Paying it forward

Max Bowen hands back a debit card and receipt at the Stephens City McDonald's. Bowen, who has been with the company off and on for the past 34 years, said she has seen many customers "pay it forward" -- buying breakfast for motorists in the car behind them at the drive through. Photo by Henry Culvyhouse

STEPHENS CITY — Before the daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. grind commences, many people will stop by their local McDonald’s for a quick cup of coffee, a hash brown and a bacon, egg and cheese biscuit. Creeping along a drive-through line snaking around the brick golden arches, they give their order through a call box and then cruise around to the first window.

Most mornings, customers will hand their money to the cashier, receive change and then pull up to the second window for their food. But at least once a week, at least at the Stephens City McDonald’s, that might not always be the case.

“Your order has already been paid for by the car ahead of you,” the cashier says.

So then the customer pays for the person behind him, and so on and so forth. A “pay it forward” line is born.

Max Bowen, a drive-through cashier at the Stephens City restaurant, said one customer, who eats breakfast at McDonald’s every morning, starts the pay it forward line every week.

“When I tell them it’s already been paid for, people behind them will say, ‘Well, who is that?,'” Bowen said. “I’ll say, ‘Somebody who wants to do something nice for somebody.’ They really like it when that happens.”

According to Bowen, the line starts when a customer pays for their own meal and the one behind them.

“The next one will pull up and I’ll say, ‘Yours has already been paid for by the lady in front you,’ then they’ll say, ‘Oh, what for?’ and I’ll say, ‘It’s called pay it forward.’ Then they’ll pay for the one behind them and then it just keeps going,” Bowen said.

Bowen said she has seen “pay it forward” lines go as long as 12 to 13 cars, with customers paying as much as $23 for the order behind them. According to Bowen, pay it forward lines typically occur during the breakfast rush, when commuters stop by for a meal.

Ken Estes, the operations supervisor for the Stephens City McDonald’s, oversees seven stores directly and helps out with another seven in the area, ranging from Charles Town, West Virginia, to Front Royal to Winchester. Estes said he has heard of pay it forward lines at every location.

“Every single store you go into you hear the staff talk about having seven or eight people do a pay it forward line,” Estes said. “For me it reinforces the community … these acts of kindness just remind you what a great community we do live in.”

Bowen said while she sees “pay it forward” lines all-year-around, she has seen an increase during the holiday season.

“From October on it seems like it’s busier because it’s getting to be the holiday season,” Bowen said. “Everybody starts doing it … it’s an act of kindness, that’s what it’s for.”

Estes estimated he started seeing “pay it forward” lines about 10 to 12 years ago. According to Estes, customers at local McDonald’s are not the only “paying it forward.”

“Our franchise owners used to take a hundred dollars and take it up to the store manager and say, ‘Here’s a hundred dollars, I want you to pay it forward to somebody in your staff that you know needs help, or even a charity,'” Estes said.

Amber Milburn, store manager, added, “I’ve called them personally and told them about an employee, whose grandpa was dying, who needed shoes. He didn’t have a lot. Sure enough, they came in and brought a card with money for him.”

Estes said he believes the franchise’s culture of charity starts at the top and “trickles” to the customers.

“Any of us long-term employees here feel like they treat us like family … you see that atmosphere of hospitality with the staff, they pass that down to the customers,” Estes said.

So what happens when the line is broken? Estes said it does not faze the employees.

“We’re not asking for people to pay it forward,” Estes said. “There’s no reaction from us when they stop. It’s more of a number in our head we like to keep track of.”

Contact staff writer Henry Culvyhouse at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or hculvyhouse@nvdaily.com