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  • The Check Podcast

Episode 6: The American Dream?

Updated: Jun 16, 2020

Omar Boukhriss moved to America from Morocco with a dream of opening his own restaurant. Today, he’s the owner of Omar’s Carriage House, a Norfolk restaurant he’s run for more than 20 years. Boukhriss lends his perspective to a conversation about a country grappling with a pandemic and widespread racial tensions.



LINKS

The owners of Omar's Carriage House in Norfolk are back after securing flight out of Morocco


Norfolk restaurant owner celebrates 20 years following his dream


Brady Viccellio, Omar Boukhriss and Alvin Williams enjoy a glass of wine at Steinhilber's PODCAST TRANSCRIPT

June 11, 2020 Brady Viccellio

Hi Alvin, how's it going?

Alvin Williams

Well, Brady, how are you?

Brady Viccellio

All right.

Alvin Williams

How's the week been?

Brady Viccellio

Finally, we got the phase two underway with 50% inside, so that was exciting to have guests in seats.

Alvin Williams

And did you receive or cater to as many guests as you thought you would have?

Brady Viccellio

Not inside. Not many people inside actually.

Alvin Williams

Yeah, we had a similar experience, I guess. We had a lot of people on the patio. So that was full capacity at 50%. And then we had some people in the tent, but some of the days are very warm, so it can get a little, a little warm in there unless the breeze is running through. And then we have some people inside but it wasn't constantly full. We didn't have a wait. But we're grateful for everyone who came and everyone who came were grateful that we were there. So it was a nice weekend. A nice week.

Brady Viccellio

I agree. We're here with Omar Boukhriss from Omar's Carriage House today. Omar, how about you? What were your experiences with the phase two?

Omar Boukhriss

Well, first of all, thank you for having me. We had the same experience to be honest with you. I opened I have the parking lot that I use as a patio. It was it was good and successful. Inside Friday was decent. We probably had like four or five tables inside only open downstairs. But a Saturday was very quiet inside. So people I don't think they're ready yet to go back to inside the restaurant.

Alvin Williams

Yeah. So I think everyone knows Omar, but for those of you who don't Omar owns Omar's Carriage House, which is in Norfolk, Virginia, and it is in the Freemason area. And you've been there for how long now?

Omar Boukhriss

22 years.

Alvin Williams

That is a long time -- a great testament. In restaurant lifespans, that's probably you know, four or five lifetimes.

Brady Viccellio

Three.

Omar Boukhriss

You would know, Brady.

Alvin Williams

So congratulations on a thing you know, you get a lot of respect from us, of course. And thank you. Thank you for being here.

Omar Boukhriss

My pleasure to be here with you guys.

Alvin Williams

So one of the reasons we asked you here was because I saw you on the news. And it wasn't because you're one of America's 10 Most Wanted or anything like that. You got yourself stuck in a sticky situation. You want to tell us a little bit about that?

Omar Boukhriss

Yeah, I'd say that's true. I'm the infamous Omar in that situation. So I was stuck in Morocco, which is my home country, that's where I was born. And so basically in the spring vacation for the kids, we decided to go see my dying father in law. So we’re they're on March 6, and the kids were coming back on the 15th I was coming back five days later. Unfortunately, with the COVID-19 happening, Morocco was one of the first countries to pretty much put the country the entire country on lockdown and close their borders. So my kids were lucky enough to take the last plane that left Morocco on March 15. That was a Sunday. And after that, the whole country was shut down.

Alvin Williams

So this is Morocco? Marrakech is that right? So North Africa?

Omar Boukhriss

Yeah, North Africa. I'm from Casablanca, my wife is from the capital, Rabat. So it was stuck in between the two cities. But of course, what happened was that on that Monday, the 16th of March, the government declared martial law and locked down of the country, meaning martial law. So that means the military enters with the tankers into every city in Morocco. So I packed my stuff from where my family is in Casablanca and I drove to a Rabat and as I'm driving, it was a scary, scary moment. I mean, I was literally kind of in tears because it was scary.

Alvin Williams

So this is not police. This is military …

Omar Boukhriss

Military tankers. I mean you as you drive in the highway, you know, you’re driving through tankers that go into the city, the next city then you see more tankers …

Brady Viccellio

You mean tanks, like army tanks with guns?

Omar Boukhriss

Oh yeah. It’s like there's a war. But when you start seeing that, I mean, you know that the government was not playing, they knew what they want. They weren't they were about to sacrifice the people for that economy. They were ready to sacrifice the economy for the people. And that's what they did.

