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‘Are you (expletive) kidding me?’ String of $1,000 tips fueled by pandemic, crosstown rivalry and a college visit

Keith BieryGolick
Cincinnati Enquirer

The out-of-towner was talking about Xavier University

Once upon a time, the man from Connecticut had gone to school there. One day in early January, a cold day where temperatures barely rose above freezing, the man returned to visit the college with his daughters. 

They ate at Zip’s Café, a famous Cincinnati burger restaurant in Mount Lookout. One of the workers wore Xavier gear, and so that’s what they talked about. But this wasn’t Zip’s like the man remembered. The typically cramped and crowded restaurant seemed almost barren.

There were QR codes linked to menus on the walls and signs about wearing a mask. The tables in the center of the dining room had been removed as part of COVID-19 precautions

Zip's Cafe in the Mt. Lookout neighborhood of Cincinnati on Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021. The Mt. Lookout staple was one of the most recent local restaurants to receive a $1,000-plus tip on an order in what's being called the "Crosstown Tip-off."

When the family left, the man scribbled a note on his napkin. It was a note of encouragement to the staff. The man told the employee to share his tip with the rest of the crew.  

He left $1,000.

“Go Xavier!” he wrote.

‘Cincinnati, we love you!’ 

Mike Burke knows the rules: Never brag about a good tip, and never complain about a bad one. It’s an unwritten code of the restaurant industry. Burke knows this because he’s worked at Zip’s since he was 15. 

Restaurant owner Mike Burke stands behind the service counter at Zip's Cafe in the Mt. Lookout neighborhood of Cincinnati on Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021. The Mt. Lookout staple was one of the most recent local restaurants to receive a $1,000-plus tip on an order in what's being called the "Crosstown Tip-off."

Now he’s the owner, and he was conflicted. When told about the generous tip, he didn’t know what to do. He eventually used it as an opportunity to say thank you to the region for its support. On the restaurant’s Facebook page, a picture of the napkin and receipt was posted with the caption: “Cincinnati, we love you!” 

Five days later, two guests ate at a Keystone Bar & Grill near the University of Cincinnati. After their meal, they asked to speak with the manager. 

Can't keep up with the 'Crosstown tip-off'? Here's a running list of the generous tips

“I believe now more than ever we need to support our local restaurants,” they wrote in a note.

The guests tipped $1,001. 

“Bearcats up by 1,” they wrote.

The two Cincinnati colleges are separated by 3 miles – a fact often repeated ad nauseam on national broadcasts of basketball games. The heated rivalry is known as the Crosstown Shootout, and is probably best known for a fight at the end of a game in 2011. 

This is a decidedly happier story than that.

After a $1,002 tip was left at Goose & Elder, a server looked into the camera phone recording her with wide eyes. There would be tears later. She looked down at a note: Hey Bearcats! Ball is in your court. Go XU!!!

“Are you (expletive) kidding me?” she said. “Are you (expletive) kidding me?”

A cash tip jar stands on the counter at Bellevue Bistro in Bellevue, Ky., on Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021. The bistro was one of the most recent local restaurants to receive a $1,000-plus tip on an order in what's being called the "Crosstown Tip-off."

A few days later, a $1,007 tip at Sacred Beast made a server scream and had other employees running to make sure she was OK. At Skyline Chili in Oakley, a 42-year-old IT consultant who visits at least three times a week, the kind of customer whose food is made before he even sits down, left a $1,015 tip. The UC graduate said he had been following the story, and although he hated to admit a Xavier fan started it, he wanted to be part of the movement. 

Since Jan. 25, a few weeks after the first one, someone has left a $1,000 tip at a Greater Cincinnati restaurant almost every day – sometimes multiple times a day. 

It sounds like a fairy tale. Not because of the money – $1,000 split between staff is not lifechanging money. But once upon a time, during a pandemic, and after a summer of racial tension, a divisive presidential election and a deadly riot at the Capitol, kindness became hard to find.

So this might not be a fairy tale where everyone lives happily ever after, and this might not save the restaurant industry. But it’s something to smile about.

And in times like these, sometimes that’s enough. 

‘You can only move money around for so long.’

Restaurant owner Jeffrey Meiners stands behind the counter at Bellevue Bistro in Bellevue, Ky., on Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021. The bistro was one of the most recent local restaurants to receive a $1,000-plus tip on an order in what's being called the "Crosstown Tip-off."

There was a time during the pandemic when Jeff Meiners, the owner of Bellevue Bistro in Northern Kentucky, was his only employee. He answered the phones, waited tables and cooked the food. 

He couldn’t afford anyone else. 

Last year, he sold his car and struggled to pay his own bills. Without federal loans for small businesses, he said the restaurant he opened in 2007 would have closed. 

On Sunday morning, a Xavier graduate ordered carryout from him. When the man came to pick it up, he asked Meiners if he had heard about the Crosstown tip-off. Meiners hadn’t. The man explained it, and he left a $1,100 tip. 

Meiners didn’t want to accept it. Neither did the employee working with him. But the customer eventually convinced him. Meiners said he would use some of the money to fix a window and air conditioner that broke this summer.  

Bellevue Bistro in Bellevue, Ky., on Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021. The bistro was one of the most recent local restaurants to receive a $1,000-plus tip on an order in what's being called the "Crosstown Tip-off."

On Wednesday afternoon, a few days after the news-making tip, only two tables at the bistro were filled. It had been a slow day. A worker there said she made $3 in tips on Monday. 

Asked about the future, Meiners responded without hesitation: “I don’t know.” 

Burke, the owner of Zip’s, knows his restaurant is better off than most. For this reason, the 40-year-old is reluctant to discuss his own hardships. But make no mistake, there were hardships. 

“You can only move money around for so long before you don’t have any left,” he said. 

He cut staff, and the employees who are left want more hours. (The restaurant is open at about 40% capacity and about 40% of the time it used to be.)

Burke, who took over ownership six years ago and promised little would change about the beloved Cincinnati establishment, raised prices last year. It hurt, because he once came here for cheap burgers as a neighborhood kid.

Zip's Cafe in the Mt. Lookout neighborhood of Cincinnati on Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021. The Mt. Lookout staple was one of the most recent local restaurants to receive a $1,000-plus tip on an order in what's being called the "Crosstown Tip-off."

On Sunday afternoon, Burke was conflicted again. He was working when a regular customer, a friend to many on the staff, tipped $1,250. 

Us again? 

That was Burke’s first thought. Another was to keep quiet about this one. Then, he thought about his coworkers and colleagues throughout the industry – his friends, some of them. He thought about how incredibly grateful he was that one act of kindness from a stranger had grown into something much more. 

And he wanted to keep it going. 

An hour later, he posted a picture of the receipt to social media, along with the customer’s note: 

“UC to the moon!” 

The next day, Incline Public House received a $1,500 tip. The day after that, The Echo also received $1,500. Since Jan. 9, more than $24,000 in tips mentioning UC and Xavier have been received by Greater Cincinnati bars and restaurants.