for Jesus”—at restaurants and bars in more than a dozen cities in the United States and Mexico over the last six months. Globe-trotting mega-benefactors: They're just like us.
Sitting at an outside table, the tipper—who would speak to me only in exchange for complete anonymity—explains that it all started back in September, at a bar in Ann Arbor, Michigan, after a college football game. He has, as he says, "been fortunate" in life, and he and his friends have long been tipping generously. But for some reason—he doesn't actually remember all the details now, he says, mild sheepishness spreading across his face—they decided that afternoon to give their server a $3,000 tip on an $87.98 check and, crucially, to post a photo of the receipt to Instagram.
We know what happened next: Over the ensuing months, tip after exorbitant tip was left in cities across the continent, all for absurd amounts and all with “Tips for Jesus” scribbled ebulliently on the check—in pen at the start, and then later via a custom rubber stamp. By late November, the tipper or tippers had given away $50,000, the Tips for Jesus Instagram account had racked up tens of thousands of followers (71,296 at press time), and the whole thing had become a bona fide Internet phenomenon.
The religious press seized on Tips for Jesus as an example of Christian generosity. (It’s not. “The movement we have started is intended to be agnostic," the tipper emphasizes.) College football fans speculated about the tippers' apparent Notre Dame, USC, and Stanford allegiances. Servers across the country began pleading with the tippers over Instagram to stop by Harmony Tea Room in Westwood, New Jersey, or the Hooters in Aurora, Colorado. A multitude of media outlets posited theories—some of which, I can now confirm, are accurate—about the identity of the Tips for Jesus ringleader. Every time a new tip came along, a flurry of news stories and blog posts would emerge, all undoubtedly fueled by the fact that the operation—if you can call it that—is completely and maddeningly bizarre.
Here you have a clearly affluent person (or people) anonymously giving money to individuals (servers, bussers, cooks) who presumably could use it. It's a nice, happy-making thing to do—all it takes is a cursory swipe through the Tips for Jesus Instagram feed to see the heartwarming giddiness on the recipients' faces. And yet, it's not all that hard to detect an air of self-aggrandizement and braggadocio in the whole affair. Tips for Jesus is fundamentally exhibitionist, after all, with every grinning-server photo carefully posed and posted to Instagram and Twitter. But it's run by a person who has studiously avoided the press. Which, or course, only makes all of it even more intriguing.
Plus, there's this: As an act of charity, this kind of giving doesn't make a whole lot of sense. At a moment when an entire cottage industry exists to help the wealthy figure out which causes and organizations are most deserving of their philanthropy, Tips for Jesus appears to have more in common with a drunken lark than a reasoned decision. (Gratuities aren't even tax-deductible!) Even the tips themselves are seemingly random: $1,000 on a $152 check at the Marina district Tacolicious in October; $7,000 on $2,994 at a Manhattan restaurant just before Christmas; $2,000 on $272 at the storied L.A. strip club Jumbo's Clown Room last month.
All told, the whole thing looks more like a reality TV conceit than a campaign of altruism. It's an undeniably feel-good story shot through with mysterious Samaritan intrigue and the kind of right-place-right-time alchemy that makes tales about SuperLotto winners so fascinating. It's post-modern and peak-social media and over-the-top and a little bit gauche. It's gonzo philanthropy, and it was all but custom engineered to go viral.
And so the question remains: WTF, guy?
On an overcast Wednesday afternoon in February, I meet him, the central figure of the 10-or-so-person Tips for Jesus clique. Our interview comes after weeks of phone calls, emails, and entreaties to the suspected person’s friends and colleagues. Finally, he agrees to speak on the record, but only if we keep the focus off of him and on the concept of “direct giving to ordinary people.” His reticence seems less a Banksy-esque performance than born of a genuine desire to keep the attention on the Tips, not the tipper.
For someone who’s just spent several weeks being harassed by me and countless other reporters, the tipper is unaccountably forthright, funny, and warm—uncommonly well dressed, perhaps, but otherwise normal. The way he tells it, the whole Tips for Jesus “movement” was created as something of a guerrilla effort to encourage more people of means to give back—to foster a kind of ad hoc charity culture attractive to a generation that may be turned off by traditional philanthropy. Tipping $100 on a $3.99 Oreo Blender Blaster at a Sunset Boulevard Denny’s may lack some of the gravitas of, say, Marc Benioff’s endowment of a children’s hospital—but it’s direct, instantly gratifying, and relatively easy. It’s also fucking fun.
“It’s just about helping people out,” the tipper says. “It’s not hard to give back”—to tip a little extra, pay for someone else’s drink, engage in small acts of kindness, even if it’s at a level somewhere below tens of thousands of dollars. “When justified by great service, magnanimous gratuities are achievable by everyone—no excuses.”
The goal isn’t just to tip in a vacuum, he says—it’s to create a stream of copycats. “And we wanted to harness social media to do that,” he says. If, after all, you want to spread the gospel of extravagant giving, there’s no better way to do it than through the social web. Before we meet, he emails me a news story about a trio of diner waitresses in Caledonia, Illinois, who’d each been tipped $5,000 by a woman ostensibly inspired by Tips for Jesus. When I ask him about it, he breaks into a wide smile and tells me that this is exactly what he had hoped to inspire from the beginning.
There are, to be sure, critics: the Valleywag editor who poked fun at the $102 gimlet visible at the bottom of one receipt; the people who’ve popped up on Instagram arguing (fairly convincingly) that there are more suitable recipients of such largesse than waitresses at high-end sushi restaurants; the commentators who say that philanthropy should be more about institution-building than about making one person’s day, one time.
But the way the tipper sees it, Tips for Jesus isn’t an opt-out for those who would otherwise be supporting the homeless and cutting checks for the arts. It’s an appeal to the type of people (young, newly wealthy ones, in all likelihood) to whom that philanthropic impulse would never have occurred. “It’s not taking a piece of the pie,” he says. “It’s making the pie bigger.” He says that he’s involved with traditional philanthropy, too, and maintains that friends of his who were indifferent to conventional forms of charity have taken to Tips for Jesus with unexpected fervor. I believe him, because we all have.
That’s the thing: While there’s reason to be skeptical about the project’s motives or dubious about its long-term effects, it’s undeniable that the world would be a better place if more wealthy—and not-so-wealthy—people behaved this way. At a time when the gulf between the rich and the poor is ever widening, it’s hard to argue with a nice guy tipping 1,000 percent on a bar tab and attempting to inspire other people to do the same. Beneath the hashtags and the smiling busboys and the $102 gimlets, his point is this: It’s easy to be a good person.
“It’s pretty simple,” he says, smiling, as he sips his $1.90 coffee.
“It is getting expensive, though.”
Originally published in the March Issue of San Francisco