Since early February, restaurants in the northeastern corner of Oklahoma — in towns like Miami, Grove and Vinita — encourage people who are short on cash to pick up a prepaid meal receipt and enjoy everything from three-egg omelets to chicken-fried steak, no tips expected, no questions asked.
“Maybe if we can show people what it’s like to take care of your neighbor during a time of need, it will spread throughout the United States,” said Bless Parker, 51, the volunteer mayor of Miami (pronounced my-am-uh). “We want to bring back the old hometown values that I saw when I was growing up here as a kid.”
During the historic Arctic blast earlier this year, Parker helped homeless people get into church shelters, and around that time he and others decided they needed to do something to help people who were having a tough time during the coronavirus pandemic in Miami, a former mining town with a population of about 13,000.
About 23 percent of Miami’s population lives in poverty, according to the 2019 Census. The median annual household income is about $36,000.
Sandye Williams, an assistant manager at the Miami Walmart, said she remembered a story she had seen in 2019 about a restaurant in Arkansas where customers had bought meals in advance for those in need and posted the receipts on the wall for anyone to pick up.
On Feb. 3, Williams tagged Dawg House restaurant owner Jennifer White in a post about the story, saying, “Look at this. I would pay for a meal once a week.”
“I loved the idea and thought I’d give it a try,” said White, 28. “I want people in my community to be fed whether they have money for a meal or not.”
When White posted a sign near the entrance inviting her customers to buy $10 meal receipts and post them on the cafe’s giving wall, word spread quickly in Miami, she said.
The mayor, who regularly pops in for lunch at the Dawg House, was the first to buy an extra meal and post the receipt on the wall, she said.
“We don’t like to ask questions in Miami and we don’t judge,” Parker said. “Sometimes, people just need a little help. They need somebody to believe in them.”
“It seems like we’ve had a rise in homeless people in our area lately, and I thought it would be great to help them to get a meal,” said Lacey Perry, 28, who runs Zack’s Cafe with her husband, Zack Perry.
“Giving customers an opportunity to do something good for someone else is a great idea,” she said.
Her regular customers immediately agreed, and a local church pledged to put the first $100 worth of receipts on the wall.
Hilburn, 52, said she invited her customers to buy something extra from the menu such as a slice of pie or a cheeseburger, then post their contribution beneath a sign she printed:
“If you are hungry or know someone who is … these tickets have been paid for in advance by previous customers. Please grab a ticket and eat!”
About 100 people have taken her up on the offer to exchange a receipt for a free meal in the past two months, she said.
“It’s a discreet way for somebody to get a good meal without feeling embarrassed, Hilburn said. “Our waitresses know not to make a fuss or draw attention to it.”
Anyone who takes a receipt off the wall is a customer, she said.
“I’ve had people tell me this is the first time in a long time that they’ve been able to have a meal in a restaurant,” Hilburn said. “So there is still a lot of hurt and hard times out there.”
The restaurants’ Facebook pages have been flooded with comments about the giving walls from local customers and out-of-towners alike.
“One of the main reasons I love our small town!” a Miami resident commented on the Zack’s Cafe page.
Customers who take receipts off the giving walls are often too shy to say much about the free meals, but no words are necessary, Lacey Perry said.
“If they’re even a tiny bit embarrassed, we do our best to make them comfortable,” she said. “You can see in their eyes that they’re thankful.”
Some of the free meal recipients have returned to put a meal ticket on the wall to help somebody else once they’re able to, Perry said. She estimates that more than 300 free meals have been ordered at Zack’s.
“Everyone in town has been willing to give what they can,” she said.
At Montana Mike’s, general manager Jennifer Highton said she recently took a phone call from a man in Chicago who wanted to purchase several meals and add them to the wall.
“He’s never been here and doesn’t know anything about us, but he loved the idea and wanted to be a part of it,” said Highton, 31. “With help from people like him, maybe … we can keep this thing going.”
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