Pour it forward

Complete strangers in the prairie city are buying coffee and lunches for each other. Why so nice?

The Tim Hortons server popped his head out the drive-through window, handed Jordan Farber his sandwich and told him the lunch was free. The motorist ahead paid for it.

The gesture threw Farber, 32. “I don’t understand,” he said. “What do I do now?” The server seemed just as surprised. He laughed and replied: “Pay for the guy behind you?” Farber did.

With that, he became part of an infectious trend that’s been bringing smiles to Winnipeg coffee chain patrons. Across the prairie city, customers are offering to pay the lunch and coffee orders of total strangers. “It literally made my day,” said Farber. “Hopefully, the guy behind me paid. Maybe it went on for a few cars.”

In fact, Farber was an unwitting participant in a centuries-old tradition of giving called “paying it forward.” It’s the opposite of “payback.” Rather than return a favour or borrowed money, the recipient is asked to do a good deed for someone else instead. One famous practitioner was U.S. founding father Benjamin Franklin who, in 1784, loaned money to a man on the condition that at some point he help another in need. In 2000, the premise got the Hollywood treatment in a film starring Haley Joel Osment, who played a boy hoping to change the world with random acts of kindness.

Most Winnipeg buyers ask to remain anonymous, which, according to one donor, makes the game more fun.

It’s not clear why this wave of generosity is rolling through Winnipeg—though it lends weight to the “Friendly Manitoba” moniker—nor why coffee lines are preferred conduits. A similar trend swept Bluffton, S.C., two years ago when a woman left $100 at a coffee shop, instructing the owner to pay every customer’s order until the money ran out.

Whatever the reason, recipients love the simplicity of the act. When a stranger offered to pay for Maya Kotecha’s tea at a Winnipeg Starbucks drive-through, the marketing executive was touched. “It’s $2, but it made me feel great,” Kotecha, 32, says.

When Farber posted his drive-through experience on Facebook, his friend, Ryan Paul, joined the thread, confiding online that he’s been buying coffee for strangers for months, on random Mondays. Paul, a photographer, instructs the barista to say “Happy Monday” to the recipient. “Personally, I’m not a morning person at all,” said Paul, 32. “I figured it would be a nice surprise.”

For the record, Paul pays for strangers’ orders at the same Starbucks in southwest Winnipeg where Kotecha twice received free beverages. Was Paul her mystery donor? Unlikely. Kotecha’s tea came from a driver. Paul is a walk-in. But maybe the motorist in front of Kotecha once got a free Monday drink from Paul and decided to pay it forward.

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