Restaurant waiters often earn more from tips than they do from their hourly wages. This was definitely true for Armando Markaj, a 27-year-old waiter and medical student in New York City. When he accidentally offended two customers, he received no tip. Instead, he got a passive-aggressive note and a mysterious white envelope, both of which sent him on a journey of selflessness.
The Story Begins At Patsy's Pizzeria In New York City
Patsy's Pizzeria opened in 1933 and is one of New York City's iconic pizza restaurants. For decades, it has been serving famous New York thin-crust style pizza.
One of the restaurant's waiters, Armando Markaj, had been working at Patsy's for nine years. The 27-year-old was working his way through medical school. As a student and employee, Markaj prided himself on being a hard worker. However, one incident in May 2019 would test his patience.
A Busy Saturday Attracted Two Unique Customers
May 4th was Saturday, the busiest day of the week for pizzerias. Like his coworkers, Markaj was swarmed with plenty of customers. When a mother and her daughter walked in, he didn't think that anything was unusual. He sat them down and gave them menus.
Markaj noticed that the two women were staring at the wall. The restaurant's walls are decorated with portraits of famous figures and patrons, past and present. It is not unusual for customers to explore the wall.
One Strange Question Threw Off Markaj's Day
When Markaj approached the two women, they ordered two slices of New York-style pizza. The three began talking for a bit, and eventually, the mother asked an odd question: Why weren't there more women on the wall?
Markaj did not know how to answer that. Some of these portraits had been up for 90 years, and it wasn't like he had decorated the walls. He answered that there were women on the walls, just not where they were sitting.
He Made A Bad Joke And It Went Horribly Wrong
The mother-daughter duo did not seem satisfied with Markaj's answer. When Markaj said that there were some women on the wall, the mother answered, "Not as much as there should be." Markaj was stumped. He had no idea how to respond.
Feeling flustered, Markaj decided to diffuse the tension by cracking a joke. He answered, "Well, summer is coming, probably women don't like to eat pizza as much." Right away, he knew that that was not the correct response.
...And The Customers Took Offense
Markaj's two customers did not seem thrilled with his answer. Right after he said it, he could tell that he was going to have a hard time with them. However, it was a busy day, and Markaj had many other customers to serve.
When the mother and daughter received their pizza, they immediately asked for the check. Markaj handed it to them. Having been a waiter at this pizzeria for nine years, Markaj knew how to handle all different types of customers. But he had no idea what was coming.
They Left An Insulting Note
The next time Markaj looked at their table, the mother and daughter were gone. Before cleaning the table, Markaj looked at the check. He saw that neither of the customers left a tip.
Even worse, one of the women left him a note. It said, "Women eat pizza, and by the way, have you heard that women don't leave tips?" Markaj felt terrible, as much of his livelihood depended on tips. But he tucked his emotions away and cleaned the table.
However, They Left A Mysterious Check
While Markaj was cleaning off the table, he noticed a discarded envelope. Clearly, the customers had left something behind. Markaj was about to throw it away when he decided to double-check what it was.
When he pulled back the envelope flap, he saw the logo "Citibank." Clearly, the customers had left a check on the table. It definitely wasn't a tip, as the note pointed out. They forgot it while leaving the restaurant in a hurry.
To Keep The Check Or Give It Back?
Even amidst his busy Saturday, Markaj spared a moment to wonder who would wave a check around and not spare a tip for the waiter. Considering how rude the ladies acted towards him, he could have understandably kept the check.
Markaj now faced a moral dilemma: return the money to the ungrateful customers, or keep it as his overdue tip? Many people would have done the latter with little hesitation. But Markaj was not a selfish person.
Instead, He Immediately Ran To Help
Although Markaj could have understandably kept the check, he didn't. He immediately ran out into the street to find the customers and return it.
Unfortunately, the two women were nowhere to be found. Markaj did not know their names or any way to contact them. With few other options, he returned to Patsy's, debating what to do. He still had other customers to tend to and for the time being, there was no obvious way to return the money.