Brady Viccellio

Right. But you're a local, so…

Omar Boukhriss

I was local, but I still I don't think you're ready for situation like that. I mean when you see those tankers and you see the military and you start seeing hearing loudspeakers saying you need to enter your home and you're not allowed outside and then next thing you know, there is a mashal law that says, You know what? A six o'clock at night You are not allowed outside no matter what permission or not permission.

Alvin Williams

So this is something like you'd never seen before.

Omar

Oh, no, it's like you've seen it in movies, but you don't see it in real life. It was it was quite an experience really.

Brady Viccellio

All that time you have an operating restaurant in Norfolk.

Omar Boukhriss

Absolutely. Well, and that's what was more scary for me because I didn't know what was happening here.

Brady Viccellio

Right. And it was a strange time here as well.

Omar Boukhriss

Exactly. Absolutely. Absolutely. So you know, I didn't know what to expect on what I needed to do. I was fortunate enough that my kids were already here. And I never thought my kids would take over and run the business when I'm gone. And they really did come through. I mean, with our management and my team, they really did run it pretty good.

Alvin Williams

So when you're when your kids got on the plane to come back to the States, did they know that you were going to be left behind? Or they thought you're going to be on the plane the day later? How did that work?

Omar Boukhriss

When would they left the funny part, like literally as they were checking their luggage and getting their boarding passes, I was right there with them. And I asked the gentleman that was checking them in and I said, so do you think there's any chance we're [going to get stuck]. Because in the back of our mind, we always thought that I'm going to get stuck. And like, my son literally knew that's gonna happen because he told me the day that the day before he said that you should come with us.

Alvin Williams

Because that was the gut feeling.

Omar Boukhriss

That was his gut feeling. I said, No, I'd be fine. He said that you guys gonna be stuck for a long time. I said, No, we'd be fine. So when we checked in and he was leaving, he knew what I asked the gentleman. He said, No, that's Everything is fine. So he knows I'm going to be stuck for a while. So that's what happened. We got stuck.

Brady Viccellio

And how long were you stuck there?

Omar Boukhriss

I was stuck there until April 11. So we were there for almost three more weeks.

Alvin Williams

How did you get out on a regular commercial flight? Oh, did you have to pull some strings?

Omar Boukhriss

Well, I mean, you couldn't pull string because the government our government in Morocco had shut down the country. It has to be coordinated between the State Department here and the American Embassy in Casablanca. And so you had to register, which I did to register. They had never seen this. So I think the State Department and the American Embassy did not know how to handle this. So it was no communication whatsoever. I mean, we sent email, there's no respond, and then you send another email, no response. But at the same time, the State Department here was telling our our government here that's everybody's back, everything is fine. But it wasn't.

Alvin Williams

So it wasn't necessarily that the US government wasn't letting you back in, your government wasn't letting you out and they weren't communicating because this is something that’s unchartered waters and they've never really had to deal with before.

Omar Boukhriss

Yeah, I mean, that that is correct. But at the same time, I don't think that's the State Department was communicating what is the plan to get the American citizen out of the abroad. And it’s not just Morocco, it was Peru, Lima, Mexico—it was everywhere. But I think that what the State Department focused on at the beginning because I have a friend of mine who worked for the Peace Corps in Morocco, so they were the first one to be evacuated. So they focus on who's you know, the Peace Corps people, the people that work for the American the government in Morocco, they were the first ones to come out of the Morocco. And I think that happened all over the world. But I don't think they do could handle everybody because it just happened so quick.

Alvin Williams

Right. And you have two kids, is that right Omar?

Omar Boukhriss

I have two kids. I have my son Zack. He was 22 and my daughter Yasmin, who's 20.

Alvin Williams

Zach - that's the one with the good gut instincts.

Omar Boukhriss

Absolutely.

Alvin Williams

So your kids get back into Norfolk first. They’re making the decisions with your business. Are you telling them what to do over the phone or over Skype? Or how do you now start running a whole new business over the phone from a different country?

Omar Boukhriss

Well, it was it wasn't easy, but I had to do something. Basically what were we doing every morning I was doing a FaceTime call with my GM Shana but also she was communicated with my son Zacky. And then I talked to him and he'll tell me what they're talking about and what they think they should be doing. And we communicate pretty much, at least three, four times a day, you know, I had to stay in touch and be creative to survive. And my son literally came up with ideas. For years I wanted to do carry-out and delivery and I've never focused on that. So the first thing that came to mind like as soon as the shutdown happened, I said, you know what, guys, I told you my GM I said, This is what we wanted to do for years, and we never had a chance to do it. We never focused on it. So let's do it. But I knew that I was never willing to close my restaurant at all. I knew I wanted to do keep going with some sort of business because I know once you close it’s hard to reopen.

