For years, Gilbert “Gil” Walker has been going to the same coffee shop every day to shoot the breeze with his friends.
“I met with a bunch of retired guys normally — we agree on nothing and we solve nothing,” he chuckled in an interview with TODAY Food. “We used to get around and tell lies, or whatever.”
Like so many of us, their stories were interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic in March.
“When the COVID thing hit, we couldn’t sit inside anymore so I started looking for places I could just stay in my truck,” Walker explained. That led him to his local Dunkin’ in Concord, California, where he has lived for 57 years.
“They were — well, are — the nicest people ever,” he said. “It was a perfect fit.”
Walker, who taught high school for almost 40 years, started to befriend the staff in his daily trip for coffee. Soon, Walker says, he got to chatting with owner Matt Cobo.
“I asked … if he had to lay anyone off and he said he had 14 employees and wanted to keep them but had to cut their hours,” Walker said. He started to think of ways he could help, and a little movement was born.
Walker presented Cobo with an envelope of $280 cash, or $20 for each staffer. They were so moved by his gesture of kindness, they started calling Walker “Grandpa,” and adopted him as one of their own.
"I never did introduce myself, they just started calling me 'Grandpa,'" explained Walker.
Cobo told TODAY that when the first shelter-in-place orders went into effect, “There was this feeling, this emptiness, this uncertainty of what was going to happen.”
“We all felt it. We were scared,” he explained. “What Grandpa did that time was so much more than a gesture of kindness. He made us feel like things were going to be OK.”
Since then, there’s been a back and forth of kindness between his staff and “Grandpa Gil.”
Essentially, it’s been like a very nice prank war, with Walker’s family tipping the staff off about upcoming events like his birthday or anniversary with his wife, Virginia.
“It became a contest of how I could convince them to take my money and them not taking it,” Walker laughed. “We’ve had a lot of maneuvering just to try to get money inside the door.”
When Walker and his wife celebrated 62 years together, the staff set them up with a Dunkin’ smorgasbord in honor of the anniversary.
“Holy cow, they’d set up a whole table inside the building, pictures of our wedding, a dozen white roses and food,” Walker said. “They had maple bars in the shape of a heart, it was crazy.”
In September, for Walker’s 81st birthday, the staff surprised him with a party, a sign and gifts in honor of his big day.
They even sang for him.
“They were just all teary-eyed, and when you see that, you’re just like man, our work here is done,” Cobo said. “No one can deserve it more than him … it’s been really fun.”
Walker, who has three kids, 13 grandkids and 20 great-grandchildren, said his closest family lives hundreds of miles away. But the staff at Dunkin’ — mostly teens and young adults — have been there for him this pandemic.
“Those kids kind of reminded me of my family,” he said. “They were really nice and just treated me well every single day.”
Cobo said they consider Walker part of their family too, with the staff rushing to the drive-thru window each morning to say hi when “Grandpa” rolls up.
“He doesn’t have any (grandkids around) and that’s part of why I think he’s developed this relationship … Maybe not technically family but we’d love to kind of fill in as his local grandkids. We all just think he’s incredible.”
For Walker, the experience has reminded him of a lesson he undoubtedly passed along to the next generation.
“If you want to see the best in people, be as generous as you can and as nice as you can,” he said. “You get to see a side of people you don’t normally see.”
Cobo says they’ll definitely keep passing that message along.
“There’s people that just have this smile and warmth — you say, ‘This guy is just goodness,'” Cobo explained. “That’s what he is. People catch that and they share that.”