Oklahoma restaurants are using 'receipt walls' to provide free meals for the hungry

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Oklahoma restaurants are using 'receipt walls' to provide free meals for the hungry
Hi-Way Cafe, owned by Beth Hilburn and her family, created a "giving wall" to help those in need.Beth Hilburn
  • The Associated Press reported that Oklahoma eateries are using receipt walls to feed those in need.
  • Customers can prepay for meals and leave a receipt on the wall so others can have a free, hot meal.
  • Beth Hilburn of Hi-Way Cafe told Insider that its receipt wall has fed more than 104 people.

In northeastern Oklahoma, getting a free and hot meal without judgment is as simple as grabbing a receipt off the wall.

As first reported by the Associated Press' Emily Leshner and Leanne Italie, some restaurants in a group of northeastern towns in the Sooner State have adopted "receipt walls." The receipt wall, or "giving wall," is kept full by good Samaritans and customers who prepay meals for others.

At mom-and-pop restaurants like Hi-Way Cafe, anyone's welcome to choose a receipt off the wall, hunker down in a seat, and enjoy a free meal on someone else's dime.

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"I got a check a couple of weeks ago from a man who gave $100," Hi-Way Cafe's owner Beth Hilburn told Insider. "I can feed at least 10 people with that!"

Receipt walls have found a home in at least four restaurants in northeast Oklahoma, and owners like Hilburn are hoping the trend continues long after the pandemic.

Receipt walls popped up in small Oklahoma towns as people still struggle during the COVID-19 pandemic

Oklahoma restaurants are using 'receipt walls' to provide free meals for the hungry
Hi-Way Cafe is located in Vinita, Oklahoma, near Route 66.Beth Hilburn

The Associated Press reported that receipt walls first gained traction in the rural city of Miami. The Washington Post's Cathy Free reported that Jennifer White, owner of the restaurant Dawg House, started the trend after a friend mentioned the idea in February.

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From there, receipt walls emerged at local eateries like Zack's Cafe and Montana Mike's Steakhouse, The Washington Post reported.

It wasn't long before word of receipt walls reached the city of Vinita, where Hi-Way Cafe is nestled along the iconic Route 66 and serves a host of international passersby. Hilburn said that she and her husband first learned about receipt walls in February from a restaurant a little ways north. They created their receipt wall that same month.

"Once we put up the giving wall, our customers just went crazy," said Hilburn told Insider. "By the end of the first day, we had 12 or 15 meals available, and we've never had less than that."

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Hilburn began keeping track of all the donations that poured in over the last seven weeks. So far, donations have arrived from eight states across the country, and a good Samaritan has even contacted Hi-Way Cafe from the UK. As of Wednesday, more than 104 people have benefited from the wall.

"You have to understand, my little restaurant seats 60 people, and our town is a little over 5,000 people in rural Oklahoma," she said. "So for us to be able to feed that many people is wonderful."

The receipt wall has helped many customers, including a military veteran and a family in need

Hilburn said the first customer who used the receipt wall at Hi-Way Cafe was an older veteran who chose the smallest meal offered: a plate of biscuits and gravy.

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Hilburn said the receipt wall has helped many others in the community.

"I had one couple that came in and ate three different times during the last week of the month," she said. "They kept telling me how appreciative they were and kept apologizing - like they were sorry that they had to use it."

Hilburn said she assured the couple that that's exactly why the receipt wall was there.

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"It was so neat because not long after that, maybe a week later, they came back in and they made donations to the wall because their financial situation had changed," she said.

She also remembered a 7-year-old boy who was thrilled to receive a free cheeseburger and a traveling family who escaped the cold of March for a fresh meal.

"I didn't realize how many people in need there were in my community," Hilburn said. "Especially with the way the economy is right now, this is a big deal to a lot of people."

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