Starbucks barista who got $100K over face-mask dustup: ‘This is so mind-blowing’

Lenin Gutierrez, beneficiary of GoFundMe campaign
Lenin Gutierrez at Miramar Reservoir, days after receiving the proceeds of a GoFundMe campaign: “I feel like I’ve been given this incredible opportunity that I never saw coming.”
(Sam Hodgson / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

When Lenin Gutierrez asked a customer to don a mask, she went after him on Facebook. Then thousands of people chipped in to back him through a GoFundMe campaign


They brought him the money in a silver metal briefcase and placed it on a picnic table at Miramar Reservoir. Up came the lid: $100,000 in paper-strapped stacks of $50 bills.

All those greenbacks beside all that blue water -- no wonder Lenin Gutierrez’ eyes got big.

“I never seen anything like this except in the movies,” he said.

Three weeks ago, the 24-year-old college student was working at a Starbucks in Clairemont when a customer came in without wearing a face mask. He pointed out the coronavirus rules, she left, and then she criticized him on Facebook for refusing to serve her.

That caught the eye of Matt Cowan, an Irvine marketing and brand strategist, who thinks masks are a good idea and internet bullying a bad one. So he started a GoFundMe campaign: “Tips for Lenin for Standing Up to a San Diego Karen,” using a social media label for overly entitled people who boil over in public.

He was hoping for $1,000.

The campaign reached that within hours, then hit $5,000 and kept on growing. Something about it struck a nerve, vibrating along the political and cultural fault lines that rupture so much of American life these days, even during a public-health crisis.

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Newspapers and TV stations in San Diego and elsewhere did stories, which spread the word and brought interest from donors as far way as Australia.

Most people gave small sums, $10 or $20, but there were a lot of them — almost 8,000 — and as the cash poured in, Cowan said he realized his virtual tip jar wasn’t just making a statement. It was changing a life.

Gutierrez grew up in Chula Vista in a family without much money. He said they ate a lot of rice and beans. At Christmas, the boxes under the tree were prettily wrapped, but mostly empty.

So when the GoFundMe drive hit $10,000, he was ecstatic. When it hit $50,000, he was stunned. One-hundred thousand? He doesn’t have the words.

“It’s more money than anyone in my family has ever had,” he said.

Now what once seemed like dreams are goals, and attainable. He plans to move from community college to Cal State Fullerton and study kinesiology, the mechanics of human movement. His passion is hip-hop infused dancing, and he wants to apply what he learns to that art form, and share it with others as an athletic trainer.

“I feel like I’ve been given this incredible opportunity that I never saw coming,” he said, “and I don’t want to waste it.”

Mask wars

This wasn’t the first time a customer came into Starbucks without a mask, Gutierrez said. It wasn’t the last time, either.

“I would say about 80 percent of the people are cooperative and wear masks,” he said. “Another 10 percent just forgot and are apologetic about not having one. And then there are maybe 10 percent who just don’t want to wear one.”

His experience dovetails with public polling on the issue. A Pew Research report from late June found that 80 percent of Americans have worn masks at least some of the time while in stores, and 65 percent have worn them all or most of the time. Seven percent said they never wear a mask.

The survey registered a partisan divide. Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents are more likely to say they regularly wear masks than are Republicans and Republican-leaners (76 percent to 53 percent).

Starbucks isn’t the only place this is playing out. “It’s an everyday thing,” said Todd Walters, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 135, which represents grocery, retail and other employees in San Diego and Imperial counties. “And the sad thing is, people have turned it into a political protest. If you want to protest, do it in the street. Why are you throwing the poor grocery clerk into the middle of it?”

He said he knows clerks who have been berated by customers for asking them to wear masks. “It’s like they’re daring you to say something,” he said. And he knows clerks who have gotten reprimanded by their bosses after mask-less customers have complained about being confronted.

“The workers feel sometimes like they can’t win no matter what they do,” he said.

Crowds gathering without face coverings spark warnings, shrugs. Now California is requiring them when you’re inside.

Nationally, some of the confrontations have turned violent, even deadly. There have been arrests, including a couple in Yuma who allegedly coughed intentionally on employees at a Walmart last Wednesday after being asked to put on masks.

The Retail Industry Leaders Association, which represents Target, Walmart, Best Buy and other companies, said in a letter to the nation’s governors last week that mixed messages from elected officials about masks, coupled with a confusing patchwork of regulations and police enforcement, are putting employees and customers at risk.

“Despite compliance from a majority of Americans, retailers are alarmed with the instances of hostility and violence front-line employees are experiencing by a vocal minority of customers who are under the misguided impression that wearing a mask is a violation of their civil liberties,” said the letter, signed by the group’s president, Brian Dodge.

“Wearing a mask is about respecting others and preventing the spread of a deadly disease. This should no longer be up for debate.”

Keeping his day job

Gutierrez’s first name, Lenin, was a nod by his father to revolutionary Russian communist Vladiimir Lenin, which makes the GoFundMe campaign oddly fitting. Lenin believed in the redistribution of wealth. Some of it just got redistributed to the barista.

He wasn’t expecting to get it in cash. Cowan and a colleague, Will Collette, brought it to him last week. They did it so they could video the whole thing and put it on YouTube. It was also a way to show donors the campaign was legitimate; there have been fundraising scandals involving people raising money for supposedly worthy causes and then pocketing the proceeds.

“Great day to change somebody’s life,” Cowan said at one point in the video, just before he parked his car at Miramar Reservoir and walked toward Gutierrez with the metal briefcase.

“I don’t know what to say,” Gutierrez said when he opened the case and saw the stacks of bills. “This is so mind-blowing right now.”

He lives in Clairemont with one of his sisters, who was with him at the picnic table that day. His other sister was there, too. So was his lawyer.

He’s had to get smarter about a lot of things since all this happened, he said. What’s legal. What’s wise. He’s been talking with a financial adviser, too.

“A lot of doors are opening up for me because of this,” he said. “I want to make sure I’m doing the right thing, setting myself up for my life down the road.”

That’s why the first place he went after he left the reservoir was the bank. All that cash in hand made him nervous. He thought other motorists were looking at him, eyeing his windfall and figuring out how to steal it.

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Nothing happened, he said. He deposited the money, and is trying now to settle back into something approaching normalcy, even as his co-workers at Starbucks sometimes rib him about being “famous.”

He’s been working part-time for the coffee retailer for about three years and has no plans to quit. “I’m not viewing this as something that means I can take a break from life,” he said. “I’m going to keep going as if the money never existed.”

That includes masks, too.

“It’s the least we can do,” he said. “If all the doctors and health experts are right, we can help stop the spread of the virus. And if they’re wrong, it’s just a mask on your face. It’s not that big of a deal.”

Unless, of course, someone makes it one.

Lenin Gutierrez is among the judges for “Stop the Spread,” a San Diego Union-Tribune sponsored contest to promote mask wearing and other safety practices.