BANGOR, Maine — Seth Collins, a 34-year-old Kentuckian, is a generous tipper — and not just 25 or 30 percent.
For more than a year, Collins has been traveling the United States, popping into random restaurants and handing $500 tips to unexpecting waiters and waitresses.
About a year and a half after starting his efforts close to home in Lexington, Ky., Collins will hand his 82nd $500 tip to a staff member at a yet-to-be-determined Portland restaurant likely sometime Monday.
When he gives out that tip, he will have passed out a total of $41,000 across the Midwest, South, Pacific and Mountain West regions. Ultimately, the effort will hit all 50 states, Collins said. He typically visits casual dining or family restaurants — places where wait staff might not take in a ton of money. Each encounter has been videotaped and posted online.
It’s all in memory of Collins’ younger brother, Aaron, who died unexpectedly in July 2012. He was 30 years old. In the will, drafted several years before his death, there was one rather odd request saved for the very end — asking his family to leave an “awesome” $500 tip for a waiter or waitress.
“He always really cared about the service industry,” Collins said of his brother. “Even when he was 12 years old, if we went to dinner, and he didn’t think my parents left a generous enough tip, he would take out his allowance money and put a couple extra bucks on the table.”
Aaron’s decision to put that last line in his will might have stemmed from something that happened while he was having wings and beer with friends at a Buffalo Wild Wings, according to Seth.
A waitress on her first day at the job wasn’t doing well, including getting orders wrong and dropping drinks. She told Aaron she was thinking about quitting.
The younger brother left a $50 tip and a note telling her not to quit, according to Collins. The waitress’s attitude instantly improved.
“I think he probably from that moment wondered, well if $50 will do that to a person, what would happen if we gave them $500?”
Just three days after Aaron’s death, the family honored that last request in his will, handing out a $500 tip raised by the family to a worker at a Lexington, Ky., restaurant. They recorded the moment and posted it on YouTube, Facebook and other social media for family and friends to see.
“I left the first one thinking it would be the only one, and the internet surprised me,” Collins said
The video, intended for family and friends, went viral. Local news stations started calling, then national news outlets — Good Morning America, CNN, NPR. Donations poured into the PayPal account that was only intended to be used to gather the initial $500. In the months he has been traveling the country, more than $50,000 has come in to keep the tips flowing.
After passing out tips at restaurants around home, Collins realized the effort should expand. He began visiting other states, funding his travels through separate online fundraising efforts.
His 1999 Nissan Altima has taken him the whole way, excluding Hawaii and Alaska, which he reached via plane and cruise ship. He bought the car in 2004 for $6,300. The odometer broke three years ago at 156,000 miles, so he’s not sure how many miles are on it now. He estimates he has added about 13,000 miles in the past 1 1/2 years.
Collins is spending the weekend in Maine after presenting his 81st tip in Springfield, Vt, where a young Friendly’s waitress named Julie was the recipient. He also stopped in Lovell, a small Oxford County town of about 1,100 residents, on Friday. An avid fan of craft beers, he visited the town’s Ebenezer’s Pub, which has been dubbed the best beer bar in America by Beer Advocate for the pub’s huge selection of brews.
On Saturday, he visited Bangor and explored downtown, checking out businesses and taking in sights during the Festival of Lights Parade. He had his first-ever whoopie pie at Friars’ Bakehouse, ate lunch at Giacomo’s, and sampled the beer selection at Nocturnem.
On his way to Portland Sunday afternoon, Collins stopped for lunch at a pub in Waterville, leaving a $100 tip for Kelsey Crosby, he said. Crosby’s boyfriend, who is deployed in the military, contacted Collins a while back to ask that he stop in to visit Crosby if Collins were to visit Maine. Crosby and her boyfriend are admirers of Collins’ cause.
Collins said he’s leaving the big tip in Portland because a family offered him a place to stay and to serve as his videographers while he’s there. When close to home, he gets help from family members, but while on the road, he tells his story to strangers and asks if they would be willing to take part.
Once his 50-state tour is complete, Collins said he plans on taking requests from people across the country who know of someone in the service sector who has an interesting or tragic story and could really use the boost of a big tip.
So how does he hope the lucky Portland restaurant employee will react on Monday? Shock and surprise, he said.
“If he or she wants to cry, I’m OK with that,” Collins said with a grin.
Above all else, Collins said he hopes his efforts inspire generosity in others.
For more information, to watch more than 80 videos of Collins giving surprise tips or to donate to the Aaron’s Last Wish project, visit www.AaronCollins.org.