‘Tip-Off Challenge’ brings huge tips to Florida restaurant server

Author: LIZ BALMASEDA, The Palm Beach Post via The Associated Press
Credit: WINK News.

On a random Thursday night, restaurant server Kimberly Filion got the surprise of her life, not once but twice: two staggeringly high tips on otherwise modest checks. The tips, inspired by a national tip-off challenge that started among rival college basketball fans in Cincinnati, totaled $2,800.

Filion, a single mother of four who has worked at Kirby’s Sports Grille in Juno Beach for the past six years, had never heard of the Crosstown Tip-Off Challenge that has revved up fans of University of Cincinnati and Xavier University since a Xavier Musketeers fan left a $1,000 tip at a local burger joint in January. Last week, a UC Bearcats fan in Wyoming, Ohio, left a $7,000 tip on a $65 check at a local Italian café.

The Juno Beach server learned about the challenge from a customer on that Thursday night, Feb. 18. Filion was fascinated, not only because she was a struggling server but because she had a personal connection to Ohio as a graduate of Ohio State University. She mentioned that in passing to the customer.

“And then he leaves a $1,300 tip on a $30 tab,” says Filion, 45, who also serves as Kirby’s bar manager.

The exact check amount was $29.71, but the server’s eyes went to the handwritten total — $1,329.71 – and the note scribbled beneath it, saying “Go XU!!”

The customer left another note as well: “Five Kelley Boys love Kirby’s in Juno Beach, FL! They cook your catch! Let’s go XU nation! Let’s get this to the national level!”

Filion says she ran after the customer when she saw the tip, but he was gone.

Floored, she recounted the incident later that evening to one of her regular customers. The guy had no particular loyalty to Xavier or to U.C., but he’s a big fan of Kirby’s bar. When Filion reviewed his check, she got her second shock of the night: a $1,500 tip on a $78 tab.

“He wrote something like, ‘I want to be the king,’” she says.


Filion shared her news with coworkers. Then she shared her tips with them.

“I tried to spread the wealth as much as I could,” she says. “We have employees here who are single moms. We have one employee who just had a baby.”

She knows their daily challenges have been made more severe during the pandemic. She knows this because this has been her struggle as well.

By the time her first big-tipping customer had taken his seat at Kirby’s bar that Thursday, Filion had run the daily marathon that is her life. She had made breakfast for her school-age kids, packed their lunches, spirited them to different schools, all on less than five hours of sleep.

As she does most days, the single mother of four raced through it all before heading in for her shift, which can run as late as 1:30 a.m.

Her boss, Sean Kirby, describes her as an “awesome” employee and “a hard worker.” And Filion says she loves her job.

“We have the most amazing, loyal customers ever. They make coming in so worthwhile,” says Filion.

The pay, however, doesn’t always love her back. She earns less than $5.40 an hour and relies on tips to boost her take-home pay to at least minimum-wage levels.

On the night of Feb. 18, the friendly customer at the bar asked her how business was going. Filion told him times were tough for the industry. She’s not one to chatter on about her woes to a customer. In fact, she sometimes refers to herself as “the therapist,” a sympathetic ear ready to listen to her customers vent. But that night, she vented a bit herself when the customer asked how things were.

“Everyone’s hurting. Honest, I’m exhausted. I’m putting orange juice in my kids’ cereal,” she recalls telling the customer.

Kirby’s is a go-to neighborhood pub that’s locally famous for its meaty, Maryland-style crab cakes. The welcoming spot has been around for 17 years, but like many restaurants across the country, Kirby’s has lost a considerable amount of its dine-in crowd. The pub’s owner says the influx of newcomers moving to the area from the north is not translating into more customers.

“They’ll come to Florida. We see the traffic. But they’re not getting out,” says Kirby. “This is supposed to be our busiest time of the year.”

The pub has stepped up its takeout service and is expected to undergo renovations to create an open-sided dining area, he says.

But even as they pack more meals to go for takeout customers, servers like Filion too often see nothing for it in their take-home pay.

“You’d be surprised how many people don’t even leave a dollar – not one dollar – when they pick up their order. People are clueless sometimes. It is what it is. I’m working double-time to make it up. I have to – I have four kids,” says Filion, who coaches her 7-year-old daughter’s soccer team on her days off.

She offers the example of a recent takeout order that totaled $178.

“The customer says, ‘Can you help me put it in the trunk?’ Sure, no problem. And they just drive away, leaving nothing,” says Filion, a Long Island native who moved to Palm Beach County 13 years ago.

She started working as a server after her marriage broke up. In addition to her daily shuffle of mom duties, she was still nursing her youngest child when she got the job. “But you do what you have to do,” she says.

Then again, you might expect the daughter of the late Hall of Fame harness driver Hervé Filion to understand a thing or two about dealing with unpredictable shifts in pacing, in horses in life.

The way she deals with them is to take ownership, she says. For her, working at the pub is not just about completing her shifts, says Filion.

“This is your local, family-owned bar and it’s my home away from home. The people here are like my family. Some of my customers ask me if I live here. I tell them I sleep on top of the pool table,” she says. “People say, ‘Hey, are you the owner?’ I think that’s because I treat it as if it’s my place.”

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