Karma Envelopes


Last week, I got ambushed by hope in a pub in Boulder, Colorado.

My wife and I had just gotten into town for a conference. Our flight out of O’Hare had been delayed for hours by thunderstorms, so by the time we landed, traveled to the hotel, checked in, and set out with friends to look for our first food since breakfast, it was 6pm. We walked through the doors of the Mountain Sun Pub with empty stomachs and frayed nerves. We were seated quickly, given our menus, and were just about to open them when my friend noticed, in small type at the bottom of the menu, these words:

Cash only.

Our empty stomachs dropped, and we got up to go. A waitress stopped us and asked why we were leaving. We explained we were from Chicago and were only carrying credit cards. She smiled wide and told us not to worry.

Then she told us about Karma Envelopes.

“We’ll give you a Karma Envelope,” she explained, “and when you get back to Chicago, write us a check and send it back us.” Speechlessly, we sat back down. We looked at each other in disbelief. I scanned the room for hidden cameras.

All I saw was smiling wait staff and smiling customers.

She came back to take our order and my friend asked how many people actually return their Karma Envelopes. She smiled, said she works in accounting, too, and last month 85% of tabs were reimbursed. She said it was a low month and she expected more payments to trickle in. She took our orders, said the first round of drinks was on the house, and told us the entire team of waiters would be waiting on our table, because that’s how they do things.

She wasn’t exaggerating.

One of our waiters was from Lawrence, KS. We asked him why the place was so generous. He said he didn’t know. He’d only been working there for a month. He said it was the best job he’d ever had, because people are happy there, and he likes being around happy people. He said happiness spreads.

One of our waitresses was from Chicago. We asked her why she liked working there. She said everyone was on the same team. They share tables and tips, and they share the burden and the fun. She pointed back at the kitchen and said the owner was bussing tables, too. You couldn’t pick him out of the crowd.

One of our waiters wore a long handlebar mustache. He was swamped but he knelt down and answered our questions about his facial hair as if he had nothing else to do. At the end of the meal, he brought us our tab, and he gave us our Karma Envelope—self addressed and stamped. Because that’s how they do things.

They believe kindness multiplies.

They believe joy rebounds.

They believe teamwork is contagious.

They believe generosity goes viral.

They believe in the good thing at the center of people and, nine times out of ten, their faith in humanity is rewarded.

The cynic in me secretly wondered if the good vibe was the natural result of legalized marijuana. But the next night we went to a pub just down the street and there were no Karma Envelopes and there was no joy and I can’t even remember the name of the place anymore.

Two nights later, we found an ATM and we delivered our Karma Envelope by hand. Because kindness multiplies. Because joy rebounds. Because you can’t put a price on community or generosity.

Because you can’t put a price on hope.

You can leave a comment by clicking here.


Please Note: Our second series of Courtyard Conversations—“Hanging in the Balance: How to Live With a True Self and a False Self”—will resume next weekend, April 26, at 2pm CDT. If you haven’t joined us before, this will be a great time to begin enjoying the warmth and wisdom of this welcoming community! To find out more about it, and to find out how to join the Conversation, click here.


Audio: Audio will be unavailable in April, while I’m finishing a book proposal.

Next Post: How to Come Out of Hiding

Free eBook: My eBook, The Marriage Manifesto: Turning Your World Upside Down, is available free to new blog subscribers. If you are not yet a subscriber, you can click here to subscribe, and your confirmation e-mail will include a link to download the eBook. Or, the book is also now available for Kindle and Nook

Disclaimer: My writings represent a combination of my own personal opinions and my professional experiences, but they do not reflect professional advice. Interaction with me via the blog does not constitute a professional therapeutic relationship. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor who can dedicate the hours necessary to become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. I do not assume liability for any portion or content of material on the blog and accept no liability for damage or injury resulting from your decision to interact with the website.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

96 thoughts on “Karma Envelopes

  1. Your meal sounds like it was not just filling but sustaining. I’m so glad she caught you before you made it out the door.
    You’re right: their happiness has become your happiness and now ours. That’s fine distance on a feeling.

