When waitress Bethany Provencher arrived at her IHOP shift on New Year’s Day, she probably wasn’t expecting anything out of the ordinary to happen. And she certainly wasn’t expecting a certain special someone to walk in the door — a famous face she’d locked eyes with decades before. But on that fateful day, just being able to see this celebrity was only the first step. Something much bigger was about to touch her life.
Take a deep breath and picture the scene in front of you: a regular neighborhood IHOP in the city of St. Charles, Illinois, with the sweetest aroma of creamy buttermilk pancakes topped with maple syrup wafting through the air. It’s New Year’s Day, and families and friends are happily laughing and enjoying their delicious food.
And yet, behind the scenes, Bethany Provencher is working hard to ensure that she makes ends meet, unable to truly partake in the festivities like many of her customers. A single mother who had just moved to St. Charles from Florida, she certainly had her share of dues to pay. But this was no ordinary evening at the office. Bethany’s life was about to change.
Everyone has their own struggles in life, but for Bethany in particular, she really needed a win. She was trying to raise an 11-year-old on her own, and after moving all the way from Florida to Illinois, she basically had to start her whole life from scratch. This meant moving into a new apartment — something she was able to afford, but with a slight caveat.
Although she had enough money to pay rent, because of the current financial state she was in she had no money to pay for furniture. In an interview with ABC News, she explained that her apartment was basically empty: “I have absolutely nothing to move in with — like, not a dish. Nothing.”
And yet, with all of the hardships Bethany had encountered in life, she had a mindset that seemed determined to break through the clouds. “Good things can only come,” she optimistically professed to an interviewer from ABC News. “Blessings all around. I pray every day, so I know we’re gonna be good.”
Clearly, no matter what curveballs life could throw her way, she was a fighter who possessed a firm belief in a higher power. It can be easy to give up hope when things don’t go our way, but Bethany held strong. She continued to pray every day, and just when she least expected it, something enormous happened to her. You could well say it was a miracle.
On that momentous New Year’s Day, things at the St. Charles IHOP were just operating regularly, when all of a sudden, something radical happened. A certain someone walked into the restaurant, and this person made Bethany grin from ear to ear. Or perhaps smiling isn’t the best way to describe what she was doing — she was fully freaking out!
The customer in question was a celebrity, who had taken a seat at Table #19 with his wife and four kids. It turns out that his spouse was also a famous personality, but Bethany was more starstruck by him. She later said of that moment, “I freaked out and called my mother in the bathroom!”
It turns out that Bethany was a longtime diehard fan of this celebrity, which added to her level of shock when she saw him walk into the restaurant. In her interview with ABC News, she elaborated on the extent of her fandom.
“My mother sat in line for three or four hours for tickets to go see him for me when I was a kid. I went to two of his concerts, and he looked at me twice. I know he looked at me. I know he did.” Clearly, this wasn’t just some random famous person for her. This was someone from her past who she had apparently once connected with! Would she have the opportunity to speak to him? As a professional, she couldn’t just break decorum and waltz on over.
Everything has different reactions when they see their hero in the flesh — and, understandably, sometimes making a fool of themselves is one of them. However, Bethany didn’t do that. In fact, the first thing she did when she saw the IHOP’s surprise guest was to run and tell her manager, Gabriella Rivera.
Later in an interview, Gabriella commented to ABC News about having to calm Bethany down: “She actually is the one who brought it up to my attention. And I told her, I was like, ‘Okay, that’s awesome. Let’s take a breath.’” In that moment of pure exhilaration, Gabriella was there to help Bethany keep her cool. But she also helped Bethany out in another way.
It was quite apparent to Gabriella just how much this celebrity meant to her employee, so she did something that was guaranteed to make her day — she assigned his table to her. Now Bethany was going to be waiting on her hero and his family, an experience that most people only dream of doing.
Imagine all of the nerves that were going through her mind at the time. How should she act? Should she talk to him like a professional waitress, and simply ask for his order? Or should she just let loose, and remind him that they had locked eyes at his concert all those years ago?
Eventually Bethany just went through with it. She walked right up to her customers’ table and asked for their order. After all, celebrities want to be treated just like everyone else, right? They’re not trying to be ogled at like some alien from another planet.
So Bethany kept her cool, proceeded to give them their food, and allowed them to eat their meal in peace without bothering them at all. She never expected that she’d make such a strong impression on her hero. But that’s exactly what she did — and it wouldn’t be long before her already crazy day at the office got even crazier.
