A San Diego-based Starbucks barista who brewed up viral attention when he refused to serve an unmasked customer has gotten so much kindness from total strangers, he hopes the positive energy keeps moving along to others who could use a little lift.
“The whole experience was so surreal,” Lenin Gutierrez told NBC 7 on Tuesday, referring to his viral impact. “I would never think it was going to happen to me. And for everyone to be like, ‘Yeah, go for your dreams. Here’s something to help you out. I believe in you.’ And to hear that from across the world is so crazy.”
Gutierrez made headlines in June 2020 – about two months after coronavirus-related face mask mandates went into effect across San Diego County, making them mandatory inside local businesses.
One day, while Gutierrez was working at a Starbucks store on Genesee Avenue, a customer – Amber Lynn Gilles – walked in.
She wasn’t wearing a face mask and refused to put one on.
Gutierrez, in turn, refused to serve her until she covered up her face.
"She was just yelling; that wasn't fun," Gutierrez recalled, saying he tried to explain the new face mask rules to Gilles.
Gilles decided to snap a photo of Gutierrez and publicly shamed the barista by posting the picture on Facebook.
“Meet lenen from Starbucks who refused to serve me cause I’m not wearing a mask,” Gilles’ post read. “Next time I will wait for cops and bring a medical exemption.”
The post went viral – but more in support of Gutierrez than Gilles.
An online fundraiser page was created for the barista titled “Tips for Lenin Standing Up to a San Diego Karen.” That GoFundMe page grew to $68,000 within days; by December 2020, it had garnered more than $105,000 in donations for Gutierrez.
Gilles said she had received threats on social media. She said she never threatened Gutierrez, “just called him out on his actions.”
Following the incident, Gutierrez explained his side of the story on his Facebook page, saying Gilles flipped him off, cursed at him and started calling people inside the Starbucks “sheep.” Then he said she came back and took his photo. Gutierrez also shared his side of the story on NBC 7's Into San Diego podcast in 2020. You can listen to that episode here.
The barista said he was grateful to those who sided with him and sent donations. He planned to use the money to fulfill his dream of studying dance.
He told NBC 7 Tuesday that he never imagined those donations would amount to more than $105,000.
“I thought they were going to be like, ‘Here’s a $5 tip, here you go.’ But then it started growing more and more,” Gutierrez explained. “Once it passed $5,000, I was like, ‘OK, this is unreal. There’s no way this was going to keep going.’ And, oh, did it go.”
So, what did the barista do with the donations?
“I’ve been saving it for my future; I haven’t touched it,” he said. “I still work at Starbucks, so I’m pretending that money doesn’t exist, so when the time comes for school – or to start my own business – then I can use that. Let it grow and use it when I need to.”
Gutierrez said he didn’t feel it was right to use the donations to splurge on fancy or expensive things. After all, the people who donated to his GoFundMe did it out of kindness and because they wanted him to succeed.
“I just believe this is people believing in my future and I gotta make sure it’s used for that,” he added.
Gutierrez’s heart is still in dance.
His ultimate dream is to create some sort of facility where dancers can train or bounce back after dance-related injuries.
Today, when asked what he would say to Gilles, Gutierrez said he doesn't harbor anger toward her.
"I didn't want anything bad to happen to her," he said, referring to the backlash Gilles received on social media following the incident.
People Helping People During the Coronavirus Pandemic
A year into the coronavirus pandemic, acts of kindness like the donations given in support of Gutierrez continue to happen every day online.
GoFundMe has been a place where small businesses have turned for help to stay afloat, or a tool people have used to collection donations to help pay for funeral expenses for loved ones who have died due to COVID-19.
The spirit of people helping people is strong.
And, having been on the receiving end of that himself, Gutierrez said the generosity is nice to see.
“I think it’s just because of the dark times that we’re in right now that people want to support one another,” he said. “And, even though I might be struggling, I can see that I can help you somewhat in this area, so let me try to lift you up as well, so we can all come out of this even stronger.”
“They may be in a hard spot too. For them to actually go out there and help others, and uplift – [that’s] what’s going to keep us moving forward,” he added.
Gutierrez hopes the pay-it-forward train keeps moving.
La Jolla resident Laurayne Ratner also believes in the power of giving to others during these tough times.
“I think one of the most beautiful things to come out of this hellish experience for a half a million people and more, is the amount of concern, love, caring, outpouring of support,” she told NBC 7. “It’s the only thing that brings light to me during these times is that people are so kind to other people.”