Now, the incident has gone viral, the staff has been fired, and the restaurant chain is facing backlash after yet another troubling example of public discrimination captured online.
“If you don’t want to sit next to certain people in a public restaurant then you should probably eat dinner in the comfort of your own home,” Mary Vahl wrote on Facebook in a post that has been shared more than 4,500 times as of early Monday.
Buffalo Wild Wings didn’t immediately return a message Sunday night, but a spokesperson from the chain told the Associated Press that it had fired the employees involved after an internal investigation.
The company “values an inclusive environment and has zero tolerance for discrimination of any kind,” a spokesperson said in a statement to WBBM.
That fact is “ambiguous,” said Cannon D. Lambert, the attorney representing the families, at a news conference on Tuesday. Lambert said the company’s statements are like many others he’s seen before. Accountability, however, doesn’t automatically mean a lawsuit, he said.
Lambert said the families are seeking to be involved in the development of Buffalo Wild Wings’ sensitivity training as they grapple with their feelings and the aftermath of being discriminated against.
“This is the perfect opportunity for Buffalo Wild Wings to be a good corporate citizen,” he said, outlining how he expects the company to prevent what happened to the Vahls. “If you agree with us that this should never have happened, we look forward to talking with you further.”
On Oct. 26, following a birthday party, the Vahls’ party showed up to a Buffalo Wild Wings in a strip mall in Naperville, Ill., a racially diverse suburb about 40 minutes southwest of Chicago. Mary’s husband, Justin, asked for a table for 15, but as a host began setting up their table, he quickly realized he had miscounted the size of the group and went up to correct his mistake.
Then, the host — a young African American man — asked a question that took him aback: “What race are you guys?”
“Why does it matter?” Justin Vahl asked the host.
Sitting nearby, the host said, was a regular customer who “doesn’t want black people sitting near him.” He labeled the man as racist.
The Vahls and their friends didn’t want to give that other customer any satisfaction, so they sat down at the table anyway and began ordering drinks and appetizers. All the while, they started getting glares from the man — who appears to be white in a photo Mary posted to Facebook — and noticed him talking to waitstaff. That’s when a manager told them they’d have to get up for a new table.
“These seats are reserved,” the manager told them, “and we will have to move your group.” (Never mind the fact that Buffalo Wild Wings doesn’t take reservations, according to the Naperville Sun.)
When the Vahls complained to their waitress, she told them that she already knew what was happening: The regular customer is a racist, she said, though she couldn’t do anything. When multiple managers tried to order the group to move to a new table, the six adults in the party decided to leave Buffalo Wild Wings entirely.
As they got up to leave the restaurant, the host had tears in his eyes, and other customers got up to hug the group, Marcus Riley, a member of the party, told WBBM.
Reached by phone late Sunday, Justin Vahl declined to comment, saying that he still needed to meet with his attorneys. But in an interview with the TV station, Marcus Riley worried that the interaction inside the restaurant would make the kids question what their teachers and classmates thought of them.
“It’s 2019. We’re supposed to be past this,” he said, noting that the kids at the table were of different backgrounds but all in the minority at their mostly white schools.
As they drove to a Hooters restaurant down the street, Riley’s kids offered up a litany of troubling questions: Had they done something wrong? Why did the man not like them?
Riley told the station he answered with his own question: “If they don’t value us as people, as human beings, would you want to pay them?”
Still, the incident seemed to weigh on some of them. Ethan Vahl, 10, would later tell the TV station, “No one should experience what we experienced that day with racism.” His friend Dereon Smothers, also 10, said he had been thinking about the incident all last week.
“That was the most troubling thing for me,” said Riley, who is also their basketball coach. “To have my children go through that, it brought me to tears."
He reached out to Buffalo Wild Wings, which later told the Sun that it was “in direct communication with the guest to understand their account of what happened and to offer our deepest apologies for any unacceptable behavior.”
By Sunday, multiple employees at the restaurant had been fired, and several others had quit, though local media did not report how many were dismissed or what role they had played in the incident.
Lambert wants Buffalo Wild Wings to implement racial bias screening for job applicants, have its employee handbook state that the company has a zero-tolerance policy around racially bigoted actions and create an anti-racial bias form for new hires to sign as a condition for employment. The company should also post pro-inclusion signage in its break rooms and establish a hotline for employees to dial and report incidents of racial bias.
“Lastly, what I’m looking for, what we’re looking for, is for Buffalo Wild Wings to establish an accountability system,” he said. “It’s imperative when you tell us you’re banning a couple, but won’t tell us who they are. Then how do we know?”
Ashley Leneé Smith, mother of two young boys, said seeing her children try to understand what happened is hurtful.
“To know that you have someone telling you that I don’t want to sit next to you because you’re black,” she said, with tears streaming and children behind her wiping away their tears with their sleeves and jacket collars. “They are black. It’s okay for you to be black. It’s okay for them to be that way.”
Riley said he’s had tough conversations about the incident with the children he mentors, but he wonders if his words have answered their questions and if his responses have been correct.
“They’re so delicate because they don’t understand, he said. “We’re trying to answer to the best our ability.”
The boys had a bright spot that Riley said he hopes they will remember instead: The day after the incident, they won their three-on-three basketball tournament in nearby Oak Brook, Ill.
“5 young boys of all different ethnicities worked together to achieve a common goal,” Justin Vahl wrote on Facebook, according to the TV station. “Less than 24 hours after having to walk out of a restaurant where they weren’t wanted because the color of their skin.”
Justin Vahl said he’s still in disbelief about the whole situation that he said lasted about 45 minutes.
“It was a pretty long time. It seemed like forever,” he said.