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Buffalo Wild Wings’ franchisee of fresh starts


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“We’re all trying to get a better life, better opportunity,” says Karim Webb, a Buffalo Wild Wings franchisee in Los Angeles. That includes his employees, whom he counsels to offer them a chance to succeed.

Scott Witter

At his Buffalo Wild Wings Grill & Bar in the Crenshaw District of Los Angeles, Karim Webb isn’t doing business as usual.

For one, the hosts who greet you at the door are well connected to gang culture in the area and look more like security guards than someone schooled in carrying menus to the table. Their job is to check bags as guests enter and turn away people wearing “certain clothing,” such as the colors of the Crips and Bloods or gang signs. Patio windows facing the parking lot are blacked out to prevent anyone driving by seeing who’s dining inside.

When a local gang member hosted an after-wake party at the restaurant, Webb and his security called competing gangs in the neighborhood to tell them not to visit the restaurant that night.

“We have a contract with the community,” Webb says. “We’re off-limits for what we call ‘drama.’”

In return, Webb provides opportunities for neighborhood youth in the guise of jobs, training and fresh starts. He spends the money to ensure the restaurant is a safe place for people to gather to drink beer, eat wings and watch sports on big-screen TVs.

“It takes some etiquette not necessary in other neighborhoods,” he says, smiling wryly—such as meeting with the residents of an apartment building behind the restaurant to reassure them Buffalo Wild Wings plans to be a good neighbor. “He’s done an amazing job” connecting with his community, says James Schmidt, Buffalo Wild Wings’ COO.

“The most successful restaurants do it everywhere,” he continues, but Webb has taken it up a notch. He’s donated his time to causes, rung doorbells and visited schools and local businesses to get to know not just the key people, like the politicians, but the broader community from churches to local residents, which is especially critical to do for inner-city restaurants.

Karim Webb models the behavior he wants to see from his employees at his three Buffalo Wild Wings in the LA area.

Webb looks much younger than his 40 years. He has the grace of an athlete and the ease of someone who’s comfortable in his own skin. And while he appears laid back, there’s an intensity fueling him. Ask him about lifestyle balance and he’ll retort, “There is no work/life balance, it’s just life. Whatever’s on the calendar you do, rest of it you move through the day.”

The son of a McDonald’s franchisee, Webb deliberately located his restaurant in the neighborhood made famous by the 1998 riots, which were set off when a jury acquitted four white police officers whose beating of African-American motorist Rodney King during a routine traffic stop was captured on video. The ensuing riots left 50 dead, 2,000 injured and a thousand buildings destroyed or damaged for a cost of $1 billion, according to a CNN report at the time.

The neighborhoods have been rebuilt, but sit-down dining has been in short order. A few years ago, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, an NBA superstar turned entrepreneur tried opening T.G.I. Fridays in the inner city where Webb is now serving, but the concept didn’t take off.

Webb believes he has the right combination of service, product and relevance. “When we opened we preached service,” Webb says.

This is the second Buffalo Wild Wings developed by PCF Restaurant Management—the company he formed with business partner Edward Barnett. A third opened last November in Carson, California. He admits, the Crenshaw District location wasn’t his first choice. “We were desperately looking for sites; we had a timeline (development schedule),” the former Realtor says. “It is difficult to find sites and the cost of real estate (in LA) is not compatible with our price points.” The current location is a former Hollywood Video store in a strip mall near a major mall.

Webb and Barnett grew up playing basketball together. Barnett’s background is in the financial services industry. He’s vice president of the private client group of Newbury Capital Management, where he implements money management strategies for professional athletes, executives and nonprofit organizations.

When Webb and Barnett signed the lease on the Crenshaw District location, they made a $2.5 million investment in the site, even though they realized “something crazy could happen beyond our control,” Webb says. And yet, he adds, “our purpose is more than selling wings and beer.

“We’re all trying to get a better life, better opportunity”—and that’s exactly what he’s trying to give the people who walk through his doors to be employed.

Earning your learning

Before becoming a McDonald’s franchisee in the San Gabriel Valley of Southern California, Webb’s father, Reggie Webb, was an executive with McDonald’s corporate. When Webb was 11, Reggie Webb became a franchisee, because “my kids can inherit my business, they can’t inherit my job,” Webb recalls his father saying.