Brady Viccellio

That's a really interesting point because it was my opinion that the better financial decision was to just shut down and stop operation.

Omar Boukhriss

Absolutely.

Brady Viccellio

But the best business decision was to push through.

Omar Boukhriss

You’re right.

You stay relevant. You stay in people's in people's minds, and you're serving the community, you're serving food you're keeping to-go. And that was one of my things as well. And we even increased our hours instead of decreased. So we want to be as available as possible to our guests, and I don't know if it's paid off or not, but I think it's important to keep your business running.

Omar Boukhriss

I agree with you there, Brady. I mean, I think I had the same mentality. I had to stay in people's face, in people's mind. And that's what we did. I don't think absolutely as in business, common sense you want to think about the money and are you making enough money to cover all your expenses, but in the logic you want to stay alive and basically invest in a long-term return. And I think by staying open and sacrificing those couple weeks at the beginning was to me was the best decision because I knew that people would never forget about us because we stayed open for their convenience. We stayed open and served them no matter what. And they're gonna remember us forever because they knew that we stuck with it and we sucked it up and then we did whatever we had to do.

Brady Viccellio

That's right. That was my opinion as well. So when did you want to do that dream of having a restaurant having a business that stays open through COVID-19? When did that dream occur for you?

Omar Boukhriss

I think owning a restaurant came to me when I went to graduate from high school. And I went to my dad, I said, I want to go to a culinary institute and he said, What?

Brady Viccellio

You want to be an accountant.

Omar Boukhriss

Yeah, exactly. Because two of my brothers were accountants. And he said, absolutely, no, this is not our culture. This is not our family, you are gonna do exactly what your brother did, you're gonna go to France and study accounting. It's like, okay, that's, that's what you want. That's fine. So that's where I started. I did, I went to France. And I studied, you know, a year and a half in accounting. And then finally I went back to Morocco, and I said, dad, thank you very much for what you've given me. But I really have to follow my dream. I need to go to the States and do what I want to do. And then he said, okay, then you can do whatever you want to do. So I did.

Brady Viccellio

You've spoken out about living the American dream and achieving the American dream. Yeah. How does that how does that sit with you now? How do you feel about that with the current situation?

Omar Boukhriss

I don't think the current situation changed my mind about the American Dream. I have always said that I'm living the American dream and I meant it. COVID-19 definitely put things in perspective and makes you think twice. You know, how are you going to live and how you can change your life. But that dream that I've had as a kid to live the American dream. It's always here because this is always been the greatest country in the world. This country has always been a melting pot for everybody. So for me, I don't think it changes anything. For my kids on the other hand, it does change a little bit because they're born in this country, but being foreigners and somehow because they're second generation, it does change things – it scares them a little bit. So there is a little bit of that mixture in there. But for me, I've always believed in the American dream, I've always lived the American dream. And I've never takenwhat this country has to offer for granted.

Alvin Williams

Well, I feel we need to bring up the whole George Floyd incident and the racial tensions that are going on. You're from Morocco, and I'm from England, and I'm black and you're brown and Brady’s white and we're all here together. You know, we are all equal and that's the whole point. We should all be equal, but you know, we can drink together and we can eat together and we can talk together. Is this affecting your business in any way or your thought process?

Omar Boukhriss

I don't think it affects my business but it does affect my thought process. My kids are really, really upset about this whole thing because they grew up in an area in Norfolk with minorities. They went to public school and all their friends there were minorities. Seeing this all this year, it's not right. It's not normal. So I've seen it, I've lived it through my kids. And I understand it. But at the same time coming from overseas from Morocco, which is you know, a mix but I don't like to bring my background into play because I never thought it was necessary.

Alvin Williams

I've never been to Morocco, and you have graciously invited me to go there, be there with your family and, and one day I'm definitely going to take you up on it. But I imagine it's mixture of Africa and Europe.

Omar Boukhriss

I've always joked about my case. I said I'm a double minority because I'm foreigner, but also I'm an African. But I have his stories from years and years ago, from before we were called white. Now Morocco, Northern Africa is called white in the census here in this country. But before we were always others. So I remember one time a cop stopped me coming from the DC area. He filled out the ticket and then on the line it says others, I said, Officer, and I'm not others. Either I am African or I'm white. So he can do it. We sat there and argued for 20 minutes. At the end of the story, he said, either you sign or I take you to jail. I said, ok I’ll sign. So we were always others and that's the truth. So it's always been there.