Half A Million Dollars, Lost
Although it could been seen as a breach of privacy, Markaj decided to open the envelope. Checks always include the name of the owner, which might have helped him contact the two ladies.
When he opened it, he was shocked. The check was for $424,000. Not only did customers leave money behind, but they lost half a million dollars! Markaj was suddenly in a sensitive and dangerous situation. Who would enter a pizzeria with this much money?
What To Do Now?
Feeling blindsided, Markaj reached out to his boss, Patsy's current owner Frank Brija. When he saw it, the 63-year-old owner only said, "Oh my." The two shocked men debated over what to do about it.
"Normally, we just put things left behind in the lost and found box in the back," Markaj later said. “But I wasn't going to do that with almost half a million dollars.” One thing was for sure: he wasn't going to keep it, no matter how rude the ladies acted.
Was She A Billionaire?
Markaj and Brija decided to research the woman's name, Karen Vinacour, which was written on the check. They believed that they would find her easily. "We thought for sure it was a billionaire or something who came in here because who walks around with a check like that?" Brija said.
Brija asked his son, 30-year-old Adem Brija, to Google the name on the check. Surely, if she was a wealthy person, she'd be easy to find.
Looking Her Up Got Nothing
Unfortunately, it wasn't that easy. Googling her name brought up nothing useful. There are many Karen Vinacours out there, but none of them looked like the women Markaj had seen. Where could she have gone?
While he was searching for the customer, Brija also waited for her to come back to the restaurant. "I thought for sure it won't be long," he told the Los Angeles Times. "Even a billionaire would miss that much money,"
In Reality, Vinacour Was Not A Billionaire
Unfortunately, Karen Vinacour was not as wealthy as Brija thought. The 79-year-old mother was a retired social worker. During her retirement, Vinacour spent most of her time volunteering with charities to aid underprivileged women and children.
Before Vinacour went to Patsy's, they had spent much of the day hunting for a new condo. Vinacour had just sold her old place and planned to use the $424,000 check as the down payment and more on her new home.
Without The Check, Vinacour Was Homeless
Besides her retirement money, Vinacour only had that $424,000. In essence, it was her entire life's savings. And because she had just sold her home, she needed that check to pay for a new residence.
If Vinacour did not have the check (or the money), she would become homeless. She was already staying with her daughter and other family members during the move. She was in a highly stressful situation, which could explain her actions at Patsy's.
It Was A "Stressful Day"
Although her actions might seem unreasonable to some people, from Vinacour's perspective, her lunch trip was the straw that broke the camel's back. Before lunch, Vinacour was couch-surfing with family and friends, hunting for a new condo.
Even with her spotless credit history, she had a hard time securing a loan. Because she spent decades paying her daughter's student loans, the bank did not finance her enough to pay off a new home. "It was a very stressful day," she said.
Imagine That, Plus The Time At Patsy's
Vinacour and her daughter had spent that Saturday house-hunting, budgeting, and calling her real estate broker. By the time they got to Patsy's, they felt fairly worn out. Hence, she and her daughter reacted negatively to Markaj's joke about the walls.
"Well, my daughter's kind of feisty, and she didn’t like that," Vinacour said, "so we didn't tip him." The two ladies had no idea that it could come back to bit them until Vinacour realized she had lost the check.
Couldn't She Cancel The Check?
Vinacour did not notice the check was missing until the next day. When she unzipped the inner compartment of her purse, she realized that her check had disappeared. Even then, she did not immediately panic.
"I figured, it's a check; I’ll just go to the bank and ask them to stop it," Vinacour later said. On Monday morning, she visited Citibank's branch in Union Square. But the employees did not have positive news for her.
The Bank Gave Her Terrible News
At Citibank, Vinacour received terrible news. The banker said that, because it was a cashier's check, they could not cancel it. They had to wait at least three months to discontinue the check, and that was only if someone else didn't cash it.
