Giving the anonymous surprise of a free lunch

Who Needs a Surprise Today?

Making a family tradition of the anonymous good turn

For many people, the best good turns are the ones they never get credit for. Such is the case for wealth management advisor Jim Gebhardt and his family. Inspired by a friend’s good deed, the Gebhardts make dining out just a little bit more gratifying every few months, by choosing another table in the restaurant to receive a nice surprise.

“When we’re out to breakfast or dinner as a family, we have this little tradition that one of us will randomly bring up if we feel in the mood, if we’re feeling grateful for what we’re blessed with,” Gebhardt tells Good Turns. “Someone will say, ‘Who needs a surprise today?’ And that’s our little code word that now we’re going to be in observation mode for a little while, and look around the restaurant and observe.”

“We never see their reaction. But we can imagine their reaction, and that’s all we need.”

Eventually, someone nominates another table in the restaurant, at which point the Gebhardts put their plan into action, and—always anonymously—buy the table’s meal for them.

“We engage the server to come over, and we explain that we’d like to buy their dinner,” Gebhardt says. “We work with the server to pay their bill and the tip, and we do it all anonymously. We try to do it toward the end of our meal. We usually leave before they ever find out, so we never see their reaction. But we can imagine their reaction, and that’s all we need.”

How does Gebhardt and his wife and kids, who range in age from eight to sixteen, choose the recipients of their kindness? “Part of it is based on our intuitive read on who looks a little sad or lonely,” he says. “One time it was an older couple who hadn’t said anything to one another the entire meal, they’d just sat there very quietly. We had no idea what their situation was, but we just figured, hey, how about a surprise?”

The Gebhardts have been surprising their fellow diners a handful of times a year for the last four or five years, he says. Though they don’t get to see the reactions, the tradition has generated great stories, and memories for the family. “The coolest thing about it is that the little episodes are sticking with the kids,” Gebhardt says. “They’re remembering the people.”

“One time, my daughter and I were in Philadelphia for a lacrosse tournament. We had just run to the Rocky steps, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and we found this little breakfast place in an older luxury condo tower. So we’re sitting there having breakfast, and this older resident comes and sits next to us, and we start talking. We had a lovely little conversation with her. She was widowed and had been in the building a long time. And my daughter is 12 at the time, and she makes this little eye motion to me. She can’t say it because she’s sitting right next to us, but she was giving me the eye to say, Who needs a surprise today?”

“I said, ‘Okay, why don’t you go talk to the server for a second.’ So I made her get up and go execute it. And to this day we still remember that woman, and for some reason I remember that her bill was $9.79.”

Small price to pay to brighten someone’s day. And a lovely family tradition of Good Turns.

More Good Turns View all
singular devotion at the Mexican border
Building Bridges At The Border
help homeless youth on spider day
Help Homeless Youth For Spider Day
the doctor who learned to help
One Good Turn Spawns Many More