On New Year's morning, an unexpected celebrity customer walked into an IHOP. The waitress who served them had no idea her life was about to change - and all because of an internet challenge. Here's her story.
Working Through the Holidays
On January 1st, 2020, customers streamed into their local IHOP to welcome in the new year with pancakes and syrup. This was no different in St Charles, Illinois, where a waitress was starting her shift.
Her name was Bethany Provencher, and she had moved from Florida to Illinois not long before the holiday season. Working on New Year’s Day wasn’t ideal, but she needed the money. And as she put her apron on that morning, she could never have expected how this shift would end.
For Bethany, getting the job at IHOP was only the beginning of her new life. She and her 11-year old son had left their home in Florida to start again, and she desperately needed extra cash to make it happen. They had a place to live, but not much else.
In fact, the deposit for their small apartment had wiped out her savings account completely. Things were bad enough that they had no actual furniture in the house. She later told ABC News interviewers, "I have absolutely nothing to move in with. Like not a dish… nothing."
Keeping a Smile on Her Face
She knew it wasn't going to be easy, but Bethany wasn't deterred by the struggle. "Good things can only come," she told ABC. "Blessings all around. I pray every day, so I know we're gonna be good." No matter what, she was going to keep smiling through it all.
She had a job to do and a child to take care of, and the single mother wasn't going to let some financial difficulties get her down. It would take some time to get fully back on her feet, but such is life. Little did she know, though, it wouldn't take as long as she thought after all…
Now let's go back to New Year's day 2020, as Bethany moved from table to table in the bustling IHOP. The restaurant was packed with people enjoying the first day of the year. All of a sudden, the restaurant quietened, as people began whispering and turning their heads. Bethany looked over to see what was going on.
At the entrance to the store, a man and his family had just walked in. And Bethany recognized him instantly. A Hollywood celebrity had just walked into her IHOP, and she was starstruck. "I freaked out and called my mother in the bathroom!" she shared with ABC.
Bethany’s Favorite Celeb
In the space of a moment, Bethany’s shift had gone from average to amazing. She wasn’t just freaking out because the man was famous - but because he was one of her absolute favorite celebrities! Since she was a teenager, she had been a big fan of his, so she could hardly believe her luck.
"My mother sat in line for three or four hours for tickets to go see him for me when I was a kid," she gushed to reporters. "I went to two of his concerts, and he looked at me twice." It felt like a once-in-a-lifetime moment. But would she be able to meet him?
After all, she was still on the clock. She couldn’t just abandon her position to chat with a customer, even if he was famous. So Bethany retained some composure, watched the family find a table, and went straight to her shift manager, Gabriella Rivera, with the news.
Rivera was a little perplexed by her flustered employee. "[Bethany] actually is the one who brought it up to my attention," she explained to ABC News. "And I told her, I was like, 'Okay, that's awesome. But let's take a breath.'" She realized that Bethany was beyond excited about the celebrity appearance.
Throwing Her a Line
Gabriella Rivera was a responsible manager, but she wasn’t strict or harsh. She could see how starstruck the waitress was, and realized she had the power to make her day. So she casually told Bethany how things were going to go down: She would be the one waiting on the celebrity’s table.
Bethany was stunned by Rivera’s decision. With a simple sentence, she was not only permitted to approach the man, but she had to. She was about to meet one of her celebrity idols. But was she going to express how much of a fan she was, or just play it cool?
Making a Move
The clock was ticking as the family waited to be approached so they could place their orders. Bethany was frozen in place, her mind racing as she wondered what she should do or say. But then it hit her. She was their waitress, after all - all she had to do was her job.
So she moved between tables and made a beeline for the family. She introduced herself quickly and then just did what came naturally. She took everyone's pancake orders, smiled at the four children that accompanied the man and his wife, and overall was as friendly and professional as possible.
Making an Impression
She didn’t say a thing about what a big fan she was. She opted to remain lowkey despite her nervous excitement - yet she still caught the man’s attention. And something was about to happen that would blow Bethany out of the water, even more so than this surprise meeting.
The waitress was already buzzing about the small interaction she just had with the man and his family. After months of stress involved with moving to another state, securing an apartment, and providing for herself and her son, that shift had already lifted her spirits immensely. And things were only looking up for Bethany.
A Mysterious Request
And just as quickly as it had started, the moment was over. The man, his wife, and their children were all done with meals and ready to head out the door. Bethany took the celebrity’s card to make the payment but was stopped as she was about to go to the front desk.
The man had motioned for her to follow him to the side, out of earshot of his family. Bethany was more than a little stunned, but she did as he asked. "He gave me the receipt, and he folded it up, and he told me to put it in my pocket and wait until he left to open it," she recalled the moment to ABC reporters.
The Tip of a Lifetime
"[I] did just that," she continued. Without a word, she processed the transaction and smiled in farewell, watching the family exit the building. Once they had left, she went somewhere more private and took the folded-up receipt from her pocket. "When I opened it, I freaked out," she recalled. Inside was a $2,020 tip!