His parents amassed 16 restaurants, and the three Webb children all worked in the business. “McDonald’s was fun for me,” Webb says. “That was my association (with working); it was exciting when I could handle money.”

The family business taught him more than how to ring up an order and assemble a hamburger as the clock ticked. “My parents had the utmost respect for the people they worked with,” he says. “Worked with” is the optimal phrase here, because the people Webb is referring to worked for his parents—the sometimes discounted minimum-wage workers.

“They have an affinity for people who don’t have the same privileges,” he says of his parents, both of whom were raised in single-parent homes and don’t take their comfortable lives for granted.

The third generation may be more privileged than the first two, but they weren’t given a pass during their formative years. “My parents didn’t spoil us,” he says. “We had to work for what we had. Make a mistake and your car is taken away.”

From 11 to 28, Webb worked in his parents’ restaurants, and then with 17 years of experience under his belt at a young age, he stepped out to do real estate. It was then that he discovered Buffalo Wild Wings, which he describes as “McDonald’s on steroids.” The business wasn’t complicated, he explains, and the two kitchens had a lot of similarities. “It was a fun place to be,” he says, adding that his friends are much more likely to hang out with him at BWW than at McDonald’s.

His parents’ attitude is infused into the way Webb treats his current employees. He says he will take employees aside and say, “I’ve identified you as a person who hasn’t gotten a fair shake.” He teaches those who sign on how to “operate at a high level.” In addition to business skills, staff learns essential life skills, from how to balance a checkbook to how to compound money in a retirement account.

Webb has done the math and he knows a good server can make $50,000 a year with combined tips and salary. “That’s what I tell them day one,” he says. “Treat this like a $50,000 opportunity. You’re learning transferrable skills.”

Servers are expected to have knowledge of beer and the food they’re serving, to smile and be helpful. There’s no texting on the job, and no personal cell phones allowed on the floor. (Anyone who has ever watched a bartender or hostess check their email instead of acknowledging you exist may want to applaud.)

“I don’t have Obamacare,” he says. “I’m of the mentality that if you’re doing a good job I don’t want to cut hours. Our servers average four-and-a-half to five days.”

Looking professional is as important as acting professional. On the day we visited the restaurant, two women in the front of the house had discreet Band-Aids covering their nose piercings because they were too new to remove the stud during work hours.

Jessica Bell, 32, is one of Webb’s success stories. She had worked in the industry several years and while she “always had a strong work ethic, this was the first time someone took an interest (in her career),” she says. With Webb’s mentoring, she worked her way up to general manager, at which time, Webb insisted she buy herself a briefcase so she’d look and feel managerial. The briefcase wasn’t the only fashion advice he gave her. “I used to wear bows,” she confesses, laughing. Webb told her no one wanted to see a manager who looks like a kid. “He’d say, ‘Dress like Michelle Obama; she doesn’t wear a bow.’

“I wear cardigans now and the only thing I can keep (from her old style of dressing) are my socks,” she says, grinning as she lifts up her pant leg to show off her Mickey Mouse socks.

Bell is now the one telling servers to “curb their hairstyles” or dress more appropriately. She even counsels applicants on what to wear to job interviews. “They may not get a job here, but they know what to wear and how to act (for their next interview),” she says.

Another success is Torri Glanville, 38, an assistant manager, who started out as a cashier at the Torrance restaurant—the first one Webb and his partner opened—in order to get off unemployment. She’s a single mom with four kids ranging in age from 21 to 8. “I’m people and food friendly,” she says about her management style.

What set aside her experience at Buffalo Wild Wings from other places she’s worked, she says, is the “recognition is so magnificent.” She was there a month and was promoted.

“Based on the opportunities so far, I’m hoping to keep moving up,” she says. “It feels like family...we’ll be hanging out together for awhile.”

Glanville also was asked to tone down her dress style She held out her hand to show off her nail designs. “My nails are my only creative touch (at work),” she says.

