It started with an older gentleman who pulled up to the Dairy Queen Grill & Chill drive-through window in Brainerd, Minn., at the height of the lunch hour on a Thursday.

“I’d also like to pay for the car behind me,” cashier Darla Anderson said the customer told her on Dec. 3. “Whatever they’ve ordered, I’ll cover it.”

Anderson rang up the two orders and thought that would be the end of it. But two days and hundreds of cars later, she and the rest of the crew were still ringing up “pay it forward” orders as each person who came to the drive-through offered to pay for the car behind them.

“I’ve seen ‘pay it forward’ chains that went on for about 20 cars, but never anything like this,” said general manager Tina Jensen, 43.

In the end, it spanned more than 900 cars over 2½ days.

On the first day, Jensen watched as hour after hour customers paid for the ice cream and hamburgers of the strangers behind them. So she decided to write a quick post on the Dairy Queen Facebook page.

UPDATE 8:44pm: We are still going strong!!!! OVER 275 cars have paid it forward!!! If we can keep it going like this for...

Posted by Dairy Queen Grill & Chill on Thursday, December 3, 2020

“Not sure if it’s the sun shining or the Christmas spirit is already here,” she wrote. “But it started with one and we are now at about 48 cars that have paid it forward! Let’s keep this caring train going!”

People who saw the post wanted to join in, and a long line of cars was soon snaking along the drive-through lane.

Heidi Bruse, 34, was one of those who waited in line for a chance to pay it forward. She ordered three Blizzard shakes for herself, her friend and her daughter, and the person in front of her paid her $12 tab.

“Then I paid the bill of the person in back of me, which came to about $14,” she said.

Bruse wanted to be part of the drive-through chain, she said, because “the state of the world we live in right now is not always kind — there’s a lot of anger, anxiety and selfishness going on.”

Inside the restaurant, although the crew of six was slammed with orders, they handled it with humor, said Jensen.

“As each person came through, whoever was taking orders would tell them that somebody had already paid for their food, then they’d give the customer the option to keep it going,” she said.

People were pretty excited about it, she said, and nobody wanted to be the one to break the chain.

This is so amazing...Our community is still going strong on the Pay it Forward journey. We have ended the night at 796...

Posted by Dairy Queen Grill & Chill on Friday, December 4, 2020

The Dairy Queen crew had never been busier as they flipped hamburgers, blended milkshakes and counted back change.

“It was incredible to see what was happening, especially with how covid has impacted our restaurant and many others,” added Jack Lusti, 15, who has worked at the restaurant for about a year. “I think it helped the whole community.”

Some people who had only ordered an ice cream cone for themselves ended up paying more than $50 to cover a carload of children behind them, said Jensen.

“And if they couldn’t pay for the whole thing, they’d just pay what they could,” she said. “A lot of people asked us to keep the change, so we used that to help cover some of the larger orders.”

Jensen said she feels fortunate that she’s been able to keep up with the bills and pay her staff during a time when many restaurants have taken a financial hit during the pandemic.

The first two evenings of the pay-it-forward chain, before Dairy Queen closed for the night, Jensen gave the last person at the drive-through the option to leave a few dollars to pay it forward for the first customer the next day.

“They said yes, so away we went the next morning,” she said. “I was touched that so many people wanted to participate. But we all knew at some point it would come to an end.”

The chain was finally broken early in the evening Dec. 5, she said, when a customer said he didn’t have enough money to pay for the order behind him, which cost more than his. The restaurant was out of carry-over funds left by other customers.

“I’m just really proud of everyone who rallied,” she said. “This was a feel-good moment at a time when we really needed to hear some happy stories.”

Read more:

Have a story for Inspired Life? Here’s how to submit.