MOUNT VERNON – Owen Baughman had no idea he’d become a viral sensation.
The 17-year-old was finishing his shift at the Coshocton Avenue Taco Bell last Thursday night when he received a text from his mother.
It included a screenshot of a Facebook post from Bellville Mayor Teri Brenkus. She’d taken a selfie with Baughman, smiling at his usual post behind the cash register. The caption detailed a simple act of kindness Baughman had performed hours earlier. Then, a call to action:
“We need a lot more OWENS in this world!!” Brenkus wrote. “BE MORE LIKE OWEN!”
Hundreds of shares. Thousands of likes. It had only been up for a couple of hours.
You’re going viral, Baughman’s mother texted him.
“And I was like, well, it happens I guess,” he recalled Saturday with a shrug.
“I was just being nice.”
One small gesture
When Baughman performed his soon-to-be-viral act of generosity, he had no idea others were watching.
He was midway through his 4-9 p.m. shift as a cashier at the 1015 Coshocton Ave. Taco Bell.
“It was just like any other normal day,” recalled Baughman, a senior at Mount Vernon High School. “I was just working, I wasn’t expecting anything crazy to happen.”
As a couple stepped up to the counter, Brenkus watched from the back of the line. Her mother was staying at Knox Community Hospital, right across the street, and she needed a quick meal before visiting that evening.
“I’m sure people are going to judge me for going to Taco Bell,” she said with a laugh, “but I like their Crunchy Taco Supreme, so it is what it is.”
Brenkus had tried the drive thru, but it was packed. So she parked her car and walked inside.
The couple in front of her approached Baughman and proceeded to order. They paid in ones, Baughman recalled, and by the time he got done counting them, he came to a realization.
They were a couple dollars short.
Baughman walked over to the couple and told them the news.
“I saw them feeling through their wallet and I knew they didn’t have any more money in there,” Baughman recalled. “So I said, ‘Don’t worry about it. I got it.’”
What happened next shocked Brenkus.
“He just walks over behind the register and pulls out his wallet, takes out two one-dollar bills and cashes it out," she recalled. "Like it’s no big deal."
When Brenkus approached the counter to order, she told him, “That wallet’s going to be pretty empty if you keep doing that.”
“And he said, ‘I really like to help people when I can,’” Brenkus recalled. “I thought it was the sweetest thing.”
Brenkus ordered and ate her food, but she couldn’t get the incident off her mind. She eventually returned to the restaurant and asked Baughman if he’d be willing to take a selfie. She told him how impressed she was by his gratitude.
“He was just looking at me like, ‘It’s no big deal,’” Brenkus said.
Brenkus posted the photo on Facebook at 6:36 p.m., with a caption explaining what she’d witnessed. By Friday morning, two thousand people had liked it. Over a thousand people had shared it. The comments were wide-ranging, but most offered praise for Baughman.
“Thank you for showing true compassion, Owen,” one user wrote. “People like you are few and far between. You set the bar!”
Others lauded the Coshocton Avenue Taco Bell, run by general manager Lynnette Black, who has been at the establishment for 20 years.
"Taco Bell is awesome. Taco Bell's employees are awesome. Only good things have ever happened to me at Lynnette's Taco Bell," one user wrote. "U rock, Owen! God bless you."
One commenter thanked Brenkus for highlighting Baughman’s efforts, which she said are not uncommon in the food service industry.
“As a food service worker I would like to thank you for showing him some recognition,” the user wrote. “Most of us do these types gestures daily and I know it's very nice for him to be appreciated and celebrated. Great job Owen!!”
The post was shared across the country. In the days that followed, Black said the restaurant was “flooded” with support.
“Everybody’s been coming in, saying stuff. It’s everywhere,” Black said. “I mean, it’s not even just here in Mount Vernon, it’s all over the place.”
As of Tuesday, Brenkus’ Facebook post had 1,700-plus shares, 300-plus comments and 4,300-plus likes. Black believes the post took off because “people want to hear something positive.”