Bethany's first thought was that it had to be an accident. But when she took a closer look at the receipt the money had come in, there was writing scribbled at the bottom. It read, "Thanks, Bethany. Happy New Year. 2020 Tip Challenge." It was beyond generous, given to her by a very generous man. But let us explain…
The Lavish Tipper
Bethany’s favorite celebrity, and the man who had bestowed the unusually large tip onto her, was none other than Donnie Wahlberg: a well-established actor, and performer. She had first seen him on stage as part of the boy band New Kids On The Block, which is how he broke into the industry.
Donnie had quickly moved on to high-profile acting roles in films, with some of his best-known roles being in The Sixth Sense and the Saw franchise. And of course, he was the brother of the A-list actor and producer Mark Wahlberg. But Mark wasn’t his only famous family member.
Donnie's wife, the woman who had sat beside him in the St. Charles IHOP, was actress and TV personality Jenny McCarthy. Jenny first rose to fame as a Playboy model in the early-90s, then later segued into film and television roles where she found further success.
She proved herself to be a multi-talented personality, just like her husband. Her career took off even more when she entered the world of reality TV. And these days she may be better known in American households as a judge on The Masked Singer and former co-host on The View.
Discovering the Tip Challenge
But let’s backtrack a little. Just what was the “Tip Challenge” that Donnie referenced in his note to Bethany? Well, she soon discovered that she had been the unwitting recipient of a viral challenge that encouraged participants to give a $2,020 tip to a deserving service worker in celebration of the first day of 2020.
The Wahlberg’s had only enjoyed an $80 meal on that particular morning, so even a $20.20 tip would have made Bethany’s day. $2,020 would be absolutely mind-boggling for any waitress earning minimum wage. But for Bethany in particular, it meant everything.
A Better Beginning
The tip was a godsend for Bethany Provencher and her young son. Her famous benefactor had no idea how life-changing the Tip Challenge was for the small family. Bethany had been struggling, and $2000 meant she could finally set up their new life in Illinois properly.
And she was going to start with her new apartment. "Now I can have a fully furnished place," the emotional waitress said during her ABC interview. With a proper home, things were about to look much more optimistic for Bethany and her child. So much of her stress was relieved due to one kind act.
Behind the Trend
And that’s just what it was - an act of kindness. Yes, $2,000 was going to ease Bethany’s immediate financial struggles and open up many more opportunities for her, but it wasn’t just the money that struck a chord. The single mother was overcome by the idea that a total stranger had reached out to her with such generosity.
All in all, that day had been an emotional one for Provencher. She experienced an unprecedented act of good, was given the opportunity to furnish her apartment and met one of her idols all in the same interaction. It was more than enough to lift her spirits. But how did this all start?
Beginning of the Challenge
Donnie Wahlberg and his wife Jenny had first caught wind of the 2020 Tip Challenge after hearing about another user, Danielle Franzoni. Much like Bethany Provencher, Danielle had received a Tip Challenge tip that had changed everything for her and her family.
Danielle was working at the Thunder Bay Restaurant in Alpena, Michigan at the time. She was living in a shelter while she worked, so of course, $2,020 had been a lifesaver for the struggling woman. Her story convinced many like Donnie to take part in the challenge too.
A Difficult Morning
In her interview with CNN, Franzoni shared that the day had gotten off to a tricky start. At 4 am, well before her shift, a neighbor came to her in a state of distress. She took the time to help them, but it set the tone for the rest of her day. "I came to work, like, super emotional," she said.
Despite her emotional state, Danielle arrived at work with a smile, not wanting to draw attention to how she was feeling. She served two regular customers, bringing their breakfast and coffee while enjoying some chit-chat. It was these two customers who chose to thank Danielle generously for her wonderful service.
Overcome With Emotion
On the way out of the Thunder Bay Restaurant, the customers discreetly handed Danielle a folded-up receipt with the same instructions that Donnie had given Bethany. And when she finally had a chance to look inside, Danielle was overcome by what she saw.
"I cried. I started crying and went right to my manager and asked him if it was real," she said. "They wrote on the receipt, 'Happy New Year Danielle. 2020 Tip Challenge.'" Danielle was a single mother to three young children, and she was pregnant with her fourth. For her, a $2020 tip was beyond generous.
A Long Struggle
"That doesn't happen to people like me," she told CNN reporters when questioned about the incredible act. "I'm [in recovery]. I'm a Detroit native, born and raised. I moved up here to Alpena to start over and to get sober," she confessed. Life had been difficult for her.
Suffice to say, it was a shock to Danielle that anyone would do something so kind for her, simply because she was doing her job. By this point in life, she was accustomed to struggling, and it seemed that incredible luck like this had long been out of her reach. That is, until now.
