Customers provide Mississippi fast food worker with $1,900 ‘thank you’

Published 6:14 am Sunday, December 6, 2020

By necessity, customers’ encounters with Sonya Baldwin are brief.

For 23 years, Baldwin has worked the drive-through window at Hardee’s Restaurant near Leigh Mall in Columbus. Although her interactions with drive-through customers last only seconds, her always-sunny disposition has left an enduring impression on them.

How much of an impression?

Wednesday morning provided all the evidence needed.

A little after 10 a.m., Baldwin took a brief break from her job duties to allow a small group of her customers to present her with a certificate for a Spa Day at Allegro MedSpa, along with $1,700 in cash, funds collected over just a few days after one customer, Kathy Perritt, posted an appeal on Facebook.

Baldwin had gotten wind of the post but was stunned by the magnitude of the gift.

“I had no idea,” Baldwin said, who struggled for words to describe her reaction. “I don’t do anything but come to work, smile, greet people. That’s it. I’m overwhelmed. I don’t know what to say.”

Baldwin wasn’t the only person who was stunned by the outpouring of affection.

Perritt just wanted to give Baldwin a little gift.

“Somebody had posted on Facebook that we needed to nominate Sonya to be ambassador for the city of Columbus, and somebody else said we should get her a gift,” Perritt said. “I said, ‘You know what would be good is if we could get her a spa day.'”

Perritt solicited contributions on Facebook.

“I called the spa and found out we could get a spa package for $155,” she said. “I thought, ‘OK. Worst case scenario, I’ll kick in the rest if we don’t get enough to cover it.'”

By the time Perritt went to bed that night, $400 had been raised. By the next evening, the total was more than $1,000.

“We wound up with $1,700 in cash, plus the $155 gift card and the spa upgraded it to a $200 package, so it all came to $1,900,” Perritt said. “Never in a million years did I see this coming.”

In addition to the contributions, more than 1,000 people left comments sharing their own appreciation for Baldwin. Besides the gift card, cash and a bouquet of flowers, Baldwin received a print out of many of those comments.

Debra Johnson, district manager for Hardee’s, said Baldwin’s impact is not confined to customers.

“She’s a big influence on everyone here,” Johnson said. “You can’t have a bad day around her. Your spirits automatically are lifted when you come through the door and see her. It’s contagious. With all that’s going on, she’s a ray of sunshine in a dark world right now.”

BECOMING A LOCAL LEGEND

She has become something of a local legend, something Baldwin, now 51, would never have imagined when she first entered the doors of the restaurant in 1997.

“I walked all the way from Main Street to fill out an application,” she said, never imagining she would spend the next two decades-plus in a business where turnover is notoriously high and frequent. “I just needed a job.”

Early on, she walked two miles to and from work from her home near Military Road while raising four kids and struggling to make ends meet.

“I get the impression she’s had her share of troubles,” Johnson said. “Everybody has a back story.”

Whatever those troubles may be, Johnson said Baldwin seems to have that rare ability to leave them behind when she walks through the door each morning.

It’s the same approach she applies when the occasional grumpy customer arrives at her window, perhaps encountering the first smile of the day.

“I don’t let it bother me because you never know what’s going on with people,” she said. “Everybody has their stuff. So I just try to greet them, give a smile, maybe a little prayer, anything that helps to lift their spirit just a little bit.”
Perritt said she hopes the gifts will help Baldwin understand just how much she means to customers.

“She is the perfect example of what customer service can be,” Perritt said. “I just hope that she realizes what a positive influence she has on people.”

On a day of surprises, her customers were probably not surprised when she responded to a question about what she intended to do with the $1,700 in cash.

“I’ll bless other people, not just myself,” she said. “There are a lot of people out there who could use a blessing.”