This is when Vinacour started to panic. She had earned much of the money by selling her home, and she couldn't stay with family forever. Without that check, she might have become homeless.
Vinacour Began To Panic
Feeling antsy, Vinacour ran up the street to a café where she and her daughter had coffee. The café did not have the check. Dejected, Vinacour called her real estate broker, who did not pick up the phone, so she left a message.
Vinacour then called her daughter, who also could not find the check. She checked her purse, her house, and even her trash can. Nothing. Vinacour felt like she was rapidly running out of options.
When She Checked Patsy's, She Called The Wrong One
Vinacour eventually checked Patsy's, but instead of walking into the restaurant, she called them. Unbeknownst to her, she had called the wrong Patsy's. When the incorrect Patsy's said they didn't have the check, Vinacour felt lost.
Her real estate agent eventually called her back and was just as stumped. "She said she had called Patsy's, and nobody knew anything about a check," the agent said. “I didn’t stop to think that maybe she called the wrong one.”
But Markaj Had A Plan
While Vinacour struggled to find her life savings, Markaj and Brija still worked on returning the check. Since they couldn't find the owner, they decided to enlist some help. They called New York's Hometown Newspaper for aid.
Journalists know how to search archives for people. When Brija explained the story, writers of the Hometown Newspaper went to work. They wanted to find the check's owner and report a story about the selfless waiter who rescued her.
The Newspaper Found Vinacour Within Minutes
Within minutes, the newspaper employees tracked down Karen Vinacour. They called her from Patsy's asking if she had lost something of great value. She felt so shocked and relieved that she could barely answer.
"I can't believe it! I’m so relieved. You have no idea," a breathless Vinacour answered on the phone. “I’m jumping in a cab. I’ll be there right away.” Vinacour immediately hopped in a cab went to Patsy's Pizzeria--to the correct restaurant this time.
The Emotional Reunion With Markaj
When Vinacour walked through Patsy's front door, she immediately saw Markaj with her check. Markaj harbored no ill-will and returned her check without any fuss. He later said that he was happy she found it.
"She was in tears," he told ABC 7. "She was super excited that someone had found it and kept it." Although many people would have kept the check and cashed it, Markaj preferred to do the right thing and return it.
Vinacour Knew She Was Very Lucky
Vinacour was relieved that Markaj decided to return the check, claiming that he was "an amazing young man." "He could have thrown it in the garbage," she told NBC 4. "I mean, he had that option of throwing it in the garbage, because we were not very nice to him."
She and her daughter did not expect to encounter the waiter again. Needless to say, they changed their minds about him with this act of selflessness.
Brija Then Gave Her A Tour Of The Restaurant
Brija, the owner, did not just make sure the check was returned. He also offered Vinacour a pizza and gave her a tour of the wall. While they ate together, Brija showed her the famous women on Patsy's wall and why they were chosen to be there.
Brija introduced portraits of First Lady Chirlane McCray, legendary journalist Barbara Walters, and former City Council Speakers Christine Quinn and Melissa Mark-Viverito. Vinacour and her daughter had missed all of these pictures on their first visit.
An Honorary Surprise For Vinacour
Along with returning Vinacour's check and giving her a free pizza, owner Frank Brija had another surprise for her. He wanted to put her on Patsy's wall!
"We're going to take a picture here today with you, and I’m going to put that on the wall, too," the pizza entrepreneur told her. "So there will be one more [woman on the wall.]" Vinacour felt honored. She would join generations of Patsy's regulars and iconic people on that wall.
She Also Apologized About The Tip
As soon as Vinacour walked through the door, she apologized to Brija for not tipping Makraj. She claimed that her passive-aggressive note "wasn't her best moment." In return, she tried to give Makraj his overdue tip money.
Surprisingly, Makraj declined the money. He thought that reuniting her with her life savings was enough of a gift, not only for him, but the entirety of Patsy's staff. His generosity will be remembered.