A New Life
Similar to Bethany, Danielle decided that she needed a new beginning two years before the Tip Challenge was born. At that time, she had been struggling with addiction and had recently gotten clean. She knew that she and her children needed a fresh start and better opportunities, and she needed to stay sober.
She rounded up her three children and relocated from Detroit to Alpena. But of course, the struggles didn’t end there. Danielle didn’t have the money to rent a place for herself and her children, and the only offer they had was free accommodation at a local shelter.
"I'm Gonna Build a Future"
For the time being, it was the best she could do, and Danielle was grateful that her family had somewhere to live. The plan was to get their own place eventually. But first, she had to scrape some savings together through her waitressing job. It was a hard road ahead until she received that 2020 tip.
"I'm gonna build a future because of this. My kids have a future, and I have a home," she shared. "I moved into my own house today. Like, that was able to happen, and I did that today. They gave my kids a life that they didn't even know that they didn't have." In just one moment, her life had changed completely.
“It’s a Blessing”
For those who might be skeptical, hopefully, the Tip Challenge is evidence that a lot of good can come from viral movements like this. Just ask Danielle Franzoni. "It's a blessing," she gushed. "I'm trying to bring my kids home. I'm trying to, you know, do right. And now I have a chance."
For someone in her position, the Tip Challenge was literally the difference between living in a shelter and living in a home. And the same went for Bethany and her young son. But the truth was that they weren’t the only ones the movement had affected...
From $2,020 to $5,000
Speaking of the Tip Challenge, the trend soon caught the attention of people around the world. The idea was to tip large, anywhere from $20.20 to $2,020, as a show of gratitude for excellent service workers. People were keen to contribute, and some even chose to up the ante.
These people took the challenge a step further, in some cases leaving as much as $5,000 for a single tip! It may not have been in the spirit of the ‘2020’ theme, but it was certainly in the spirit of giving. Through one idea on the internet, countless workers across the country were being touched by the generosity of strangers.
And What About the Wahlbergs?
There is one question that hasn’t been answered, though. What was a famous entertainer doing at an IHOP in St. Charles of all places? Was he shooting a film? There had to be some explanation for Donnie Wahlberg and his family to show up at Bethany Provencher’s workplace that day.
And it turns out, there was! Donnie and his two brothers, Mark and Paul, had started their very own chain of burger joints. Paul was a chef, and with his famous brothers' help, their brand Wahlburger was on its feet quickly. Donnie was in St. Charles for the opening of their newest restaurant.
Inspiring a Celebrity Movement
And it was just Bethany's luck that Donnie and his wife had heard about Danielle Franzoni not long before arriving in St.Charles. The waitress's story had compelled him to be a part of the movement and to help spread some generosity. But what about his celebrity friends? Did Donnie spread the word in Hollywood?
As it turned out, he did! Donnie's co-star in Blue Bloods, Tom Selleck, caught wind of the Tip Challenge through his friend and decided he wanted to take part. "I am honoring my [friend's] 'Tip Challenge' with my sincere hope for a better 2020," the actor proudly explained.
He Couldn’t Be Prouder
When Donnie heard the news that Selleck had jumped on the bandwagon, he went straight to social media to spread the news. "I found out that my TV Dad has generously accepted the 2020 Tip Challenge at Elios Upper Eastside!" he shared. "I didn't start it, but I'm proud to be part of it."
"To those who gave even the smallest extra amount this year - THANK YOU. Spread love, and love will spread," he continued. It was important to acknowledge everyone who had taken part, not just the famous faces. And hopefully, word would spread, and more people might get involved in the Tip Challenge.
Sharing the Love
Wahlberg wanted the challenge to grow, so that more deserving people like Bethany and Danielle could benefit from the movement. It was also a good opportunity to encourage other celebrities to use their huge social media platforms for the better. And it was working.
In Selena's Ryan's own words, the Tip Challenge was changing many more lives, including her own. "There's still good people in the world," the Dakota Inn employee told CBS Chicago of receiving her own tip. "It was such a blessing what they did for me and what they're still doing today," she said.
More than Money
And there was more to the story than just money. People were touched not only by the financial gifts that were given but also by the spirit of the movement. The popularity of the Tip Challenge was a sign that kindness and generosity could win, even in difficult times.
"Whether it's $2 or $200, they say each donation is about more than a hashtag or a challenge." Megan Oeser told ABC News. She had been so inspired by the stories that she and a friend began fundraising to help boost the 2020 Tip Challenge. "They are reminders that even in a tough year, a tough time, people care," she said.
A Touching Reminder
Megan Oeser's words rang true, particularly for people like Bethany Provencher and Danielle Franzoni, who work hard to support their families. The 2020 Tip Challenge had given them a new lease on life and given others the opportunity to reach out and do good for strangers.
Viral challenge or not, what had come out of the movement was remarkable. Despite all of the chaos and calamity in the world, it was evident that there are many out there who want to help others, even complete strangers! We just hope that sharing their stories will only continue to spread these acts of kindness.