Restaurant operators work hard to define their business for customers, but sometimes it’s the customers that do the defining. Such is the case at the Corner Perk Café in Bluffton, South Carolina, where the holiday spirit of giving survives throughout the year—but not necessarily by way of owner Josh Cooke’s grand design.

Though a hearty menu has earned customers’ praise, it’s the 3-year-old café’s even heartier public face that continues generating buzz. For the last year, several community members have generated goodwill by paying for their fellow customers’ drinks.

Cooke discusses the charitable position his small-town coffee shop inhabits.

How would you describe Corner Perk?

We’re a community gathering spot and a meeting place for people to mingle. We are in a neighborhood location just outside of the downtown area, so we’re more of a destination. That said, a significant number of people stop in for a coffee and muffin or lunch and a latte on the run.

When did the shop’s public profile begin to change?

It started in our first year. We had an anonymous female customer who “paid it forward” by leaving $100 to pay for drinks. She did this about eight or nine times over the course of two years. The local newspaper ran a story about it on New Year’s Day 2012, and we had two more people come in and do the same within 24 hours. The story gained a lot of regional and even national attention, and we now have people paying it forward on a regular basis. 

How have customers responded to this?

For those who haven’t heard about it, they’re caught off guard. Most are quite pleased to find out they’re one of the “lucky people.” Some respond by tipping the baristas well and others simply keep paying it forward by putting down money to continue the chain.

How do you make sure this kind-hearted gesture doesn’t get abused?

We only honor the pay-it-forward money for drinks, not food. This allows more people to benefit and ensures that no one individual can spend it all.

Has this helped or hindered business?

We have become known as the place where the pay-it-forward thing happens. For a while, people wondered if we were going to make it, but this attention has given us confidence and credibility. Our community is proud of who we are, values what we have to offer, and sees us as a positive community force. I’d say that’s a positive thing for any business.

Beverage, Food, Operations, Story