  2. Ha! one of the many benefits of Boulder (and the Mtn Sun)…good karma… you can’t come here without feeling spirituality that drips… Thanks for the post… too bad our paths did not cross when you were here, Kelly…it would have been an honor… and thanks for the inspiration on faith… Poignant pose as always! Peace and joy to you and yours.

    • David, there are so many good people I would have liked to have met in Colorado. Perhaps next time, we could have a face to face UnTangled Hangout with everyone welcome. Hmmm. : ) Thanks for your kind words!

  3. That’s a great story. It reminds me of a sandwich bar in Basel (Switzerland), which works on the honour principle. You help yourself to small, open sandwiches from a buffet and then when paying you declare how many you ate. The place has been around for ages and around 10 years ago the owner put an ad in the paper offering “amnesty” to people who “forgot” to pay for sandwiches when they were young and broke. You could anonymously deposit money in an account and the money was then donated to the local association for the blind. Suffice it to say they raised a lot of money!

  4. What goes around comes around. I love it!

    Although I have to say the cynic in me too, sees the business side of it as being pretty smart. The percentage that the banks take now on charged items is ridiculously high. If they are losing 15% or less, then they are still ahead of the game from what i hear of the percentages lately.

    Not bad! A great way to live that is supported in business by the choice they made. Way to go.

    • It is a business decision. I work for The Mountain Sun and we operate a cash/check only model to save money. Not having to pay transaction fees or purchase all the equipment for it saves us money in the long run. The Karma Envelope was originally started because our location in Denver, Vine Street Pub, had a lot of corporate employees eating there, but they would only have their corporate card to pay with. One of our owners on the spot decided to just let them pay later and gave them a stamped envelope which evolved into the Karma Envelope at all our locations.

      • Thanks for sharing that. I was wondering if I put myself out on a limb by mentioning that. It seems to have been a very smart decision.

        • One of the things Seth Godin writes about is how we have moved from an industrial economy to a connection economy, and in the new connection economy, generosity and kindness are a legitimate approach to business. As long as they’re sincere. So, yes, definitely a business strategy. I’ll take it over the alternatives!

      • Nice story, but not true. I worked at the Sun long before Vine Street was even built and they still had Karma Envelopes.

  5. Reminds me of the Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle and their philosophy of doing business and having fun at the same time!

  6. Its like taking a step back in time when people trusted people to do the right thing. I was raised that way and so were my children and now my grandchildren. It is wonderful to live in a world of joy and kindness. The only way we can have that world is to believe in it and live it ourselves and it will
    spread on its own. God bless the believers who continue this practice, may it spread like wildfire!

  7. This really touched my heart. I work in the hospitality industry and so many large companies could never make the Karma envelopes work. There is a pizza place that people who have money can buy a post it note to put on the wall. Someone who is hungry and has no money can take the post it and get a piece of pizza. Brilliant. Simple. Lovely.

    But the service and the love you felt can be replicated everywhere.

    Thank you for sharing this today!

    Laura Wood – your biggest fan!

  8. The Mtn Sun is a wonderful establishment, one of the many reasons living here in Boulder is awesome. And, STOUT MONTH!

  9. My husband and I have been going to Mountain Sun for the past decade, and this story doesn’t surprise me at all. It’s a great place–always has been–and the service, food, and beer are fabulous. We’ve gotten to know many members of the Sun team over the years, and every once in a while got surprised with pints on the house or free fries, even a celebration pitcher after our daughter was born. They care about the community, they care about people, and this thoughtfulness really is a business model that works…it’s almost always busy in there, and they’ve branched out to several other locations. Long live the Sun!

    • Great to hear from other people who have had similar experiences! And yes, I cut it from the post, but they did check in on the quality of our fries and offered to replace any french fry we didn’t feel was perfect.

