On a chilly Tuesday in February, chef Mark Simmons popped into his New York City restaurant Kiwiana en route to the gym to grab workout gear.
Closed Tuesdays, the restaurant was empty, but hardly quiet; the New Zealand-born chef was surprised to find the phone ringing off the hook with calls from news outlets.
They all wanted to ask about the 13-word statement printed at the bottom of his restaurant receipts: “Immigrants make America great (they also cooked your food and served you today).”
Unwittingly, Simmons found himself in the middle of a frequent phenomenon in today’s restaurant industry: the viral check.
The viral check happens when some sort of message left by a guest or from the restaurant staff that hits a nerve or tickles the funny bone, is posted on social media and quickly goes viral. Suddenly, that thin slip of paper takes on a new life, gathering likes, comments and getting picked up by local or national media.
For most restaurants, or the guests that leave a message in the corner or near the tip line, the burst of attention is unintentional. But restaurants often find when it does happen it can be intrusive and overwhelming.
“A receipt is something we quite often use for creative purposes,” Simmons says. “Sometimes, customers can leave some pretty bad comments on receipts. And I decided to use it for a vehicle for what we thought was important.”
Examples of viral receipts abound, from a 2014 check at Mary’s Gourmet Diner in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, that included a 15 percent discount for “praying in public,” to one last year at Peter Chang, a restaurant in Arlington, Virginia, that drew criticism after a server included among the items tallied on the bill nasty comments about a customer.
Not surprisingly, in today’s divided political climate many of the viral receipts have been about heated political topics. Simmons’ message at Kiwiana earned plenty of praise with many guests expressing their support on the signature slips. But it also created a disturbing backlash, even resulting in Simmons’ mother being harassed.
“Someone in fact reached out to my mother in New Zealand and kind of trolled her,” he says. “That was one of the more saddening effects that we saw. She had nothing to do with my restaurant or point of view of the staff.”
Alfredo Solis, owner of Mezcalero in Washington D.C., was also responding to tensions over immigration when that same month he decided to print “Immigrants help make America great!” on his restaurant’s receipts.
“It was not a marketing message,” Solis insists, adding, “I found it was the best way to communicate how I felt. It was a message more to the Latin American community and other immigrants from different countries. We came to this country to work hard.”
But it’s not just the restaurant’s opinions that can end up going viral. When guests leave a message – sometimes in lieu of an actual tip – those receipts can spread fast and wide.
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Manager Adison Karnsomport says that changed quickly when someone with a large following on YouTube showed a picture of the receipt. “It started blowing up,” he says.
The ensuing craziness helped and hurt business, Karnsomport says. People from throughout the state and the country came out to support the restaurant; yet the jump in business was as fleeting as the receipt’s place in the news cycle.
“Our restaurant is really busy already. It started to get more attention and more people showed up,” he says. “The bad thing about that is a lot of those people come and go. The regulars who come in every week or every day had to deal with more of a wait or not being able to get through on the phone to place an order.”
Karnsomport says he never wanted the increased attention, and even though he found it flattering, “a lot of those people forget about us in three weeks anyway.”
So why has the restaurant receipt become a viral sensation? What draws restaurants and guests to use a common piece of paper into a sounding board?
“The receipt is something that nearly everyone deals within an off-handed way and communicating such extreme views is striking in this medium,” says Brian Warrener, an associate professor at Johnson & Wales University’s College of Hospitality Management.
“It has a lot to do with where society is today,” he adds. “There’s a certain sense of anonymity that exists with a receipt that’s similar to a Yelp review. It’s an opportunity to say what’s on your mind without having it to say it to someone’s face. And people are a lot more comfortable with those comments being anonymous.”
In general, he says, these opinionated receipts don’t necessarily harm business, as customers usually flock to places that stir up a lot of interest or controversy.
For chef Mark Simmons of Kiwiana, the experience with his viral receipt showed him “all sides of America.” And it has not dissuaded him from continuing to leave notes on his bills.
“I didn’t know what viral was until this thing happened,” says Simmons. “We have a pretty small social media presence, and I have no footprint at all. This was all a bit of a learning experience.”