Although Markaj Didn't Accept A Tip, He Did Appreciate This
Although Markaj would not accept the extra tip, Vinacour planned to give him a gift certificate to buy education supplies. She knew how much school costs because of her daughter's university fees, and she was thankful for Markaj's help.
"I'm so grateful that the insult that we gave him did not prevent him from doing the right thing," Vinacour told ABC 7. Had Markaj not worked to return the check, she might have been homeless today.
Perhaps It Was Karma
Oddly enough, this entire story happened shortly before Mother's Day. Now that Vinacour had her money back, she could celebrate the holiday peacefully, despite their negative actions. Markaj deemed it both heartwarming and ironic.
"I guess I figured that it was just karma for them," Markaj said during an interview with the Los Angeles Times. In response, Vinacour chuckled and said, "I believe in karma too. I guess that's what helped get me back to you.”
Waffle House Waitress Had No Idea She Was Being Filmed By A Customer
This particular Waffle House had quite a few regular customers. One of them was a woman named Laura Wolf. She frequently stopped into the restaurant for a cup of coffee and conversation with the Waffle House staff.
Most of her visits to the restaurant were pretty routine. But today, March 3, 2018, was destined to be different than any other day she'd stopped in for her breakfast. Laura saw something that not only caught her attention, but caused her to push breakfast aside and reach for her phone. She started to take photos of a woman, who had no idea that anyone was recording her actions.
Why Were There So Many People At The Waffle House?
Even before something prompted Laura to start filming a waitress, another thing had seemed odd to Laura on this day. Although the La Marque Waffle House usually stayed pretty busy, today it was much more crowded than usual. In fact, it almost seemed as if a large number of the town's 16,000 residents were there.
The servers scrambled to keep up with all the breakfast orders during the morning rush and Laura kept her eye on all of them.
Laura Watched The Waitress
As a regular visitor to this particular Waffle House, Laura Wolf had gotten to know some of the employees' names. One of the waitresses who was working on this especially busy morning was a woman named Evoni Williams. She was a long-time employee at the restaurant, so she was well-known to her customers as a hard worker.
Just 18 years old, Evoni dedicated herself to saving up money for college. The long hours at Waffle House were helping, but she hadn’t been able to save very much yet.
What A Busy Day!
Evoni was pretty excited that the restaurant was so crowded – after all, tips are how a server makes the majority of their pay. And more customers naturally means more tips. She got down to business, taking orders and delivering up hot plates of food.
Unfortunately, the restaurant was a little understaffed on this busy day, so Evoni had to hustle even more to cover her duties and keep up with everything. She was really running around to get things done today, but as she dropped off an order at one table, she noticed something that distracted her for a moment.
What Had She Noticed?
It was a particular customer that had drawn Evoni's attention as she served breakfast to a table of hungry patrons. She’d seen him at the restaurant several times and he usually visited at least once every week. He was definitely a regular.
The customer was a 78-year old man named Adrien, but everyone used the affectionate nickname "Mr. Karaoke" instead. The Waffle House staff knew that he had some health problems and he was now carrying an oxygen tank with him. What Evoni did next was unexpected.
Adrien Flags Evoni Down
Evoni was moving around non-stop to keep up with the fast pace at Waffle House that crowded day. She didn't really have any time to stop and take a break. Finally, she felt like she was getting caught up on all her duties. Just then, Adrien attempted to get her attention.
She finally noticed Adrien’s efforts to be noticed, so she walked over to the bar area where he was sitting. The elderly man started whispering to her, in a quiet voice so no one else could overhear. Remember that Evoni did not know that she was being recorded by another customer who had noticed this interaction. She had no idea she was on camera.
The Camera Sees It All
Laura Wolf was seated in a booth located directly across from where Evoni and Adrien were having their private conversation. She couldn't hear what they were talking about and she leaned in a little closer to see if she could catch a snippet of the interaction.