  10. “He’d only been working there for a month..” A common theme of MSP. They see employees as disposable. I worked there for a year and saw employees come and go like a revolving door. A lot of the smiles are forced. If you didn’t wear your flair – for whatever the cause of your bad day – you’d be pulled aside for a meeting with management. They create an environment akin to walking on eggshells. I’ve seen people fired for being late because of a late bus in a winter weather advisory, mis-totaling checks (that are all calculated by hand. no computers), accidentally forgetting an item in a to-go order… very small things. Everyone wants to work there, so management figures someone else will come and take the job. If you don’t ‘drink the kool-aid’ and stand up for yourself and your employees, you’ll just get fired..

    • while I can appreciate a voice of dissent here in the comments, between the words “they” and “management,” I find my friends kevin and tim unrecognizable in your assessment and critique of being an employee for the mtn sun. I’ve been a patron/community member at the mtn sun since the days of lsd margaritas – while its true that “everyone wants to work there,” time and time again I have see the management staff building up folks, supporting them, and when they are ready to leave, helping them find their next job and keeping the family vibe intact. I guess we all have our experiences, its just hard for me to read the above without feeling defensive.

      • Anonymous is right. The Suns create a facade of “chill, happy people”. Any patron from the outside looking in would think that it is a great place to work, and it is, until suddenly its not. Management will decide arbitrarily that you do not fit the mold they want you to, they will slowly tear you down with intimidation and there is nothing you can do. Once you’ve been voted out of the family, theres no turning back. I worked at one of the Sun’s for a year. I was told “welcome to the family”, I even walked the owner’s dog for him. I was punctual, clean, friendly, talking to patrons was my favorite part of the job! Now? I get physically shoved out of the way at The Funk Show so the owner can order himself a tequila shot. He has no idea who I am.

        The article talked about how one of the waiters, who seemed busy, took the time to chat with them about his facial hair. It is more likely than not that that employee was pulled into the back alley and intimidated by management into spending less time with the customers and told to move more quickly.

        For Mt. Sun’s sake, let’s hope “what goes around comes around” doesn’t play out, so the higher ups at Mt sun can continue bathing in ego and never have to feel as worthless as you have made so many feel.

        Cheers the the successful ex-sunners who broke free, and now work for people who appreciate them.

        • Ummm while I am not discounting your experiences I find it strange that the two people with negative things to say both are listed as anonymous…

          • But you *ARE* discounting them, and just because of “anonymous”? Like “Moondancer Drake” is somehow more forthright? C’mon.
            If you think they are full of it, just say that.

            • Moondancer Drake is actually my name… so yeah. I put my name behind my opinion. I didn’t say they were full of it, just seemed odd to me… I always say what I mean. If you want to make assumptions that’s your deal.

              • Why would it be odd to post anonymously? Your name is effectively anonymous, as is mine, since we have no relationship to each other except this interaction on a message board. By saying it was odd, the message you delivered – intentional or not – was that the opinion should be devalued because it was labeled “anonymous”
                In a very real sense, all views expressed here are anonymous – which would make it “normal”, rather than “odd”

    • So, why the funnel cake does anyone want to work there if it’s really that bad? Word of mouth spreads *way* fast. Rumors, too. But people still want to work there? Strange…

      • Why would anyone would want to work there if word of mouth spreads *way* fast? Well, word of mouth doesn’t spread *way* fast. First, how is it supposed to spread *way* fast? Through facebook? As we all know, FB can be censored to portray whatever image it is that the establishment wants to convey. In this medium only “positive” word of mouth spreads fast. Secondly, as anyone in Boulder knows, the town attracts a very high number of transient citizens. If you pay careful attention to the workers there, you will notice that they only hire people who are new in town or are coming straight from UC-Boulder. This ensures that the new employees are brought into the family and become reliant on the pub for their social connections.