Alvin Williams

I've had a couple of situations with that too, you know, trying to fill out those black boxes, is it? Are you African American, or white?

Brady Viccellio

Or European American?

Alvin Williams

Well, no, that that was never an option. It was never an option. And black wasn't even an option. It was African American or white. And, and I didn't really consider myself either because I'm from England. So I'm British, and European. And my parents are from Jamaica. And those boxes weren't there. And I was really confused as to what to do. And then I'm thinking, why do I need to tick a box?

Omar Boukhriss

Exactly.

Alvin Williams

What is the point of that? It makes no sense to me. I have to tell you, I literally cried this week. I have a six-month-old. And I was just really thinking about when she grows up if she's going to have to go through this if she gets stopped by the police. And this is 16, 17, 18 years from now. I'm thinking, can we make this change before she gets to that point? And it just made me sit and think about it real hard and I just hope we can. And with some of the protests going on, I see people coming together and I think if they stay vigilant and be peaceful but smart about it, I think we can hopefully change some minds and make a difference.

Omar Boukhriss

Absolutely. You just have to focus on what's matters. Why are we doing this protest? If they stick to that then we should be alright.

Brady Viccellio

Unity.

Omar Boukhriss

absolutely

Alvin Williams

Unity.

Brady Viccellio

Alvin with all this going on, do you see hope or progress with everything that we're facing?

Alvin Williams

I do. I'm the eternal optimist. You know me -- glass half full. I see hope for the nation. Because I think we're moving in the right direction. And it's odd. Now I’ll be in my car and I'll pull up to a traffic light. And you look over at the next person and now, people smile and they wave, which has never happened before. I think people are trying to make a concerted effort to be decent humanitarians and just be happier and understand each other and know that everyone has problems and you know, maybe they're having a bad day, I can just do a quick smile or quick wave, and that'll make them feel better. So I think, you know, small steps, but I think we're heading in the right direction that way. And I think there's hope in the restaurant business. I think that we're innovative people as restaurateurs. We adapt and we adapt quickly. And I think that we'll get through this.

Omar Boukhriss

I agree with you. I think I think there is hope for this country. This country's big and it's too powerful to lose hope. And I think the hope is always going to be there. I think as the country and as the people unify around this situation, I think we're going to see the light on the end of the tunnel. As a restaurant owner I think like you just said, we always adapt and adjust and update. This is just another way of adapting, adjusting. And we don't have a choice because let's be realistic, we don't have corporate behind us, we don't have investors behind us. It's us. So either we make it or we don’t.

Alvin Williams

We don't have those deep pockets.

Omar Boukhriss

We don't have deep pockets. So as small business owners, we have to adapt and we have to survive because, as I said earlier, we all have over 20 years in our hand or under their arm, you know, it's, not easy for us to just forget about it. So we're going to do everything we can to make it happen and we are going to make it come true.

Alvin Williams

Together with unity.

Brady Viccellio

With unity. I like that. Unity.

Omar Boukhriss

Unity. It is all about Unity.

Alvin Williams

We’re checking on each other and making sure that we get through this together.

Omar Boukhriss

Yes sir.

Alvin Williams

Share the ideas. That's another thing that's been really cool about this. We all share ideas. We're not hiding. We all do what we can do to help each other. We all know that people don't eat in your restaurant everyday Omar, or Steinhilber’s everyday or Cobalt everyday. I'm happy if they come once a week.

Brady Viccellio

Which was part of the idea with the podcast was to share ideas and get people to tell their ideas.

Alvin Williams

Absolutely.

Omar Boukhriss

I think that's what we all forgot, you know, as human beings that there is no competition here. We all have been helping each other. We all feed into each other and it's more time to do this than ever. And I think this is a great idea you guys are doing.

Alvin Williams

Thank you, Omar for joining us. You've been a very awesome guest.

Omar Boukhriss

Thank you for having me.

Alvin Williams

You’ve been very informative, and we're glad you're safe and sound.

Omar Boukhriss

Thank you for the good wine as well. I love a good wine. And thank you for the good company.


Alvin Williams

We didn't mention that we were having a nice bottle of wine.

Alvin Williams

Once again, thanks to Omar Boukhriss of Omar’s Carriage House for joining us. We'll see you next time. I'm Alvin.

Brady Viccellio

I'm Brady. This is The Check.







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