Laura thought the man looked to be a little bit embarrassed as he talked to Evoni. Sensing that something incredible was taking place, it was then that Laura took out her camera and started filming.
Difficult To Understand
During the breakfast rush at a crowded Waffle House, it can be a challenge to hear anyone's voice above the din. Especially the voice of an old man who was on oxygen for medical reasons.
Evoni leaned in and tried her hardest to understand Adrien, but one of the line cooks noticed that she was holding things up, something the restaurant couldn’t afford on a busy day. Despite his yelling to get her attention, she ignored him and continued to listen to Adrien.
Was He Upset With His Food?
At first, Evoni thought that regular customer Adrien might have had a complaint about his food. After all, that's one of the most common reasons for a diner to flag down their server. In fact, after quietly whispering something to her, the old man began to push his plate of food her way.
Evoni took the plate, loaded up with ham, toast, home fries, and scrambled eggs, and pushed it right back to him. What was going on?
Someone Was Watching
It might sound like this interaction was taking a long time, but the entire event was only a minute or so of Evoni's busy morning. She was completely focused on Adrien during this brief moment. All thoughts of the packed restaurant and its many hungry customers left her mind temporarily as she listened to the elderly man speak.
Laura was still filming the interaction, of course, but there was another recording being made as well!
The Security Camera
In a busy restaurant like Waffle House, security cameras are increasingly important. This particular location did have a CCTV security camera set up. At the same time Laura was watching the interaction take place, the camera, hanging from the ceiling, was also recording everything that happened.
The silent camera, barely noticed by anyone, gave a bird's eye shot of everything happening between Evoni and Adrien on that fateful day at a Waffle House.
Laura Decided To Post The Video Publicly
Laura Wolf was speechless after she witnessed the scene that had just played out in front of her. She now had several photos of Evoni and Adrien as the waitress returned his breakfast plate to him.
She struggled with what to do with the photo evidence, and eventually decided to post it to her Facebook account. She shared it, not having a clue how she was about to change Evoni's life.
It All Started With A Question
The astonishing scene that Laura Wolf had just watched and recorded all started when Adrien flagged down waitress Evoni. The man was experiencing a decline in his health and was not able to perform personal tasks the way he used to be able to.
Laura thought he had seemed embarrassed or self-conscious when he talked to Evoni. It turned out that he needed assistance cutting his breakfast ham. "I can hold a fork fine and dandy," Adrien told ABC News. “But to cut it looks like I'm going to stab somebody,” he continued. This is what he had asked of Evoni – for help cutting his food.
Helping Someone In Need
Later, Evoni talked about the scene at the Waffle House on that fateful morning. "He was like, 'My hands are not functioning too well,'" she said of Adrien's request. She had to really lean in order to hear his question.
“He needed me to cut his food for him, so I did,” she told ABC News. Evoni took his food, cut the ham into, bite-sized pieces and pushed it all back over to him. This was pretty routine for a waitress to do with a regular customer, so Evoni went about her regular day and didn’t much of it. For now.
Laura's Facebook Post Was Already Making Waves
Laura felt strongly that she wanted to get the story out about what she had just witnessed. She figured Facebook would be the best place to share her photos. Here's what she posted. "I don’t know her name but I heard this elderly man tell her his hands don’t work too good."
Laura went on, “He was also on oxygen and struggling to breathe. Without hesitation, she took his plate and began cutting up his ham. This may seem small but to him, I’m sure it was huge. I’m thankful to have seen this act of kindness and caring at the start of my day while everything in this world seems so negative.” The post instantly affected everyone who saw it.
She Never Expected To Go Viral
Even while she was still at the Waffle House, Laura's post started to get some major attention. Her phone was lighting up with alerts left and right. People shared positive things about Evoni, and many of them shared Laura’s post on their own accounts. Word rapidly began to spread of this woman’s kind deed.
