ST. PETERSBURG — It's the stuff of a Hallmark Channel holiday movie. Twenty lucky St. Petersburg employees, mostly in the restaurant business, are getting $1,000 tips just in time for Christmas thanks to a publicity stunt by a local company.
A single mom with Crohn's disease will put her windfall toward medical bills. Another waiter is spending hers on prerequisite classes for nursing school. A third is saving to go to Haiti to help with a farming program. A father of two young boys with a baby on the way will use the unexpected cash for holidays and the special delivery.
Squaremouth, an online marketplace for more than 250 different forms of travel insurance, is handing out 20 tips of $1,000 each — cash, no strings attached — to highlight the importance of great customer service. That's what's enabled the small company to grow its sales from $1 million the year it opened in 2006 to almost $14 million this year, according to CEO Chris Harvey.
The company offers a "zero complaint guarantee." If a customer has a problem that can't be resolved with one of the insurance providers Squaremouth represents, the company will remove the insurer from its website.
"We don't really sell a tangible product so we have to differentiate ourselves with our customer service," Harvey said.
Squaremouth also sets itself apart with its office culture. Employees don't have assigned desks, they all have a say in raises and promotions and are required to take their birthday off and spend $100 on something fun. A keg of beer is always tapped.
After handing out 20 sleek, black envelopes holding 10 Ben Franklins each, Squaremouth's staff will pick one of the 20 servers to receive another $10,000 in mid January.
Ashley Van Anne, a waiter at the Birchwood, thanked and hugged the unknown Squaremouth employee who handed her a black envelope before leaving the hotel's Birch & Vine restaurant.
"I thought maybe she owns a boutique in the area, maybe it was a $25 gift card to her store to get people to try it," Van Anne, 28, recounted. "I started opening it and there was all this cash inside. My mouth just dropped."
The hotel's front desk clerk ran the money through a currency validator to make sure it wasn't counterfeit. The table wasn't even in her section, but someone had asked her to take it since the restaurant was so busy that day.
"It was a normal table. I didn't do anything out of the ordinary for them. (The tip) could have gone to anybody. We have great servers here," she said.
Van Anne plans to splurge on a lavish massage then spend the rest on school. She's taking prerequisites at St. Petersburg College to prepare for the nursing program at USF.
"It probably sounds kind of boring but it helps me so much. I am so grateful," she said.
Elliot Gunther, the manager of Cassis American Brasserie, thought the money he was given in the special black envelope was Monopoly money at first. Then he read the letter Squaremouth included with the cash explaining that the company was rewarding local folks for great customer service.
"I read the card and I was like 'Oh my God, this is amazing.' It's the best Christmas present I've ever gotten," he said.
Gunther, 26, has put the money into savings for now. If he wins the $10,000 prize he wants to throw a big party for the restaurant's staff of about 100 people. He thinks Squaremouth picked him because he's a manager who is very involved with customers.
So far, the company has also given envelopes to lucky employees at Annata Wine Bar, Crowley's, 3 Daughters Brewing, Z-Grille, Ceviche, Rococo Steak and the Oyster Bar. All envelopes will be given out by Dec. 25.