Koreatown B-Dubs bridges old divide
Ed Barnett, left, and Karim Webb operate four Buffalo Wild Wings restaurants in L.A., including their newest in Koreatown, west of downtown.
Some people might see a location in Koreatown, remember the Watts riots and stay away. Two Buffalo Wild Wings operators in Los Angeles saw an opportunity to help heal old wounds.
Karim Webb and Ed Barnett were short of room to add Buffalo Wild Wings stores to their Los Angeles portfolio, so they scouted out an overlooked trade area, pitched it to corporate and gained approval.
The result is a restaurant in Koreatown five miles west of downtown L.A., where they have taken extra steps to connect with community members who in the past were sworn enemies.
A local non-profit called KCCD, or Korean Churches for Community Development, was key to their outreach, Webb said, especially helping them attract Korean immigrants as servers and other staff.
KCCD is “one of the byproducts of the friction between African-Americans and Koreans after the Watts riots” in 2002, Webb said. “It’s one of the organizations that works with Korean-Americans, especially recently immigrated Americans, to get a foothold.”
It’s been 25 years since a series of riots, lootings and arson erupted in south-central LA after police officers were acquitted in the videotaped beating of Rodney King. “Whole blocks of Koreatown went up in flames that night,” said an NPR account of the six days of rioting in April 2002.
Today, Webb and Barnett say their mission is to be good community partners, teaching entrepreneurship classes in high schools near their four Buffalo Wild Wings restaurants, for example, and always hiring locally. “If I go into a restaurant in a community that I know is diverse and I don’t see people that look like the residents in that community, I take note of that,” says Webb.
‘A little bit of everything’
Barnett noted the demographics of the area are changing rapidly. “When we were doing the research in Koreatown, we found out 48 percent of Koreatown is now Hispanic. You have a little bit of everything, some very wealthy people, to middle class people, all the way to the bottom class in wealth,” he said.
Barnett described the old days in the neighborhood. “The Korean and black issues were just kind of a lack of understanding from a cultural standpoint. And then if you open up a business, and they don’t hire from the community, and it’s just take, take, take,” he said. “Now you have a standpoint when you have this gentrification, those issues aren’t there because those stores are no longer there.” In their place he saw opportunity.
“There were a lot of mom and pop shops. I looked at it as an opportunity to come in and do good business, and being able to hire local people.”
To expand, the two franchisees took advantage of Buffalo Wild Wings’ pitch to all their operators to scout out trade areas that were overlooked. “I think it’s one of the benefits of being very well versed with a local area, and being able to identify, hey, this might be a gap in their overall development strategy,” Webb said.
“They typically use national real estate contractors, and they don’t always leverage the local expertise. We were able to identify that Koreatown was far enough away from other trade areas, had its own demographics that would support a Buffalo Wild Wings, and then approached BWW about doing that deal, and after analysis they agreed with us.”
The approach was especially welcome, Webb said, because BWW is a mature brand with limited expansion locations.
Reached on Nov. 30, the day after Roark Capital announced its intent to purchase Buffalo Wild Wings, taking it private and merging it with Arby’s, Barnett said he wasn’t sure what’s in store with the brand.
“It’s so new, so I think we have to take a wait-and-see approach. If you look at Roark’s history, they own about 20 different brands, and they don’t have a history of buying it and trying to strip it,” rather they hold companies and grow them.
“If you look at it from that history, it’s positive. You have new blood in it. Our hope is they’ll see the things that we do well, and they’ll take the time to listen to the franchisees” about things that could be better.
“That’s what our hope is, but it’s too new to really tell,” Barnett said.
In the meantime, in their little corner of the world, they’re intent on being good neighbors today.