When stay-at-home orders went into effect in mid-March, Zach Bartlett, the front of house manager for the Milwaukee Bucks, began working from home and found he had some extra time on his hands.
While scrolling through TikTok, he stumbled on a video of Lexy Kadey, the creator of a crowdsourcing fundraising effort called the Venmo Challenge. The concept is simple: ask friends and family for donations via the mobile payment app and surprise a waiter with a generous tip at a time when many restaurant and other service workers are taking a hit from COVID-19 restrictions.
“I have a pretty good base here in Milwaukee,” Bartlett said. “I figured I could start one of these here. I had the time and wanted to help those who are in need.”
Bartlett put out a call on his social media channels, asking for donations of as little as 25 cents or however much people in his network felt compelled to give. Within five days, he had raised $220.
Bartlett chose to gift that amount to a North Avenue Grill server and recorded the interaction for donors to see.
“I posted that video and it sort of just took off with the comments and messages I received,” he said.
Within a day, Bartlett had raised another $1,000.
“It was just ‘bing, bing, bing’ (of phone notifications) from all these donations,” he said. “I got a $100 donation in the first 24 hours. It is awesome to see we can all, as one team, try to bless the community in a time of need, that there is still light and positivity.”
Since then, Bartlett has distributed more than $5,600 to servers, with tips ranging from $250 to $500, across 20 Milwaukee-area restaurants, from Café Benelux in the Historic Third Ward to Oak Creek Diner.
“Some tear up immediately,” he said. “Some are in complete shock and don’t want to talk right away, but later come back and express themselves.”
Bartlett said many of the recipients have opened up about their struggles over the past six months. One server had lost her son just days before. Another was a college student who opted to stay home to take care of her family instead of returning to campus this fall. Another said he was unsure how he would pay for his wife’s upcoming medical procedure before receiving the tip.
One delivery driver ended up reporting back to Bartlett that he was able to buy his daughter a new school wardrobe thanks to the gift.
“You never know what someone’s going through,” he said. “You never know the journey someone has been on to get to where they are. It can be as simple as a smile or opening a door for someone, or helping a neighbor who may be elderly and can’t cut the grass. Throughout this crisis, we can still give back even if it’s not with money. We can still shine a light.”
Bartlett hopes to continue distributing generous tips throughout the pandemic, and is accepting donations via Venmo at @smbartlett18.