The Vahls went out on a Saturday night near Chicago in search of dinner.
But the family and their party, a mostly African American group of parents and young kids celebrating a birthday, say they faced discrimination head-on instead when staff at a Buffalo Wild Wings repeatedly ordered them to leave their table - all because another customer did not want to sit next to black people.
Now the incident has gone viral, the staff has been fired and the restaurant chain is facing a public backlash, in the wake of 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’s been shared more than 4,500 times as of early Monday.
Buffalo Wild Wings didn’t immediately return a message on Sunday night, but a spokesperson from the chain told the Associated Press that it had fired the employees involved following 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.
On Oct. 26, following a birthday party, the Vahls party showed up to a Buffalo Wild Wings tucked into in a strip mall in Naperville, Illinois, 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 was a regular customer who “doesn’t want black people sitting near him,” the host said. He labeled the man as racist.
The Vahls and their friends didn’t want to give that other customer any satisfaction, so they sat 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.” (Buffalo Wild Wings doesn’t take reservations, according to the Naperville Sun.)
When they complained to their waitress, she told them she already knew what was happening: The regular customer is a racist, she said, though she couldn’t do anything. When multiple managers attempted 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 lawyers. 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 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.
In the meantime, however, 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.
“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.”