        Even if the rumors make it around, people still want to work there because the money is awesome. As a former employee who worked there for 18 months, I had even heard from some friends that I shouldn’t work there because of these very concerns, but I needed a job and was willing to take the risk. A new employee is immediately making the same money as someone who has been there for a year or longer. Everyone is given 2 lunch shifts and 3 dinner shifts. Plus, everyone gets paid minimum wage which is required since the kitchen employees (cooks, dishwashers) are on the tip jar.

        To address the people who surmise that an “anonymous” commenter should be devalued, a person will stay anonymous because no one wants to single themselves out to the restaurant and be banned for life. Which brings me to another point, once you start working there, you can only eat there if it is a special occasion. Granted, they will probably buy your meal if you bring your parents in, but besides this very special occasion, you can’t even walk in to pick up a paycheck without calling ahead and getting approval from management.

        In the 18 months that I worked there, they hired / fired on average one person per week. That is EXTREMELY high for any restaurant, especially one that has been around for 20 years.

        Next time you go in ask any employee about “Final Warning”. You will most likely see their eyes widen and sweat form on their brow. But I doubt anyone would do that because even as a random patron, you wouldn’t want to bring that attention to yourself.

  11. I use this same philosophy in my classroom with late assignments. There’s no penalty what-so-ever for turning in an assignment late. Due dates are strong suggestions, but with infinite flexibility. The vast majority of my students still do the assignments and learn the material, but it lets them go to sleep instead of staying up, it lets them eat dinner with their families, or concentrate on their sports game, or generally take a few minutes to breathe instead of being so stressed out all the time.

  12. What a great article – I’m from Glen Ellyn, currently living in Boulder (5 blocks from Mountain Sun) and it’s hard to not want to go there every day. My husband and I went there the day after we got engaged and they helped us celebrate by comping our meal. We are forever their loyal customers. Thanks, Mountain Sun, for being an example of kindness and faith in humanity!

    • Wow, another Kelly fan from Glen Ellyn! Did you ever see the movie Lucas with Charlie Sheen, a 13-year-old Wynona Ryder, and Corey Haim? You’ll recognize a lot of the scenery.

  13. I love this! May I use your story (giving your name for credit) at my workplace. We are a Christian run nursing home and I love these stories for our meetings for spreading love and kindness.
    Thank you, Lisa Parker

  14. I am from South Africa and grew up during the apartheid era, Now live in the UK. I am surrounded by cynicism, and have decided a healthy dose of cynicism is good. I want to believe but this makes me gullible. I was so thrilled to read the comments and then I read it was all for show by anonymous. My heart sank, I hope it is real

    • Hi Beverly, have hope; the comments that validate my experience far outweigh those that don’t!

  15. “Treat a man as he could be, and he will become what he should be”. I love this quote. I never remember who actually said it, but I love it. And I believe it. It’s how I live my life. It’s how I parent my sons. By handing you an envelope and trusting you would do the right thing, that restaurant in a sense was telling you “Hey, we trust you. We know you’re a good guy. We know you’ll do the right thing, and even if you dont, we’re going to treat you the same way.” I think most of us would feel so GOOD about being trusted that we would absolutely do the right thing. I think most people would surprise us if we just gave them a chance.

      • You’re welcome. I’m a big fan of Lentils and used to go there a lot when in Melbourne. First time I saw the sign “pay what you can”, it made me cry on the spot, on my plate! I was so poor then!…
        Love your blog, congratulations. I shared your letter for your daughter and your marriage manifesto is a winner

  16. Awesome piece, Dr. Kelly! I’m a recent grad of CU Boulder and currently work between Boulder and Denver — so humbled to call the place my second home, and it makes me giddy to find others who have great things to say about it as well! My old boss works at Mountain Sun, and this is totally reminiscent of his demeanor, which makes me so happy. “Because kindness multiplies. Because joy rebounds. Because you can’t put a price on community or generosity”…some of my philosophies as well, love it! Hope you enjoyed this quirky town and find time to visit again!

