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updated: 11/5/2019 10:10 PM

Attorney urges Buffalo Wild Wings ‘to stand up to racism’ after Naperville incident

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  • Video: Customers speak out

 
 

The attorney for families who say their multiracial group was asked to change seats in a Naperville restaurant because two white patrons didn't want to sit next to them is urging Buffalo Wild Wings to take steps to ensure something like this never happens again.

"We're looking to try and make sure that we do everything we can to keep the lines of communication open with Buffalo Wild Wings because we are hoping -- in fact, we are expecting -- that they will be good corporate citizens and that they will take this opportunity to do the right thing," attorney Cannon Lambert said Tuesday at a news conference in Aurora. "They have an opportunity to be trailblazers right now where they can show other corporate community participants what it is to stand up to racism."

Lambert said family members were not surprised that the company fired the two managers involved in the case or that the company has indicated it will institute sensitivity training, They are, however, surprised such training wasn't already in place.

Lambert said the families do not plan to take legal action because "there is no need to file a lawsuit if there's no disagreement" that what happened was wrong.

"We are looking to change things," Lambert said. "There is no question about the fact that they (Buffalo Wild Wings) need to be held accountable. But that does not mean that it has to come in the form of a lawsuit."

Lambert did, however, outline how the company should respond, including:

• Screen all employees before hiring.

• Inform potential employees there is a corporate expectation they will be racially sensitive while on the job.

• Ensure the company's employee handbook makes clear there is zero tolerance for racial bigotry and clearly define that zero tolerance means employees will be terminated for bigoted conduct.

On Tuesday, a Buffalo Wild Wings spokeswoman said in an email that the company believes it can "fully and positively address the requests that were made" during the news conference.

"We look forward to having a productive conversation with the guests," the email reads. "We've reached out and are awaiting responses, so that we can establish an ongoing and open dialogue."

Late last month, Mary and Justin Vahl of Montgomery posted on social media about the encounter they say took place Oct. 26 at the Buffalo Wild Wings on 75th Street in Naperville.

They said they were part of a party of 18 diners, most of them black, that was asked to move because two patrons didn't want to sit near them.

On Tuesday, as children who were there stood behind him, Justin Vahl talked about what happened when they arrived at the restaurant after a day of playing basketball and celebrating one of the kids' birthdays.

Vahl said the group's table was being prepared when a host came up and asked, "What race are you?"

"I was appalled," he said. "I was astonished."

Vahl said he asked why it mattered, and the host said their table was next to two longtime customers who didn't want to sit near black people.

When their group began to sit down, Vahl didn't know what to say "because nothing like this has ever happened," he said.

Vahl said everyone in the group could tell there was tension in the room.

"That racist customer continued to look back at us and give us some dirty looks," Vahl said. "We did not speak with him, but we could tell that he did not want us there."

A couple minutes later, one of the managers told the group they were being moved because their table was reserved for someone else.

At that point, Marcus Riley of Bolingbrook said he refused to move "because of the color of my skin."

Riley said the manager had a discussion with the other customer. A second manager joined that conversation.

Eventually, both managers returned. After speaking to the managers, Riley said, he and other members of the group decided it was time to leave, even though their drinks and appetizers had arrived.

As their group left, Riley said, many staff members appeared to be embarrassed.

"One of the staff members was in tears, crying as we're walking out," he said.

Riley, who coaches and mentors the kids, said the hardest part was explaining to them what happened. He said none of the children are older than 12, and some are as young as 5.

When some of the kids asked if they were getting kicked out, Riley said he told them no.

"We're just not spending our money here," he recalled saying. "We're not appreciated here."

The restaurant chain has since fired the employees -- whom it did not name -- and said in a statement it "values an inclusive environment and has zero tolerance for discrimination of any kind."

A representative said Buffalo Wild Wings has been in contact with the adults in the group of 18 "to understand their account of what happened and to offer our deepest apologies for any unacceptable behavior."

The chain said the customer who made the complaint has been permanently banned from every Buffalo Wild Wings location nationwide and the company will hold additional sensitivity and diversity training at all Chicago-area locations.

Lambert said his clients want to have a continued dialogue with Buffalo Wild Wings to ensure that changes are made.

"That's why we want to be at the table," Lambert said. "We want to make sure that we can hold them accountable. We want to watch their training. We want to play a role in their training."

Michael Childress, president of the DuPage County NAACP, said he is bringing the issue to the attention of state and national leaders in the organization, hoping it will take up the cause against discriminatory treatment he believes is a pattern.

Naperville Mayor Steve Chirico said he reached out to the Vahls to apologize and to tell them "how you responded was the best way you could."