SOUTH BEND — "Fight on," the mysterious customer scrawled on his receipt Oct. 19 after paying the tab at Legends of Notre Dame.
Then he tacked on a $5,000 tip.
"We were all looking at this like, is this a joke?" said Ashley Rust, of Fort Wayne, a former bartender at Legends.
At the time, Rust and her fellow employees were the latest servers to benefit from a string of stunningly generous tips at various locations around the country over a three-month span in which the mystery tipper or tippers — anonymously chronicling their exploits on the photo-sharing application Instagram using the moniker "tipsforjesus" — showed up in Utah, Chicago, San Francisco and Hollywood.
Rust said she was at work Oct. 19, the day of the Irish home football game against the University of Southern California, when three men came in. One was dressed in a USC jersey, though all three said they were from California. After spending a couple of hours at the bar, the men paid for their drinks and left for the game — but not before adding the whopping $5,000 tip to the $84.05 bill.
"We were all super shocked and we didn't want to get too excited because we hadn't ever seen a tip like this," she told the South Bend Tribune (http://bit.ly/1dAYmyj).
But the night got even more surreal for Rust and her fellow employees. After the game, the men returned to Legends, rang up a $164.50 bill and added another $5,000 tip.
Rust said the USC fan used his American Express card to pay the bill and leave the huge tips, but she didn't remember his name. She described the men, who appeared to be in their 30s, as friendly and polite, though they didn't mention a specific reason for the remarkable tip.
But a problem cropped up for Rust and the three other Legends employees who planned to split the $10,000. Because of the unusual amount, American Express and Notre Dame have not yet cleared the tip because of concerns about the possibility of fraud.
"We've been working with American Express to determine the validity of the tip, and we hope and expect that question will be resolved soon," Notre Dame spokesman Dennis Brown said, adding that the university contacted American Express after recognizing the "suspicious nature of the transaction."
Though it's not clear whether the tipper is one person or several different people using the same pseudonym, someone using the "tipsforjesus" Instagram account has left a trail of good luck for employees of at least 15 different bars and restaurants since August, according to employees, news reports and the mystery tipper's social media posts.
A series of tips over $1,000 for bartenders and at least one golf club employee in Ogden, Utah, in August made national news as the Huffington Post and ABC News reported on the mystery. The coverage even crossed the Atlantic, with the U.K.'s Daily Mail speculating that the mysterious Utah tipper may have been Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson, who has reportedly been spotted in Ogden.
Jared Allen, owner of the downtown Ogden bar Alleged, where servers received a $1,000 tip, said his staff described the tipper as a stylish younger man who came in with a couple of friends and paid with a black American Express "Centurion" card — an invitation-only credit card designed for well-heeled consumers.
Allen and employees of other bars featured on the "tipsforjesus" Instagram page — including Bar Louie in Ann Arbor and the Hungry Cat in Hollywood — confirmed those large tips were successfully processed. No one affiliated with the Instagram account immediately responded to a message left on the page.
An American Express spokeswoman, Amelia Woltering, was unable to say when the company might be able to determine if the tips left at Legends were legitimate. Anytime possible fraud is detected, American Express immediately contacts the cardholder to have the transaction verified, she said.
Rust, meanwhile, said she understands the concerns about fraud — but after more than a month of waiting, she's anxious to find out if she'll ever receive what she saw as a random gesture of kindness.
"They were trying to keep it confidential," she said. "We had no reason to think it wasn't real."