  17. I didn’t read all the way through every comment, but – I didn’t see anyone (past or present employee, patron, etc) mention the fact that there’s an ATM machine right there in the MSB. It’s in the hallway just past the bar, on the way to the restrooms. I know they’ll gladly accept cash and/or checks, there’s been several times when I’ve walked home or to my car to get my checkbook… But, I’m not exactly sure what the point of the “karma envelopes” is, since they do have an ATM? (The fee for using the ATM is really high, by the way)

    • Hi Doug, didn’t know there was an ATM that close, but we didn’t have our debit card on us anyway, just credit cards. Two night later, though, we found an ATM in the neighborhood and returned the envelope by hand!

    • The fee for using the ATM is $1 even. I would not consider that high. Considering all ATMs charge a fee for “out of network” machines, I’d put $1 on the low end.

  18. Despite the less than glowing responses from some, I’m still left with the way the weary customers felt…happy, cared for, important. Why not share those moments?

  19. That was awesome… I would love to go that place one day… I too love meeting happy people….

  20. I was in a kayak race in Castell, Texas so I did not have cash on me. The town had one small general store, and a barbeque pit. I asked the owner if they would accept credit card. He said they accept credit card, check, “or you can mail us a check.”

    Curious, I asked what his success rate was for the last option and he said 100% 🙂

  21. Not trying to rain on the parade, but if you think about it, what this business is doing is no different than I do at my professional office, or the electric company does, etc. Anyone who has to send his or her customers a bill lives in the hope they’ll be paid for services or products they’ve already delivered. Sometimes we are.

    • If you can’t march in the rain, you might as well not have a parade to begin with. Thanks for sharing your opinion!

  22. We were at their sister place, Southern Sun in South Boulder when there was a neighborhood power outage (not the fault of the Sun). Instead of booting us out, they paid for a free round of beers for all of us. Unbelievable!

  23. Wow, just about the time I am giving up on the human race due to the violence and greed I read or hear about the kindness’ of an individual or a company and now a restaurant and my faith in Human Beings is restored—even if it just a short time. Thank God there are still kind, generous, kind and good people out there!!!!

  24. Thank you for posting this story. My day has been difficult but this reminded me that most people believe in the goodness of their fellow human beings.

  25. Awesome! We stayed in a resort in Lake of the Ozarks a number of years ago. It was a series of cabins, a little store for basics, a fishing hut where you could get bait and other fishing needs and though the doors to the cabins had locks, you were offered a key if you felt you needed one, at the store and fishing hut, there were buckets to drop off your payments as neither had regular staff on hand, When we asked the owner about this, his reply was, “I believe that if you trust people, they make themselves trustworthy. I’ve made enough to live on every year, so it must work.”

  26. I love your story. It is just awesome when people help others and you are so right…karma is about so much more. Thank you for sharing your wonderful experience. I am sure that the restaurant will be around for many years. 🙂 (one can hope!)

  27. I’ve so much appreciated everyone’s comments and the sharing of other similar stories with other businesses. In fact, for this week’s post, I may compile some of the stories and glue them together with a few of my thoughts. So keep sharing your stories!

  28. I have worked in food service for over 40 years. This is one great story! As far as the anonymous postings go I can understand how it can feel to be singled out when one is not making the cut for a certain place. The awesome “in” place I worked really did try to help me be “faster” and pick up my game but the truth is that I am not going to work as quickly as someone in their 20’s but their management talks were always in love and for the best interest of the restaurant. All in all it helped me improve my work skill. I still love waiting tables and serving customers. I have since chosen a job closer to my home and I had my “game plan” ready when I started there.

    • Linda, we get a lot of grace-full comments on this blog, but this is amongst the kindest I’ve seen. Thank you for it.

  29. I love my furry freak brothers in Boulder 🙂 There is an ice cream place in San Jose called Treatbot that give you the option of “paying it forward” – to buy Ice cream for someone else who might be unable to pay for some reason.

  30. Oh how I LOVE stories like this! I believe in the good in people, there are a few who try to ruin that belief, but in the end……goodness and kindness overcomes!

