Duluth restaurant staff receives $4,000 tip

Over 250 people from around the country donated funds to tip the staff at Va Bene Caffe.

Va Bene Caffe FILE.JPG
A Hermantown woman collected money online to give the staff of Duluth's Va Bene Caffe a $4,000 tip. (2020 file / News Tribune)

Alyssa and Jon Greene originally had reservations for dinner at their favorite Duluth restaurant, Va Bene Caffe, scheduled for Saturday evening. Then came the latest four-week pause order from Gov. Tim Walz, which prompted them to push up their plans to Friday.

With the imminent indoor dining shutdown in mind, Jon asked Alyssa if it might be time to take the "Venmo Challenge."

"Basically, you post your Venmo username on TikTok, Facebook or, in my case, Instagram," Alyssa said. "And people donate small amounts of cash — whatever they chose — and then you use that money to give your server a generous tip."

Alyssa observed several of her friends on Instagram take the challenge when restaurants had just reopened.

"So it felt like a great time, when everything's about to shut down again, to do it ourselves," Alyssa said.


Alyssa turned to her 146,000 followers on Instagram and posted the Venmo account at 8:30 a.m. Friday.

The couple expected to get a couple hundred dollars. They got $3,800.

"In an hour, we'd raised around $1,000 from people all over the country," Alyssa said. "There were all these people who wanted to be part of something good. That was incredibly encouraging to see."

Over 250 people donated anywhere from $1 to $50 each. The Greenes decided to add in $200 of their own money to make it an even $4,000.

Alyssa Greene poses with the money she raised via Instagram and Venmo to give a generous tip for staff at Va Bene Caffe in Duluth on the last day of indoor dining. (Photo courtesy of Jon Greene)


Before heading to the restaurant, Alyssa withdrew the money in cash from US Bank.

"It was really nerve-wracking. I was nervous that I'd hit my withdrawal limit and not be able to get it all. But it all worked out and we headed to the restaurant," she said.

After dinner, Alyssa turned to their server and counted out $1,500 in cash as a tip, as can be viewed in her Instagram video.

"It felt amazing. I think the coolest thing was that the server couldn’t believe how that many strangers had banded together and wanted to give a little bit of help," Alyssa said. "He said this is rent money.

"That’s mind-blowing — how much money it actually was," she said.

Va Bene co-owner Luke Schmitz, the manager on duty at the time, said it felt unreal when the server told him what had happened.

"He walked past me and said, 'I can’t even believe what just happened,' and he walked past me abruptly. And I was like, 'What do you mean? Did something happen, do you need me to go do anything?" Schmitz said. "He said he'd got a huge tip, I asked, 'How much?' and he held out all these hundreds. I was like, 'Is this real?'"

In between taking to-go orders, Schmitz walked over and visited with the couple. After tipping the other server on duty Friday, the couple gave Schmitz the remaining $1,700 and told him to split it as he saw fit.


"So we were able to spread it evenly around to the rest of our staff, as a nice Christmas bonus," Schmitz said. "It's incredibly nice at this time when some of them won't be able to work. It'll be nice for them to have some cash that they weren't expecting to have."

Schmitz said they'd received some generous tips at Va Bene in the past. Sometimes a patron will match the check amount with the tip or leave a $100 bill and tell the server to split it with those working.

"But never like this. The whole idea is amazing," Schmitz said. "It's something you only ever hear about happening in other places or online. It's never something you think will happen inside your building."

Schmitz said he hopes the story of the tip will inspire others to keep tips in mind when ordering food during the shutdown.

"We're going through a rough time, with these financial burdens coming during the winter when it's already a slower time," Schmitz said. "The community has been wonderful and we hope it continues through this time."

Teri Cadeau is a general assignment and neighborhood reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. Originally from the Iron Range, Cadeau has worked for several community newspapers in the Duluth area for eight years including: The Duluth Budgeteer News, Western Weekly, Weekly Observer, Lake County News-Chronicle and occasionally, the Cloquet Pine Journal. When not working, she's an avid reader and crafter.
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