“I mean, it’s so easy to listen to all the negative,” she said. “Every now and then, it’s just great to hear something positive about a small-town person. You know, not just something big that big people do, just some little nice gesture. It’s still out there – somebody still has a kind heart.”
Midway through an interview Saturday, before the beginning of another 4-9 p.m. shift, Mount Vernon Mayor Matt Starr stopped by the restaurant. He wanted to thank Baughman for what he did, and he wanted to thank Black for her leadership.
“I just wanted to pop in and say hey. I appreciate what you did. Great way to be an ambassador,” Starr told Baughman.
“I try to be as nice as I can be,” Baughman responded, smiling ear-to-ear.
It’s all been a little overwhelming for Baughman since Thursday night. True to character, he’s most happy that his team is receiving some positive attention. He said it’s made him proud of his community.
“All this positive feedback – not only on me, but on the restaurant – it just shows how good people can be from such a small act of kindness,” Baughman said. “It makes me kind of happy that I can spread that kindness across the community.”
A culture of kindness
The best part of the whole thing, Brenkus said, was that Baughman wasn’t seeking acknowledgement for his behavior. It was just something he did naturally.
“It was just a really sweet gesture on this young man’s part,” she recalled. “He was very polite, very kind and humble.
“It was just the kind of thing I haven’t seen in a long time. A lot of times, you’ll see the server slide you a free something, but they don’t cover it themselves. But this kid, he actually made sure his drawer was balanced by paying for it himself.”
According to Baughman, this was the first time he’d paid for a customer’s meal. But it wasn’t the first time employees at the Coshocton Avenue Taco Bell had done it.
It’s a part of the culture Black has established at the restaurant, which has been in Mount Vernon since 1989.
“A lot of my team members do stuff like this. That’s not the first time it’s been paid forward here,” Black said. “We’ve all done things, because there’s a lot of times where people fall on hard times and they need help. We don’t make people feel bad about it, we just try and help.”
While Baughman has only worked at Taco Bell for a few months, he called it “one of the greatest work environments I’ve ever been in.”
“The people here, I love them. The customers, I love them," he said. "This work environment, it’s just surrounded with such kindness and attention to detail that it’s just a great place to be."
People might not expect this from a national fast-food chain, Baughman said. But the restaurant’s employees are local, and they feel obligated to treat their customers with the kindness they deserve.
“People can come in here and expect us to be kind," Baughman said, "and expect us to be greater than we actually are."
Carrying it forward
Long-term, Baughman hopes to work in a field that shares his service-first mindset. He wants to become a teacher.
“Just being able to help the kids out and show them what life can be like, and help them achieve their dreams, that’s the biggest thing for me,” he said. “I just want to be able to do that for the kids.”
After graduating from Mount Vernon, Baughman plans to attend Bellarmine University in the fall, where he’ll major in biochemistry and minor in psychology. He’s always been passionate about science, he explained, and biochemistry will combine his two favorite subjects.
Ultimately, he wants to become a science teacher. It would allow him to teach his favorite subject, while also mentoring young students.
“I know some of these kids, at least in the school right now, they have a hard life and they feel like school is a prison, more than a place where they can be open and express themselves,” he said. “And I want to show those kids, if I do go back there, that they can be open, they can express themselves.”
For now, Baughman is quietly enjoying his viral ride. He hopes the Facebook post highlighting his generosity will prompt kindness in others.
“I hope they see it as, ‘Well, maybe I can be more like that. Maybe I can help the community or help people, even just where I am...’” Baughman said.
“I’m hoping to kind of make people realize that the world isn’t full of evil, and there’s still some good left.”
Black hopes Baughman’s viral moment will allow people to view fast food businesses in a new light.
“I think they take us for granted a lot of times. They just think we’re working and they get busy in their own lives…” she said. “It’s nice that somebody actually noticed that we’re working really hard here, trying to do something good for the community.”
And Brenkus hopes people realize the power of recognizing acts of kindness – no matter how small.
“He didn’t have to do anything like that, so I just thought it was really sweet…” Brenkus said. “I just thought I’d write up the post and send it out. Who knew Owen would take off in the fashion that he did?”