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The viral acts of kindness can be a real headache for the people working the window

Rachel McCarthy James
July 03, 2018

A fast food meal can be a treat, but in the morning it's more often a routine occurrence. When I'm in the drive-thru, I'm there to pick up a Egg McMuffin for my husband before an early shift, a doughnut on the way to do errands, a Starbucks frappucino that makes me just a little behind schedule on my road trip. But when I pull up to the drive-thru ready to pay and find the car in front of me has already paid for my order, it makes the drudgery of waiting in line seem somehow magical.

But for the drive-thru workers who process the order, it's a little less enchanting and a little more routine. It's always nice to see a good deed shine in a weary world, sure, but it's also a lot of extra work—and they're already underpaid. When are the people who facilitate pay-it-forwards on the receiving end of random acts of kindness?

Paying it forward is an ancient concept, found everywhere from Greek plays from 300 BCE and the letters of Benjamin Franklin to middlebrow comedies starring Kevin Spacey. In the new millenium, it's most often seen in fast food drive thrus. Someone decides that today is the day for a random act of kindness, and they pay for the order of the car behind them. The car behind them, pleasantly surprised, pays for the car behind them, and then the next car does the same, and so on and so forth until someone decides "nah." (Confession: I have done this, when I went to go get a $1 soda and all the cars in back of me had $15 to $20 orders. Sorry, y'all). The trend made national news for the first time in December 2007, when a Florida man named Arthur Rosenfeld bought the coffee of the jerk beeping his horn behind him behind him, hoping to brighten his day. The pay-it-forward chain made it as far as the NBC nightly news, and since then, it's become a regular occurance.

"I have paid for people behind me in the drive-thru lanes on multiple occasions," said Liz Dahl, a public relations professional in Kentucky. "Especially if I'm having a tough day, I try to brighten someone else's and it instantly lifts my spirits. There's something about doing something nice for someone else and not having them know who you are. It's like being an elf and knowing you made someone smile. It's a wonderful feeling and it benefits both parties."

"The person in front of me [made] me feel so much better about my day, even though I had been really sad in the morning," said Jessica Lynn, a travel agent in Virginia. "It didn't even occur to me to break the chain; I asked immediately if I could pay for the person behind me."

Brands love pay it forward chains too. When a story about 167 cars participating in a pay it forward chain goes viral, that's a lot of free advertising. Even more powerful is the goodwill the customer earns from their experience. That magical, uplifting feeling is a positive association with the brand that will stay with the consumer. And it's completely free for the corporation in question—the person in front pays for you, and you pay for the person behind you, and they still get paid.

Team members who take the orders and deliver the good news are usually the most vulnerable people in the transaction, working a difficult, low-paying job with little security and few benefits. They're the one not getting the bequest of generosity, or a bit of good advertising. They're just doing the extra work to make the magic happen.

"I have mixed feelings about it," said CA, a college friend of mine who is a manager at a major coffee chain. "Most of the time you are alone on [drive-thru], taking the order and inputting the order while simultaneously greeting the car at window, accepting their payment, giving change, and handing out drinks. It's a lot in general. [T]hrowing a pay it forward in the mix [means] none of your screens are showing you the right orders and you have to remember who got what and who paid for what.

"On top of that, you aren't getting enough labor because of cuts and the people are paying for the person behind them rather than giving it to the barista making minimum wage."

When you participate in pay-it-forward, you're not getting anything for free or, usually, paying much extra. You're basically participating in an escrow system. "When [a customer starts] the chain and put down the original money, that person functionally set up the world’s smallest escrow account inside that Starbucks," wrote Jason Feifer in an illuminating article for Fast Company. “The money [sat] there unclaimed, as each successive customer opted instead to pay for their own drink."

Still, fast food work is difficult and demanding, and witnessing an act of kindness—especially one that turns into a string—can boost an employee's spirits. “It was really special to see them come about when I was working at Starbucks for a couple years," said my high school friend Anna. "I was very careful about my phrasing when I would tell someone their drink was paid for, as I didn't want them to feel pressure to pay for something they weren't getting. It was so special to get to hear the surprise and delight in their reactions, it clearly brightened up peoples' days in an authentic way."

Brighter days or no, pay-it-forward chains don't change the fact that drive-thru workers aren't making enough money. Many of these pay-it-forward transactions cost more than than what they make in an hour. And it is an extra mental load, especially if it comes, as it often does, during the holiday season, when everyone from manager to customer to team member is busy, stressed, and a little giddy from that Christmas spirit.

"It's incredibly overwhelming and becomes frustrating and you kind of lose the ability to appreciate it," said CA. "I appreciate the gesture but.... It winds up being an annoyance, and we rarely see tips from it."

"In a perfect world, [a tip] would be much appreciated since most people get paid barely minimum wage," said D, who currently works at a coffee chain.

If I'm on the road this summer and I stop in for a Starbucks paid for by some generous soul ahead of me, I'll appreciate the gesture and the intention behind it. But instead of sending that generosity to the anonymous car behind me, I'm going to direct it to the underpaid person handling my food in the form of a big tip. They deserve to be on the receiving end of our generosity, too. 

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