116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Raising his hands over his head for a quick selfie, Joe Sample snapped a photo outside Lucky’s on 16th in the Czech Village before taking his social media followers inside on a Facebook Live video at the last “Cup of Joe” for 2021.
Usually, diners at the restaurants chosen each week get a small gift card for their food from Joe, a cookie from Cedar Rapids Bank & Trust and some lip balm with Joe’s face on it. This time, Joe announced last Tuesday to the lucky diners that their breakfast was on the house, thanks to Cedar Rapids Bank & Trust.
Though most diners at the weekly events are familiar with Joe, they’re usually pleasantly surprised by the free gift card he pays for out of his own pocket.
“No one says, ‘Who’s Joe?” said Katelyn Longhurst, a Cedar Rapids Bank & Trust employee who has helped out at the regular giveaways. They’re usually more surprised that they’re not being solicited for a sales pitch, or that Joe’s last name is actually Sample — perhaps a bit on the nose for the hobby he developed when the COVID-19 pandemic started.
What started as a simple escape for Sample to get out of the house for lunch while working from home soon turned into something of an occupation — hobby is not a strong enough word to describe his dedication.
Since he started posting photos of his restaurant carryout in March 2020 when the pandemic first was confirmed in Iowa, the Cedar Rapids man has tapped into a group of 22,000 Facebook followers and has spent well over $20,000 at over 200 restaurants, cafes and food establishments in the Corridor. He eats out two to three times a day, save for a couple of meals his wife cooks at home.
“Before this all happened, there were probably seven to eight places I went to regularly,” Sample said. “Most people don’t try new places. It’s helped to expand people’s view of different restaurants out there.”
Now, his taste for variety is not just a new bite to try himself, but a discovery for the masses of foodies that follow him. How does the traveling salesman for American Building Components in Mount Pleasant find the time?
“I do it on my lunch break,” he quipped, noting that he picks most restaurants each day at random.
The effort started in earnest when Sample, 48, decided to dedicate his first pandemic stimulus check to spending at local restaurants, which were then reeling from state-mandated closures and offering limited carryout service to survive.
But as the COVID-19 pandemic approaches two years in duration, it’s hard to justify a substantial portion of his salary as an incidental expense.
“I saw all the hurt in people throughout this pandemic, people struggling to pay bills — especially restaurants,” he said. “If I can do something to help and put a smile on their face, it makes me feel a lot better. When I see someone happy getting something, I feel more blessed than receiving something.”
Restaurants have seen so much of a response from his social media attention that some now ask him for a warning before he posts their food online. But now, Sample does more than buy takeout orders.
With his face on lip balm, T-shirts and more imploring locals to “be like Joe,” his out-of-pocket generosity has been multiplied through business generation, marketing partnerships and new dining groups established for the purpose of pooling thousands in tips for deserving servers. By posting food pictures to a local Facebook group, Sample has managed to prove the sheer value of good public relations that no advertisement can buy.
That’s before you even factor in the times he’s gotten into character to dress up for lunch — as Oscar the Grouch to visit Oscar’s in Hiawatha, in pig noses to visit the Blind Pig in Cedar Rapids, a suit when he visit’s Godfather’s Pizza and as Waldo when foodies constantly wonder where he’s at.
“This all has gotten others into the giving spirit. Some people just need to be pushed a little bit,” he said. “Ultimately, it makes people feel good when they give.”
But he said that spirit wasn’t necessarily around when he started the effort — it started from scratch, without the expectation of amounting to anything extensive. With most surviving restaurants now open, the challenges are different from before.
Sample said many folks try to eat out more often now, but may have less patience for the challenges that will be around for a while — limited service and hour cuts as restaurants struggle to recruit staff, food shortages from supply chain disruptions and increased prices.
“If it’s helping these restaurants to get customers in the door, that’s why I keep doing it,” said Sample.
Comments: (319) 398-8340; firstname.lastname@example.org