  31. This is wonderful!! There should be a ripple effect…i definitely hope this idea catches on. We have a place where you can pay what you’re able, no matter how little it is…and if you’re hungry and can’t pay, you can do work trade for an hour. The food consists of cafe’-style light sandwiches and soups…it’s called PaneraCares.

  32. There’s really no reason a restaurant has to be “cash only”, only that they would like to save the approximately 3% credit card fees, at the expense of inconveniencing their customers. If I had walked into a restaurant that had always previously accepted credit cards one day to find that they had gone “cash only” but were pleasantly offering me the option of getting my cash from the on-premise ATM (charging an extra fee) or sending a check later in the mail, I don’t think I’d be delighted, I’d be slightly annoyed.

  33. This reminds me more of Germany. On the subway in Munich there are no ticket barriers. You could walk right through and had very little chance of getting caught ( occationally they would have some one inspecting trains and you would get fined) but everyone was lined up at the ticket machines making sure the bought thier ticket. They even had papers and bottled water that were just out for people to grab as they walked past and payed for based on the honor system.

  34. I live in Boulder and Mountain Sun really exemplifies this mentality. They’ve always been like this and they just have great community awareness and it’s totally not a fluke. And it’s not the marijuana, Boulder is a wonderful place as is Colorado and they’ve had this in place far before any legalization 🙂

  35. I believe in Karma. Anonymously pay for someone’s meal at a folksy restaurant like Cracker Barrel. You’ll be amazed what comes back.

  36. Thank you! I once rode the airport bus from Petaluma CA in Sonoma County to SFO. A woman and her grown son were on the bus, and had no cash. (Cash only bus). They told their sob story to me and anyone who would listen. Said they were going to see the kid’s dad somewhere because he was going through kidney failure, and it was probably the last time they’d see him. I was suspicious, but in the end, I gave them cash. They said they’d pay me back in the terminal, but then of course their terminal was different than mine. I wrote down my name and address and gave it to them. Figured that was the end of that $70.00, and I wasn’t rolling in dough; we have four kids and plenty of expenses. A week later, I got a lavish thank you card, and a check. It didn’t bounce. Karma is good!

  37. WHAT?!?!?! Open your eyes!!!!!!

    The reason they make it “CASH ONLY” is because they underreport on taxes. Once they move to a computerized POS system and start taking credit cards, they can’t hide their sales and steal money from the government.

    They have an ATM in the back that they operate and take $1 for every transaction with a $100 limit! Ha! They take their cash right out of the register and put it straight into the ATM!!! I’ve seen it with my own eyes.

    Ask any employee about the “Final Warning” system and you’ll get your answer about what really happens at the Sun pubs.

    *******Worked there for 18 months.**********

  38. I’m originally from Boulder and occasionally get back there. I know the Mountain Sun well and also appreciate their philosophy. But Boulder is not unique in this respect. Although I’d move back to Colorado in a flash, trust and open hearts can be found anywhere. One time I found myself at Kelly’s Restaurant and Lounge in Sterling, IL, and after lunch (I didn’t see the sign beforehand) I found that they didn’t take plastic. My waitperson called the owner up and she quickly reassured me: “Just mail a check to us some time.” She joined me at my table and we had a lovely chat, including our shared love of craft beer.

    • Hi Jim, one of my favorite things about publishing this post originally was hearing about how widespread this kind of generosity is. Thank you for adding another story to that very good list. And did you know I live in Dixon, IL, just a few minutes from Sterling? They are wonderful people and it is a wonderful little restaurant. I will pass your memory along to them the next time I’m in there!

  39. Thanks, Kelly. Yes, I passed through Dixon as well on that trip. BTW, originally I didn’t know this was a three year old post. Somehow another social media site picked it up and reposted on FB. I guess that’s good for you, but a little creepy how much is known about all of us. Thanks for what you write; it almost always touches on common human experiences and helps Reformers like me to see the good. (I understand you’re a Reformer too. Clearly a more healthy one than I.) Keep it up.

Comments are closed.