Dressing for success is just one of the lessons Webb teaches. “We have a process—corrective coaching,” he says, where unacceptable behavior is dealt with immediately. He tells the story of a busboy, who was caught on camera pocketing an extra $20 a guest had accidentally left on the table and had returned to retrieve. It was bad enough that he’d taken money a guest hadn’t intended to leave, but he was also stealing from the server because tips are shared.

Webb says it was tough having to fire the young man. He told him, “You were given an opportunity that could have gone to someone else.” It was a message that every employee heard loud and clear: “You owe it to your staff to be fair,” he says.

And it’s not as if he doesn’t apply the same rules to himself. “I model the behavior I want to see,” he says. Bell affirms it. During a rush, “He’s going to get back there and help,” she says. “He’ll shake wings.”

It’s a social business

There weren’t a lot of African-Americans in the affluent suburb where Webb grew up. He attended Morehouse College, a historically black, all-male college in Atlanta, with the dream of becoming a lawyer. Law didn’t suit him, but the education did further shape him. Famous alumni, include Martin Luther King Sr., Jr. and the III; activist filmmaker Spike Lee and theologian and civil rights leader Howard Thurman. Armed with a liberal education, Webb is doing his bit for civil rights by providing opportunities to work. He sees jobs as a way to break the cycle of foster homes and jail for African American inner-city youth who are often “under-educated and under-parented.”

He’s both evangelist and businessman. At least that’s the way he was embraced as a panelist at the Multi-Cultural Restaurant & Hospitality Alliance conference in June 2014. There wasn’t a franchisor in the room who didn’t wish he or she could sign on Webb for their franchise opportunity.

Webb told attendees at the event that one of the ways he engages applicants is to ask: “If I find out what’s important to you and I teach you how to be dynamic around it, would you be interested in working with me?” If they act interested, he tells them what they need to do in order to be successful at work, along the lines of: “If you do this, you can get this.” The result, he pointed out, is that a light bulb goes on. “When people think you care about what’s important to them, they’ll care about what’s important to you.

“It may sound like fluff,” he said at the time, “but I’m all about the bottom line.”

Gerry Fernandez, founder of the Multicultural Foodservice & Hospitality Alliance, says Webb could be the poster child for what’s right in the restaurant industry. Politicians, along with the general public, have a negative image of the restaurant and hospitality industries that’s not deserved, Fernandez points out. They see them as paying low wages, refusing to give benefits and producing nothing but dead-end jobs. “We are the good guys,” Fernandez says, emphatically. “We’re teaching these kids skills.”

In addition, Webb serves as a shining example of success to these kids. “I don’t know how much you know about ethnic communities,” Fernandez says during a phone interview, “but the number of entrepreneurs and successful business people is a small percentage.” Minorities like Webb, who were raised by entrepreneurial parents, have an advantage opening a business in the inner city because they already are on the community leaders’ radar, as well as the people who are going to be their customers. Their success stories are held up as examples  to the community at large of what is possible with hard work and perseverance.

The bottom line he says he’s “all about” has earned him Black Enterprises magazine’s 2014 Annual Small Business Award for the Franchise Company of the Year. Webb also was singled out at Buffalo Wild Wings’ annual convention in 2014 as having the highest increase in the system for same-store sales from 2012 to 2013 for the Crenshaw District store, corporate’s Schmidt says.

As a franchisee, part of your top line automatically goes to advertising and marketing, but Webb understands that a franchisee has to own the market they’re in. A restaurateur can never let his guard down. Webb accomplishes this by checking out the competition quarterly to see how his offer can outmatch their promotions, and by being active in the community.

Webb spends more time at the Crenshaw location than the other two, he says, because, “People want to see the owner.” Politicians also view hanging out there as a PR photo opp—which also increases visibility.

The time Webb spent reaching out to the community before the restaurant opened its doors has paid off. “When I really engaged, my business took off,” he says. “Opportunities happen, phone’s ringing.”

Webb admits he had a few preconceived ideas about his restaurant’s neighborhood in the beginning. “It’s in the Jungle (a poorer area of town named for its tropical foliage), I thought it would be down on its luck. But I was blown away,” he says.

What he found was a lot of hope, hard workers and customers.

 

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