FAIRFIELD -- Ashley Latella has gotten a lot of big tips during her three years working as a bartender at the Seagrape, but Sunday's $5,000 gratuity on a $112 bar tab is definitely a record.
"At first I thought it was $500, but the gentleman told me to look closer and I realized it was $5,000," she said Monday. "I burst out into tears because I was so happy and thankful."
Latella said her co-workers agreed to split the generous tip between the four bartenders, but she and the manager, Carlos Carmo Jr., decided to use their share to buy toys for disadvantaged children.
"This was our way of sharing our good fortune with the community," Latella said. She said they gave the toys to Al's Angels of Westport.
The Seagrape, a waterside drinking establishment frequented by neighborhood regulars and college students who live on Fairfield Beach, is the latest location of largesse by a mysterious man said to be the spirit behind a charitable endeavor called "Tips for Jesus."
The gargantuan gratuity and dozens more at restaurants and bars across the nation are recorded on an Instagram account -- http://instagram.com/tipsforjesus -- with photos of the tabs, topped by tips ranging into the thousands of dollars, and often the surprised wait staff recipients.
According to an Associated Press report, similar tabs have popped up in recent weeks at restaurants from coast to coast and Mexico, with tips of as much as $10,000 -- all charged to American Express.
Latella said three men had been drinking at the bar Sunday night when one of them approached her and asked her if there was someplace he could go to privately pay the bill.
She said she directed him to the kitchen and then notified Carmo. "It was a strange request and I was a little concerned," she said. "But afterward I gave him a hug. It was such a nice gesture."
Tips for Jesus -- an Instagram account filled with other photos documenting the large tips added to small tabs -- has more than 54,000 followers. The account displays photos of smiling servers holding receipts with the gratuities on bills in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Phoenix and Ann Arbor, Mich. On Twitter, Tips for Jesus has nearly 3,000 followers but no tweets.
The Instagram feed comes with the tagline, "Doing the Lord's work, one tip at a time."
Three Manhattan restaurants were especially blessed the first weekend of December. A waiter in the restaurant of the NoMad Hotel got a $7,000 tip, another at The Smith restaurant was left $3,500, and $1,000 went to Aruj Dhawan, a 25-year-old fashion marketing student and immigrant from India working at Bo's Kitchen & Bar Room.
Dhawan served three guests who walked in one recent Saturday evening.
Their order -- a bourbon, a beer, an appetizer, a pork ragout and a pork chop -- amounted to $111.05, plus $1,000 for the waiter.
When they were gone, "Aruj approached me, handed me the receipt and said, `Is this for real?' " said general manager Benjamin Cramer.
Again, before leaving, the tipster snapped a photo of the waiter with the check and posted it on Instagram.
The tipster also wrote his cellphone number at the bottom of the tab, telling Cramer to call him if American Express had any issues with processing the receipt.
After seeing the amount, Cramer said he understood why the credit card company might be suspicious and he himself was curious. So he called the number. The man who answered reassured the manager that the tip was real.
The man demanded anonymity, so Cramer did not pursue tracking his identity.
A $1,000 tip also went to a waiter at the Hungry Cat in Los Angeles after three men finished their dinner, said restaurant spokeswoman Jannis Swerman. One of them stamped the check @tipsforjesus.
In another photo, a Phoenix bartender beams looking at his $2,500 tip.
"This middle-aged gentleman came in with a woman, and they sat at the bar," said Micah Olson, the bartender at a restaurant called Crudo who served them one of the most expensive whiskeys at $70 per ounce.
"They sat at the bar and had 5 ounces total," Olson says. "The guy was really cool and bought me two ounces." The man asked for the check -- $530.67 -- and paid with his American Express "Black Card," an invitation-only charge card issued to affluent clients.
"When they left, I saw the tip and I went, `Wow!'" says the 35-year-old bartender. "I hope one of these days we'll find out who he is." The mysterious stranger apparently knows some Spanish.
A tab dated Dec. 5, 2013, from a resort in Punta Mita, Mexico, is posted on Instagram with the comment, "Muchas gracias Carlos!" -- meaning "many thanks" to Carlos Mendez, a grinning young waiter holding a bill for $158.11 with a tip of 13,100 Mexican pesos, or about $1,000.
One day last week, "I saw him looking so happy, holding the check," said Benito Robles, a concierge at the resort. "I asked him, `Why are you smiling?' and he showed me the tip." Mendez went home to his wife and two kids in a nearby village and took a vacation, according to Robles.
Across the land, restaurant servers are posting pleas on Instagram asking the mysterious tipster to visit them, giving exact locations.
He's not the only one with a knack for generosity at the table.
Seth Collins, of Lexington, Ky., has been leaving $500 tips around the country -- following his late brother's instructions.
Before Aaron Collins died last year, he gave his brother a mission: Eat, be merry and leave a giant tip.
Through his family, he's given away more than 80 tips throughout the U.S.