If nothing else had happened after that, it would’ve actually been quite well enough for Bethany. If this celebrity hero had just packed up and left the IHOP with his family after his meal, nonetheless, she still would’ve considered it one of the best days ever.
This kind of thing simply doesn’t happen to everyday people. You don’t meet a celebrity all the time, and you certainly don’t meet one who you happen to have once shared a connection with. And finally, you certainly don’t get to actually wait on their table. All of those things had just happened to Bethany. But the fun was in fact only just beginning.
When the time came for this celebrity to pay the bill, he started acting a bit mysteriously. Bethany recalled of this strange moment, “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.”
But while this was a strange request, it was probably pretty exciting too. Why did he want her to wait to open it? Was there a big tip inside? Had he written her a nice note? Whatever it was, this somehow seemed like it had to be positive. All Bethany had to do was breathlessly wait to find out for sure.
After she was instructed to wait until he left the IHOP, Bethany said she “did just that.” After the celebrity and his family had gone, she finally looked at the receipt: “When I opened it, I freaked out,” she reflected. On the receipt was one of the biggest tips she’d ever received — $2,020 to be exact!
The original bill was $78, and her very own personal idol had paid a total of $2,098. This certainly had been no accident, because he also wrote, “Thanks Bethany. Happy New Year. 2020 Tip Challenge.” Apparently there was a certain trend going around to tip waitresses $2,020 in tribute to the arrival of the year 2020. But more importantly, who was this celebrity?
That’s right: the famous man that Bethany Provencher had been so starstruck to see at her IHOP was none other than Boston-native Donnie Wahlberg. Known best as the founding member of the phenomenally successful late ’80s/early ’90s boy band New Kids On The Block, it must have been at one of their concerts that Bethany had presumably locked eyes with him.
However, Wahlberg is also very well-known for his work as an actor, after starring in classic horror films like Saw and Dreamcatcher. Additionally, he’s famous by association, given that his younger brother, Mark Wahlberg, is a Hollywood household name. But who was Wahlberg’s celebrity wife, and what was the deal with this 2020 Tip Challenge?
For those who aren’t up to snuff about celebrity relationships, Donnie Wahlberg’s wife of six years is Jenny McCarthy, and she had been sitting right there with him when Bethany Provencher had waited on them in IHOP. McCarthy got her start in the early ’90s as an adult model, and her career later expanded into other areas of entertainment.
She starred in the comedy film BASEketball (led by South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker), later became a co-host for the talk show The View, and currently works as a judge on the American reality singing competition The Masked Singer. And while she was very supportive of her husband’s decision to tip their waitress so generously, they weren’t the only ones to do it.
The motivation behind Wahlberg’s massive tip, other than his generous heart, is to stay true to the viral trend that’s been going around the US, called the 2020 Tip Challenge. The idea is: if you’re in a position to do so, show tribute to your servers, and the year 2020, by tipping them $2,020.
According to ABC News, this wasn’t the only massive tip Wahlberg gave, but some others decided to tweak his method a little bit. For instance, instead of tipping $2,020, some gave $20.20. While this isn’t much compared to the amount Wahlberg left, it’s still considered a lot in other contexts. For Bethany Provencher, however, the tip that she got from Wahlberg was able to help her in a variety of ways.
Kind of like a guardian angel, Donnie Wahlberg helped Bethany Provencher create that fresh start she was so desperately searching for. She left her place of work on New Year’s Day $2,020 richer than she was when she arrived — and all she’d had to do was be kind and gracious to Wahlberg.
Okay, maybe he would’ve given her the tip even if she’d been a mediocre server to him, but we’d like to think her kindness helped spark it. Either way, now she was finally able to buy furniture for her apartment: “Now I can have a fully furnished place,” a relieved Bethany told the interviewer. But that was far from being the full effect of this act of kindness.
On the surface, it’s easy to assume that the best part of this story is the massive tip that this fearless waitress received unconditionally from her celebrity hero. But Provencher actually said something that helps us see the whole scenario in a new light. She said that it wasn’t the money that meant the most to her. It was his kindness.
As much as the tip helped her, at the end of the day, she saw beyond the material object and instead looked at the personality trait that had motivated it being given to her. All that money she received was certainly the cherry on top, but it was the gesture behind it all — the feeling that someone cared about her — that affected her the most. And Wahlberg himself had been inspired.
