Editorial: Buffalo Wild Wings and the Right Way to Handle Racist Customers

NOV 04, 2019 | 4:34 PM

Say you’re the host at a sports-bar-type restaurant. A customer seated near a table occupied by African Americans asks you to move them because he doesn’t like black people. What should you say? 1) “No.” 2) “I can move you to a different table.” 3) “Please leave and don’t ever come back.”

Any of those responses would be defensible. But at a Buffalo Wild Wings in Naperville on Saturday evening, according to an African American customer, a host and a manager said his group would have to go to a different table because another patron “doesn’t want black people sitting near him.”

Justin Vahl and those with him made the understandable decision to take their business to a different restaurant. But his wife, Mary, posted an account of the incident on social media. The post quickly went viral. Buffalo Wild Wings found itself enveloped in a withering storm of negative publicity.

The customer who allegedly complained about the group has not come forward, and the staffers have not given their versions. So we should all allow for the possibility of misunderstandings that contributed to the episode. But the chain did not deny the Vahls’ account.

“We take this incident very seriously and after conducting a thorough, internal investigation have terminated the employees involved,” the company said in a statement. “Buffalo Wild Wings values an inclusive environment and has zero tolerance for discrimination of any kind.”

We draw a couple of conclusions from this incident. One is that overt racial prejudice, which many white Americans assume has practically vanished, persists in some people — and works to the detriment of African Americans. No one should think the work of racial equity has been finished.

Another is that any restaurant, hotel or other retail business had better invest in training its workforce, from the CEO to the lowest-paid employee, on how to deal with such encounters. In short: “The customer is always right” is the wrong attitude if it means indulging a bigot at the expense of other patrons. The three options in the first paragraph of this editorial are among the responses a company might want its employees to deliver.

Kowtowing to one patron who wants staff members to ignore the rights, the dignity and the feelings of other customers invites the sort of outrage that Buffalo Wild Wings found itself attracting. Such situations are bad for employees, customers and shareholders. We can safely assume that despite the chain’s swift response, some people will steer clear of Buffalo Wild Wings, at least for a while.

It’s good for a company to take quick corrective action after one of its workers makes a terrible mistake. But teaching employees how to handle difficult customers is simpler. And when preventive training stops hurtful, damaging incidents before they start, it’s a lot less costly.

Editorials reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board, as determined by the members of the board, the editorial page editor and the publisher.

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