Aftermath of Racist Customer Service Incident at Buffalo Wild Wings

Matt Wujciak

Buffalo Wild Wings

“What race are you guys?” 

Imagine walking into a restaurant with family and friends for your kid’s birthday party and being greeted like this by a host/hostess. What message does that send to a group of impressionable African-American 10-12-year olds? How do you even respond to such an unexpected welcoming? These were questions Mary Vahl needed answers for when she walked in to what she thought would be the conclusion of a spectacular birthday party.

While the “wings, beer, and sports” at Buffalo Wild Wings in Naperville, Illinois may be attracting customers, the employees certainly aren’t. "In 2019, this type of behavior should not be accepted because of certain views. 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," said Mary Vahl in a Facebook post that went viral last week. 

Facebook post about racism in BBW goes viral

The first paragraph of her post read “… my husband Justin told the host that we had a party of 15. After he realized that he miscounted, my husband walked over to the tables to where the host was setting up and told him we actually had 18. A couple minutes went by and the host went up to my husband and asked ‘what race are you guys?’ My husband asked him why it mattered and the host responded that a table with 2 of their ‘regular customers’ were next to where we were to be seated and he didn’t want us sitting there because he’s ‘racist.’ ‘Us’ being a group of minorities, mostly consisting of African Americans.... so of course, we don’t give him the satisfaction and told the host we’ll sit where they set us up.”

As Vahl described, the waitress said the complainer was a regular and known for being racist. So how did BWW customer service handle the racist request? The service manager approached the party of 18 and told the group the seats were reserved by another party of the same size that called in, despite there being no "reserved" signs on the tables, as Vahl described.

"I never thought I'd have to explain something about race and color to a body of 10- and 12-year-olds."

Her post concluded, “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. A moment to hangout with a group of friends after a birthday party, turned into a discussion with our young impressionable sons about how we didn’t get kicked out, but willingly CHOSE to leave because of the unfair treatment we were being given. This Buffalo Wild Wings location has lost our business indefinitely. Thank you to the Hooters for serving our group and the patrons of Hooters for not being close-minded people that would ruin the night of others. #closedmindedpeoplewillnotprosper

According to CNN, Marcus Riley, the children’s youth basketball coach, who was also an African American in attendance that night, appeared Monday night on "CNN Tonight with Don Lemon." 

"They immediately thought that we had done something wrong," he told Lemon. 

With the nature of children, they thought they had done something wrong because they left a restaurant after a confrontation. Like most 10-12-year-olds, they assumed they were being denied service, so naturally, it must be their fault. 

"I had to say to them ... 'we're not wrong, what we're doing is we're choosing to spend our money elsewhere because we're not appreciated here,'" Riley said.

"I explain everything else to them in life, on the basketball court, but I never thought I'd have to explain something about race and color to a body of 10- and 12-year-olds."

According to the New York Times, a service manager and shift manager at the restaurant were terminated after the company conducted “a thorough, internal investigation,” it said in a statement on Monday in response to Vahl’s Facebook post.

“We take this incident very seriously,” the statement said. “Buffalo Wild Wings values an inclusive environment and has zero tolerance for discrimination of any kind.”

What’s astonishing to me is not only did this particular customer request to move Mary Vahl and her friends and family because they were of color, but MORE THAN ONE Buffalo Wild Wings customer service employee agreed that this was a valid and fair request by the customer, and that the party of 18 needed to move.

Handling unfair requests and apology campaigns

 In a previous article, I wrote about managing different consumer personalities and complainers, I cited one particular study, “for every 25 dissatisfied customers, 1 will complain.” If multiple employees agreed to such an obscene request, what is that particular Buffalo Wild Wings staff/culture like? More importantly, how many other mishaps like this has that Naperville BWW experienced that didn’t go viral? If they want to rectify this customer service PR crisis, it will be interesting to see what other actions BWW will take or what else they can do for Mary Vahl and her family, but firing customer service employees involved is the right start. 

Handling unfair customer demands or requests that affect other customers can be a difficult task to deal with for many front line employees. However, customer seervice reps, or employees of any position should never compromise moral ethics to solve an immediate customer complaint, especially when that complaint is unfair treatment, discrimination, or at the expense of another customer. In any ethical dilemma, you may make one customer happy by compromising morals to solve an immediate request, but doing the right thing will always prevail in the long run. 

When it comes to public apologies for larger brands’ customer service blunders, like Apple’s or KFC’s, a statement from the social media team or C level executives usually resonates well with the audience, especially over an honest mistake like mismanaged inventory or experience design. However, with more serious matters such as discrimination and racism, as seen in BWW’s case, a public statement or apology will do little good in the eyes of those 18 in attendance that night, or the public.