Donnie Wahlberg wasn’t the first person to participate in the 2020 Tip Challenge. He was actually inspired by the story of Danielle Franzoni, a formerly homeless woman whose life was also turned around thanks to the 2020 Tip Challenge. A waitress at Thunder Bay River restaurant in Alpena, Michigan, she was apparently the first lucky recipient of this phenomenon.
Once Wahlberg heard Franzoni’s story, and saw how happy she’d become, he decided to popularize the challenge all across America by doing it himself. We’re not surprised that Wahlberg was moved by what happened to Franzoni, because it was actually just as impactful as what he had done.
In an interview with CNN, Franzoni walked through her exhaustively chilling morning: “I had actually woken up at like four o’clock that morning to my neighbor’s house being engulfed in flames. So I came to work, like, super emotional.” Franzoni was already having a very stressful day, and she had probably received minimal hours of sleep.
Arriving at her shift, she must’ve been running on fumes, and yet she managed to keep a smile on her face. That’s when two regulars of her restaurant decided to make her life a whole lot better — and, like Bethany Provencher the next state over, she never saw it coming.
Franzoni was a single mother of three kids with a daughter on the way, and was struggling to make ends meet. But when she collected the bill from one table that morning, she was in for a big surprise. The tip she received was also one of $2,020, and she later emotionally recalled how she felt when it happened.
“They wrote on the receipt, ‘Happy New Year Danielle. 2020 Tip Challenge.’ I cried. I started crying and went right to my manager and asked him if it was real.” She remained utterly in shock, flabbergasted that something like this could happen to an ordinary person like herself.
The representative from CNN who was interviewing Franzoni appeared empathetic when she said, “That doesn’t happen to people like me” — because he then asked her, “Why do you say that, Danielle?” She responded, “I’m a recovering addict. And I’m a Detroit native, born and raised. I moved up here to Alpena to start over and to get sober.”
Clearly Franzoni had come from very hard times, which is why she seemed shocked when something so good like this happened to her. The interviewer clearly wanted to understand more about her past, so he kept asking questions. And she had some more unfortunate tales from her past.
Even though Franzoni is currently two years sober from past substance addictions, she had still been struggling financially before receiving that fateful tip. She had recently moved to Alpena with nothing but the clothes on her back, and three children to take care of all by herself.
Unable to afford rent for an apartment, she was forced to go live with her children in a homeless shelter. There are all kinds of ways to cope with these things, but Franzoni powered through for her kids, staying sober and looking for a job. Similar to Provencher, she remained optimistic — and it ended up paying off in due time.
Eventually, she got her job at the restaurant, but as she put it in her interview, servers “don’t make great money.” When she received the massive tip for $2,020, everything changed. She told CNN: “I’m gonna build a future because of this. My kids have a future, and I have a home. It’s a big deal. It’s a really big deal,” she emoted through tear-stricken eyes.
“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.” Clearly grateful, she had more to say.
In Franzoni’s heart, the two regular customers who left her that generous tip literally gave her a fresh start in life. “It’s a blessing. I’m trying to bring my kids home. I’m trying to, you know, do right. And I have a chance.”
To Franzoni and her children, that $2,020 meant the entire world. Indeed, now they have a second chance at making a full recovery — and so do countless other lucky recipients whose lives were graced by the spreading phenomenon of the 2020 Tip Challenge. However, there were some people who approached the act of giving in a completely different way.
As we’ve already discussed, the 2020 Tip Challenge became a viral trend, with some people willing to tip $2,020, and others leaving their waitresses with $20.20. However, there were some tips that veered into completely different territories, with some people tipping up to $5,000!
Some folks had the financial stability to nonchalantly part ways with this amount. But while this is obviously very generous, it got a bit confusing for certain people. After all, what did the number “5,000” have anything to do with the year 2020? Either way, we’re positive the recipients of these tips weren’t complaining at all.
It turns out that Donnie Wahlberg doesn’t just have a passion for leaving tips. He also has a flair for the restaurant business in general. In fact, he and his two brothers, Paul and Mark (the chef and the famous actor, respectively), own a chain of burger restaurants aptly named Wahlburgers.
There are over 30 of them located across 17 states, the United Kingdom, and Canada. In fact, as if by pure coincidence, they’re planning on opening up a location right there in St. Charles, Illinois, the very same city where Donnie Wahlberg left the tip for Bethany Provencher that fateful New Year’s Day.
Sources: Arlington Cardinal, ABC News, CNN