"If we could all be like this waitress and take time to offer a lending hand…" was how Laura decided to close her Facebook post. Little did she know what would happen as a result.
Praise For Evoni Was Overwhelming
It didn't take long for Laura’s post to go viral. In just a few days since she first shared it, the photos racked up 90,000 likes and nearly 50,000 shares. People were truly touched by Evoni’s kind act and wanted to share the heartwarming moment with their own friends and family.
Adrien got attention from the post, too, he told ABC News. "Somebody told me two days later that I was very popular because they saw me on Facebook," he said, and joked that “They got a fancy picture of my suspenders in the back.” It seems everyone in the town knew about Evoni and Adrien.
The Mayor Gets Involved
La Marque, Texas's mayor is named Bobby Hocking. When word of Evoni’s good deed reached his office, he instantly wanted to meet her. It was arranged that the meeting would take place at the Waffle House (of course).
The restaurant was filled with cameras for the event, which Evoni had expected. But she had no idea what the mayor had planned for this special event. He wanted to honor her in front of everyone.
The Big Day Arrived
Evoni's big day arrived, and she watched as her place of employment filled with reporters and camera crews. At least this time around, she would be aware that she was being recorded!
The mayor arrived and stood behind the Waffle House bar, right where Evoni had been when she’d helped Adrien with his breakfast that day. And then the mayor announced that he wanted to give a special presentation. He told the gathered crowd and news cameras that he was declaring March 8 as "Evoni 'Nini’ Williams Day" in La Marque. And things were about to get even better for Evoni, who was already in disbelief.
Returning The Favor
As Evoni's story made its rounds on the internet, people wanted to learn more about her. How did this remarkable woman end up working at Waffle House?
People found out that Evoni worked so very hard because she wanted to save enough money to attend college. In a "paying it forward" move, some residents of La Marque set up a GoFundMe account in an effort to raise tuition money so Evoni could go to school. And it turns out that someone very important received news of this fundraising effort.
Many People Got Involved To Help Evoni
More and more people began to donate to the GoFundMe page that had been set up to raise money for Evoni and "pay it forward" so she could attend college. People right from her own town and people across the country donated what they could to the kind Waffle House waitress.
At Texas Southern University in Houston, some staff learned about Evoni and her goal of attending college. They decided to help out in a special way. One of the university's administrators said. “We wanted to reward Evoni’s act of kindness.”
Someone Important Was There That Day
As Evoni learned about the new holiday in her honor that day at Waffle House, she beamed knowing that Adrien and Laura were both there to cheer her on. But there was someone else present that Evoni did not expect in her wildest dreams.
Also there was the president of Texas Southern University! He said that he wanted the chance to meet Evoni and "let her know that good deeds do not go unnoticed, " as he said in an interview later. he later explained in a television interview.
An Unexpected Announcement
After the mayor's presentation of Evoni’s special holiday, it was the president of Texas Southern University’s turn to take his place behind the Waffle House bar. He was about to give the special woman a gift no one could have imagined.
With a jumbo-sized check in hand, the president announced that the school was awarding Evoni a scholarship worth a whopping $16,000! Evoni, and most of the crowd, burst into tears of surprise and joy.
The People Responsible
The folks who helped start this whole thing were especially happy for Evoni. Laura Wolf and Adrien could have had no possible idea the role that they would play in one Waffle House waitress's future.
As she spoke to reporters that day, Laura had this to say. "It was so busy in here, you know? And she actually took the time to stop and hear what he had to say instead of walking past him. It just meant something to me," she explained. And Adrien said that the act meant a lot to him as well.
Just Another Day Of Being Kind For Evoni
Ever humble, Evoni said that she did what anyone else would do if they knew someone was in need. She didn't let the award, the media attention, or even the scholarship go to her head.
As she told local reporters "I don’t know, it was something I would do any other day." But anyone who’s ever been helped by the kindness of a stranger might disagree with her. Evoni is a beautiful example of treating people with kindness.