You are here

The Buffalo Wild Wings Incident – What Would Your Restaurant Do?

December 19, 2019

Original content c/o: Bruce Adelson, Attorney at Law

Racial slurs, intolerant comments, discriminatory actions often flare up without warning. The businesses where they occur must act swiftly and without hesitation to stamp them out and end the behavior. Otherwise, news of intolerant incidents will go viral, spreading quickly through all corners of social media. Once the viral phenomenon hits, businesses risk much – in lost revenue, negative attention, damaged reputation, and possible lawsuits.

To guard against such events, businesses must be proactive with zero tolerance policies, effective staff training, appropriate ‘no intolerance permitted’ practices, and management empowerment for swift action to preclude viral moments before they take hold of social media. Such proactivity is especially urgent today as more and more intolerant acts and incidents spiral across the United States, according to the FBI.

One truism that often is lost in the wave of reaction to incidents of intolerance and discrimination in public places and businesses such as restaurants, hotels, hospitals, schools and more is this – such acts may very well be illegal. For example, the 1964 Civil Rights Act forbids denial of service and discrimination based on race, color, or national origin, for example, by places of public accommodation.

Case in point, the situation at a Buffalo Wild Wings Restaurant in Napierville, Illinois in late October 2019:

According to the Chicago Tribune/Napierville Sun’s November 2 edition:
“A group of children and adults celebrating a birthday at a Naperville restaurant last weekend were asked to move to different tables because of the color of their skin, two men who were part of the group said. Justin Vahl and Marcus Riley said they visited the Buffalo Wild Wings on 75th Street east of Route 59 to celebrate a child’s birthday about 8:30pm Oct. 26.

As employees set up the tables to seat the group, a host asked Vahl about his ethnicity, and later a manager asked the group to move to another location because a nearby customer didn’t want to sit near black people, the men said.

… Claire Kudlata, Buffalo Wild Wings spokesperson, said in an email that Buffalo Wild Wings has zero tolerance for discrimination.
“We take this alleged incident very seriously and are conducting a thorough, internal investigation,” Kudlata said in the email. “We’re in direct communication with the guest to understand their account of what happened and to offer our deepest apologies for any unacceptable behavior.”

Vahl, who lives in Montgomery and said he is multiracial, said he’s never experienced discrimination like that before in public, and it was made worse because his children — ages 5 and 9 — witnessed it.

… As the staff was setting up the tables, he said he realized he’d miscounted and went to the tables to discuss adding more chairs for three more kids.

Vahl returned to the waiting area, where the host — who Vahl described as a young black man — asked, “What race are you?”

He said the host explained that one of the restaurant’s regular customers seated nearby “doesn’t want black people sitting near him.” “I’m not going to let a customer dictate where we sit,” Vahl said, and he told the host to seat the party at the table.

Vahl said a manager then approached the group shortly after speaking with the regular customer and his guest. The manager told Vahl’s group they needed to move because the tables had been reserved by another party of 18.

A Naperville Sun reporter later called the restaurant and was told the Naperville location does not take reservations. After multiple managers tried to get the group to move, Vahl said the six adults decided to go to another restaurant.

Riley said the drive to the next restaurant was difficult because the children in his car thought someone had done something wrong. The father of two boys, ages 6 and 10, said he explained how the adults didn’t want to spend their money at the restaurant. “If they don’t value us as people, as human beings, would you want to pay them?” he said he asked the kids. Just as challenging, Riley said, were questions like, “Why does he not like us?”

In an update to this story, the November 6 edition of the Chicago Tribune/Napierville Sun reported the firings of several restaurant employees as a result of discriminating against the Vahl/Riley party:

“Multiple employees were fired from a Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant in Naperville after some customers said their group was asked to move to another table because of the color of their skin.

Buffalo Wild Wings spokesperson Clarie Kudlata in an email late Sunday said the company conducted a thorough, internal investigation and

“terminated the employees involved.” She said a service manager and shift manager were fired.

… A reporter called the Naperville location Sunday and the manager, a male who would not identify himself, said "there were employees who were terminated and who quit.”

The firings and resignations of multiple employees from this restaurant suggest systemic management, customer care, and staff awareness issues at the Napierville Buffalo Wild Wings. But in my experience, staff turnover, which is frequent in the restaurant industry, does not solve the problem, particularly here where management and line staff enabled a customer’s racism by denying service to and discriminating against customers of color because of race, color, and national origin.

Instead of expected staff turnover, which always generates media attention, there are more salient questions and issues to confront:

  • How did such enabling occur?
  • Why did restaurant management actively participate in and abet a customer’s intolerance toward other customers?
  • How will the establishment’s policies change?
  • What training is given to staff?
  • How does management prevent such staff conduct from reoccurring?
  • What outside experts are needed to assist this business ensuring that such illegal, intolerable events do not occur again?

Proactivity must take hold now to stem the tide of lost business and negative press/social media attention. Other places of public business should take note, lest they too ride the viral wave of negative social media.

© Bruce Adelson, 2019. All Rights Reserved

About Bruce Adelson
Bruce Adelson is an Attorney practicing law throughout the Washington DC-area. He is an expert in the Americans with Disabilities Act, bias and discrimination issues and their impact on businesses. Bruce is a former Senior Trial Attorney for the US Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division. He is a faculty member at Georgetown University School of Medicine where he teaches organizational culture, bias, civil rights awareness, and cultural proficiency.