RICHMOND, Va. -- Trey Owens returned to work Wednesday for the first time since COVID-19 closed restaurant dining rooms around Virginia. The co-owner of Soul Taco has been working from home ever since he went to the hospital earlier in the month for non-coronavirus reasons. Despite his physical absence from his two Soul Taco locations, the restaurants remained open and serving take-out food in both the Jackson Ward and Shockoe neighborhoods.
CBS 6 created a We're Open to shine a light on small businesses in an effort to support business owners and their work forces.
In an interview with Eat It, Virginia! co-host Scott Wise, Owens talked about his time in the hospital and how Soul Taco is adapting to the new normal. A lightly-edited version of their conversation is transcribed below:
We've been interviewing a lot of people in the same boat as you, but everybody has their own story. So I want to hear the Soul Taco story. When did you first like realize this was going to be a thing?
Um, well, funny story. I was actually in the hospital with food poisoning,
That doesn't sound funny at all.
I went out to eat, I bought a new car. Because my car is a '97 Toyota Avalon.
So I went and bought a new car and then I went out to eat to treat myself.
Don't tell us where.
So that night, which was Wednesday, I believe it was the 4th, I ended up getting super sick over the night. Then that Thursday morning, I just couldn't take it anymore and I had to call an ambulance and they took me to the hospital.
But when I got there, the hospital was pretty much going on high alert. But nothing was really happening as far as the COVID-19. They were just kind of talking about it. Then they admitted me into the hospital and I spent a week there. By the time...
Serious food poisoning,
It was Shigella.
I don't know what that is.
Trey Owens 2:05
A bacteria that comes from not washing your hands. The irony, right?
So being in there and being as super sick as I was, it was all over TV. Everybody was talking about COVID-19. And then like contractors started to come in and put up new hand sanitizer dispensers and I was just like, "What is going on?"
I was kind of like out the game.
It was Richmond Black Restaurant Experience, which is our busiest week out of the year.
Thank God it happened when it did because right at the end of it, which was what like Saturday, Sunday is when it really started to get like crazy.
Once I got out of the hospital, having been in there for a whole week and taking medicines, the Shigella had actually infected my stomach, colon, and my pancreas.
So after coming out of the hospital from that I'm still kind of like susceptible to COVID-19 and everything that's happening.
Everything just kind of snowball for me personally.
But the restaurants were still running. I'm still calling from the hospital to talk to everybody see how everything's going and then I get to come home and it's probably like three days and then restrictions. You can't really go out like you want to, it's spreading.
New York is becoming an epicenter, and I just, I didn't even know what to do.
I still don't know what's happening. I've gone from a proactive kind of standing, to just being reactive, just figuring out what's the next thing that's happening.
Let's pause for a second. How are you doing physically, right now?
I am okay. I am self quarantined here in my house.
So I've been trying to do all things Soul Taco while staying here in the house and not trying to you know, get myself sick or anybody else.
How long have you self quarantined?
I have been on self quarantined essentially since I got back from the hospital, which was the 9th.
But the first part of it was just me trying to heal and get better. But then, just being out and about, I just didn't think it was a good idea.
So I needed to stay in here to get fully better before I can actually go out and face this.
How are you doing, emotionally?
Emotionally? I don't know. I don't know.
My mother is a nurse at St. Mary's and just hearing that she may have been exposed to it is, is a lot.
And my dad who just retired this year is at home with her, and he has some health issues. So it is, it is, a lot. It is a lot, a lot.
When you say she may have been exposed, to a specific exposure or just or just because she's a nurse at the hospital?
Well, there was a scare. But I'm happy to report as of this morning, I actually found out that her test is negative.
So she did not test positive for COVID-19. So I think we're in the clear right now, but she is working at the hospital, consequently.
They gave her a test results and now she's working.
And you're back. Let's talk about Soul Taco. You guys have two locations in the city.
Right now we're just kind of playing it by ear.
It's been like 75 to 80% of our customer base just kind of dried up.
Everybody's staying home and rightfully they should be. But it's just been kind of difficult. I want to get people working. I want to have my staff working. But it is a huge juggling act. And I don't know if you can tell, but I really don't know.
We've spoken to several restaurant owners and you guys are put in a really tough spot because you're responsible for not only this restaurant family that you've created around Soul Taco, but also your customers, and your personal health. Let's talk about some of those decisions you had to make in the last few days.
There have been some things that we've done to try to get ahead of it and to try to get people to still come in and support.
At my East Main location (1215 East Main in Richmond), we have turned the dining room into a market of sorts.
So in the restaurant, a lot of times you have to kind of stockpile things.
So we've had toilet paper, we've had some of those things, the essential items that are running out in the grocery stores, we're selling directly to our customers now.
So you can go over there, you get a lot of the fresh produce that we use, because everything we use is fresh, no freezers, no microwaves and never had it.
We're also doing meals together. So meals that we are cooking in the restaurant, you can take home and just warm up and eat just like that.
We're doing like a digital happy hour with a bartender who is working with Uncle Nearest. So we're making cocktails that you can make from home because I don't know if you know, but ABC has seen like 64% jump. That's what everybody's doing to cope.
So there's a lot of things that we are doing to still get our customers engaged, is just kind of figuring out what works, what people like and then doing more of that. So we're just really just staying open and doing whatever.
What else can people buy at the market besides toilet paper and cilantro?
You can get toilet paper.
You can get wine now because that's a thing. You can get beer. You can get Soul Taco t-shirts, we have some we only have a few That's been the most popular item.
We have like, onions, limes, lots of produce. But then there's some other items toward the back, that are just, you know, things that we have around the restaurant that might be helpful, um, to kind of get through this mostly the wine.
We are recording this conversation on Tuesday, just so people know. On Tuesday, the 31st. Or yesterday, Monday, the 30th. The governor put a stay-at-home order until June 10. When you heard that date, June 10, what was going through your mind?
I watched the governor when he announced everything, but I didn't hear the June 10.
So I was like, all right, staying put, staying put. And then some people were like, "We're supposed to be in the house till June 10." And when I saw June 10 I was like, there's no way, there's no way it's till June 10. Then once I found out that it was until June 10, I was like okay, if this is what we got to do we got to do it.
I have pretty much watched until the end of Netflix.
What do you recommend?
I just finished a series called Ragnarok and I'm excited to go to the third season of Ozark.
I started that this week, the third season. I forgot what happened in the first two, so I have to go back and watch.
Now that's the problem. You binge something when it comes out. You've watched it by the third day. And you got to wait like 360 some odd days.
So how long are you staying in your house? When are you going back to work?
Should be Wednesday.
Oh, yeah, tomorrow. Yeah.
A final message for your customers for the people in Richmond. What do you want them to know about Soul Taco right now?
Soul Taco is not giving up. I don't want you all to give up.
We're gonna keep doing it as long as we can do it. We have to get past this thing. We got to wash our hands, wear gloves and face masks.
We have to comply with everything that the governor is saying. You know, stay in, make sure you're washing your hands and everything.
Soul Taco will definitely be doing that.
So I just want to tell everybody to remain as positive as possible. When you get tired of eating the food in your house, you can order from Soul Taco we will be there.
I am a Richmonder through and through. I'm born and raised right here, I'm not going anywhere.
It will take an act of Congress, or several, to get rid of me.
I just want everybody to stay as positive as possible. Follow everything that you get from the CDC from the governor, make sure you're not going out to the river and right next to people. And yeah, when you're when you're hungry, come see us.
Thank you very much for your time. I hope you feel better and hope your mom's continues to be healthy.