Many of the people involved in a racist incident at a Buffalo Wild Wings in suburban Naperville spoke out about the ordeal on Tuesday, days after their story of the encounter went viral, drawing widespread outrage and resulting in two employees being fired.
Justin Vahl and Marcus Riley were among several people who spoke at a news conference, alongside leaders of the DuPage County chapter of the NAACP, about the discrimination they say they experienced at the restaurant last month.
Vahl said he and a group of 12 children and five other adults went to the Buffalo Wild Wings as part of one of the boys’ birthday celebration, after playing some basketball games and spending time at a nearby fun center.
Vahl said he was the first to walk in the door at the Buffalo Wild Wings and mistakenly told the host that there were 15 people in the party, but later went back up to the host to say there were actually 18 people in their group.
“One or two minutes pass and the host comes back up front and he says, or he asked me, ‘What race are you?'” Vahl recalled. “He asked me what race I was and I immediately – I was appalled, I was astonished. I was in a restaurant; I was trying to take my family, our friends and kids to a restaurant and I was being asked what race I was.”
Vahl said he responded by asking “What does it matter?” at which point he said the host told him, “Well, we have a regular customer here who doesn’t want to sit around black people.”
In telling the story, Vahl paused to collect himself, sharing that it was a “very tough time” for him and his family. He went on to say that the group proceeded to sit down at the table, even though he felt “disrespected.”
Vahl said he then told the rest of the adults, including Riley, what happened, relaying that they were surprised and “almost thought” he made it up.
“We realized there was some tension in the room because that racist customer continued to look back at us and give us dirty looks,” Vahl said. “We did not speak with them but we could tell that he did not want us there, us being blacks, biracial, just a very unique and diverse and happy group.”
Vahl said after a few minutes, a manager came over and kneeled down at the table to speak to him and Riley, saying, “Excuse me but we’re going to have to move you guys, this table is reserved.”
Riley said he looked the manager “right in his eyes” and told him he knew what was going on.
“I’ve been informed by your staff that this man is racist – that this couple, not just this man, this couple are racist – and I will refuse to move because of the color of my skin,” Riley said he told the manager. “So let’s really sit back and listen to what we’re talking about, what you’re asking us to do, because I’m not willing to do that.”
Riley said the manager looked at him “with a blank stare” and apologized, saying Riley was right before walking away and going to the other table in question and sitting down with the couple. Riley said the manager was joined at the table by another manager, a woman who appeared to be the first employee’s supervisor, who also partook in conversation with the couple.
Riley said that the first manager then told Ashley Smith, one of the women who was part of their group, a different story about the conversation Riley and the manager previously had, claiming that he never said the group “had to move.”
At that point, Riley said he asked the managers why they were both sitting at the other table, and they said the other patrons were telling them about “a WalMart experience,” which he took to be a lie.
Riley asked the managers for a moment along with his group, he said, at which point they decided to leave.
“At this point, drinks have come, appetizers have come, we sent it all back,” Riley said. “We said, ‘You know what, we’re gonna leave, we’re walking out.”
He added that patrons were hugging Smith as they left and that staff members were embarrassed, one of them even crying as they walked out.
“One of the kids, a couple of the kids [asked] ‘Coach, what’s going on? Coach, are we getting kicked out?” Riley recalled. “I said, ‘No, we’re not getting kicked out, we’re just not spending our money here. We’re not appreciated here, we’re on the way out.'”
Vahl’s wife Mary Vahl posted about the incident on Facebook, where it garnered thousands of shares. Vahl and Riley both said the incident has been difficult to explain to the children, ranging in age from five to twelve years old.
“To see them trying to understand is hurtful because that’s something they shouldn’t have to do,” Smith through tears said at the news conference Tuesday.
“You look at these boys and they’re all different and they need to know that’s okay,” she continued, gesturing back to the children gathered behind the podium.
“They are black and it’s okay for them to be black,” Smith added. “It’s okay for them to be that way and we’re raising them to know that that’s okay to be black. And as a mother, to hear that and to try to feel comfortable every time they leave that doorstep to go anywhere, it’s hurtful because you have people like that that are still looking at them as a color.”
“That’s hard to accept – I won’t accept it, no I won’t accept it – that there are people out there that think that it’s okay to say that they’re wrong, to say that they’re not good enough, to say that they won’t even sit next to them,” she said.
Buffalo Wild Wings spokeswoman Claire Kudlata said in a statement early Monday that the company takes the incident “very seriously” and the employees involved were fired.
“We take this incident very seriously and after conducting a thorough, internal investigation have terminated the employees involved,” Kudlata said. “Buffalo Wild Wings values an inclusive environment and has zero tolerance for discrimination of any kind.”
Alongside leaders of the DuPage County NAACP, the group called for more employee screening on inclusivity in the hiring process, more employee sensitivity training and better guidelines in the employee handbook, among other changes to the restaurant’s corporate policies.
“We believe that we can fully and positively address the requests that were made this morning,” Kudlata said in a statement. “We look forward to having a productive conversation with the guests. We’ve reached out and are awaiting responses, so that we can establish an ongoing and open dialogue.”