The gift they kept on giving started with a phone call to Granite City, from a stranger named Wendy.
She told restaurant manager Brandon Poppert a story: Once a month, she and five friends go out to eat. And once a month, after the bill is paid, each woman puts a little bit of money into a wooden box.
“At the end of the year, they pick a restaurant and call the manager and ask for the most deserving server, and give the entire box worth of money to that server,” Poppert said.
They were coming to Granite City that night, Tuesday night, and they wanted his help.
“I said, ‘I’ve got the perfect server, very deserving, just recently moved here, his wife is in grad school, he’s supporting both him and her.”
Josh Ochoa was waiting the bar area that night. The table of six women was warm, polite, friendly and funny — and he had no idea what they were planning.
“They called me over and said, ‘You did a great job and we want to let you know this is a special group of women. We do this once a year.’”
The cash came out of the box. $170. He was surprised, and grateful he’d given good service to the table.
“It just gives you a newfound sense of kindness to everyone, no matter who they are. You never know who you’re going to cross paths with, which is really cool.”
His manager watched it all play out.
“It was very, very cool,” Poppert said. “And it gets cooler.”
Ochoa pulled his boss into the office and started talking about another employee, Tiffany Dodd. She’s an expediter — expo in restaurant shorthand — carrying the food as it comes out of the kitchen, making sure it gets to the right table.
She’d had a rough year. She lived in her car with her dog for months, grabbing extra shifts while trying to get back on her feet.
“Josh has a lot of respect for Tiffany, as we all do,” the restaurant manager said. “So Josh gave her the money.”
The story gets even better here, Poppert said. “But it kind of gets sad, too.”
When Ochoa handed Dodd the $170, she immediately thought of a bartender, also named Josh, who had lost his brother Sunday, so unexpectedly. He was taking time from work to grieve and make arrangements.
She also thought about what Granite City had done for her in the year she’s worked there.
Her last job had cut her hours, and she fell behind in her rent and lost her apartment. She was homeless for months, from last October to May. But she’s married now, living in a house, happy.
She works hard to help her co-workers, she said, but that’s what she’s paid to do. “The opportunities they’ve given me are amazing. I honestly feel like I do a lot for people, but I feel it’s my job to make other people’s lives easier.”
She didn’t even think about keeping the $170. She knows what it’s like to lose a loved one.
Give it to the bartender, she said.
Poppert was moved, but he handed the money back to Dodd. He told her he and the management team would find a way to take care of the bartender, with at least as much cash. And they did.
And he was left thinking about what unfolded after the restaurant’s phone rang Tuesday.
“The heart these women showed, and Tiffany showed, and Josh showed. It’s an amazing story.”