BENTONVILLE, AR — Grant Wise and others in the 100 Dollar Dinner Club never dreamed a server would end up being fired over a grand gesture meant to make someone’s day.
“We’re tipping,” he thundered on Dec. 2, the date the club gathered for dinner at the Oven & Tap restaurant in Bentonville, Arkansas.
Intended to help local restaurants and their staffs hit hard by the pandemic, the ritual of the outsized tip has become enduringly familiar across the country. The club members plunked down $100 bills, and others at the restaurant joined in the fun.
The pile of money mounted. Astonishingly, it added up to a $4,400 tip.
“More than the money, which can be life-changing, this act of charity is a way for us to show our restaurant neighbors that they are seen, loved, and essential,” according to the 100 Dollar Dinner Club website.
The big tip changed Ryan Brandt’s life alright — just not in the way anyone intended.
Brandt was overcome with emotion. She buried her face in her hands and wept with joy, news station KNWA reported.
“To see her reaction was awesome, to see what that meant to her, the impact that it’s had on her life already,” Wise told the news station.
Wise had called ahead to make sure the restaurant didn’t require servers to pool their tips with employees who weren’t involved in serving the meal.
But Brandt’s manager insisted she split the windfall with the bartenders, cooks and food runners — something she said she’d never had to do in 3½ years of working at the restaurant.
Brandt’s lawyer, Bill Horton, told The Washington Post that prior to the big-tipping spree, the restaurant’s policy was to automatically deduct 7 percent of a server’s food-and-beverage sales to pay those workers, while leaving tips untouched.
The whole thing blew up into a public relations nightmare after Brandt contacted Wise to thank him for the tip and told him the restaurant managers planned to distribute it among other staff members.
Armed with that information, Wise and the 100 Dollar Dinner Club members demanded their tip money back , then distributed it directly to only the servers who had worked their party.
“We tried to contact the owner in an effort to ensure that everything was going to be ok but were unable to connect with her outside of a few text messages that eventually stopped,” Wise wrote on a GoFundMe campaign.
Mollie Mullis, the Oven & Tap co-owner, told KNWA that’s not how it went down. She maintained Wise had never inquired about the tip-sharing policy.
The restaurant, through a spokesperson, told The Washington Post that it’s standard policy for the restaurant to take a portion of credit card tips and share them with other employees, but servers keep their cash tips. For large parties, the spokesperson continued, decisions about whether to share the tips are made on a case-by-case basis.
Wise started the crowdfunding campaign after he learned Brandt “was fired for telling us” what the restaurant was doing with the tip. He wanted to make sure losing her job wouldn’t set her back even further after the toll the pandemic had already taken.
In an emailed statement to KNWA, Mullis and restaurant co-owner Luke Wetzel said Brandt wasn’t fired because she kept her portion of the tip but for other, undisclosed reasons.
“Oven & Tap doesn’t deliver terminations lightly,” they wrote. “Because we value our employees and highly respect their privacy, we never discuss personnel issues. The server who was terminated several days after the group dined with us was not let go because she chose to keep the tip money. “
The owners pointed out that two other servers who received generous tips that evening — including one who, like Brandt, had received a $2,200 tip — were still on the payroll.
The situation prompted Oven & Tap to split a $7,000 “tip” among the others who worked the party “because we feel the entire staff worked so hard that night to serve a large party of 32 people,” the CEO of a Little Rock public relations company retained by the restaurant owners wrote to The Post.
The restaurant owners said they could have handled the situation differently “by reminding our team how we would be splitting any tips prior to the event,” but they noted the restaurant’s “policy has always been to participate in a tip pool/share with the staff. Tip sharing is a common restaurant industry practice that we follow to ensure all of our team members are adequately compensated for their hard work.”
The restaurant owners sent Brandt a cease-and-desist letter through their lawyer, who said she permanently damaged the restaurant’s reputation, The Post reported. The attorney cited “countless unwarranted 1 Star Reviews” and “an outpouring of negative reviews, which will undoubtedly impact [the restaurant’s business].”
Wise said he only wanted to help Brandt get back on her feet, not to damage the reputation of the Oven & Tap, one of his favorite restaurants in northwest Arkansas.
“I do not personally know Ryan outside of her waiting on us in past Oven & Tap dinner outings,” Wise wrote. “I do not know what type of employee she was outside of what I personally experienced and what we’ve read from other people commenting that were her regulars. My only goal is to help her get through this experience with the least amount of stress and anxiety possible and onto whatever her next opportunity may be.”
As of Wednesday, more than $15,000 had been raised. Brandt will get the original $8,732 raised, but Wise reopened the fundraiser at her encouragement to raise money and “pay it forward” at the next 100 Dollar Club gathering.
More than $15,000 had been raised by midday Wednesday.
Brandt has a new job as a server at another restaurant, Wise wrote on the crowdfunding campaign website. She started the job this week.