At a cursory glance, Karim Webb and Edward Barnett’s approach to employee retention is straightforward and not unlike other restaurant owners: Invest in your people, and your people will invest in your business. That basic tenet holds true for the pair of multi-unit Buffalo Wild Wings operators, but what differentiates them from the pack is whom they invest in.
Webb and Barnett have three locations on the south side of Los Angeles (with three more in development) and hire from the local community, including a number of disadvantaged youths. The two co-owners do not specifically target these groups; they are simply a large part of the immediate neighborhood.
“There is a disproportionate number of young people who come from some adverse circumstances, and it’s not intimidating to us,” Webb says. “If we have the ability and the cultural competency to employ people who [others] may not employ and to actually still execute at a high level, it maybe turns some young people on who might have been turned off by circumstances.”
Webb and Barnett have worked as Buffalo Wild Wings operators since 2006, but Webb has been immersed in the restaurant world for far longer. His parents were McDonald’s franchisees, and Webb learned firsthand how setting high expectations, integrating employees into the business, and holding them accountable will result in a more engaged and loyal workforce.
Buffalo Wild Wings encourages its operators to do philanthropic work, but it does not prescribe a specific charity or organization. For Webb and Barnett, the business dovetailed with their existing community work.
Webb is on the boards of the California Community Foundation, the Brotherhood Crusade, L.A. Kitchen, and the Living Through Giving Foundation; he’s also a special adviser to the Multicultural Foodservice & Hospitality Alliance (MFHA) and vice chairman of the Greater Los Angeles African American Chamber of Commerce. Through these associations, their Buffalo Wild Wings locations have become known for exceptional hiring practices and a commitment to employee development.
“We have become a trusted landing point as an employer for young people and for organizations whose charter it is to help place young people and develop them,” Webb says. “I like to use the expression, ‘Exercise the muscle of excellence.’ Sometimes young people haven’t been asked to be outstanding or haven’t been given a reason to do what it takes to execute at a high level.”
In 2014, Webb and Barnett expanded the scope of their community engagement through a 16-week restaurant training program at Dorsey High School, located about a mile from one of their stores. With the help of the Los Angeles Urban League, they taught 29 seniors at the School of Business and Entrepreneurship everything from presenting a business plan to writing P&L statements to cooking the menu items. At the course’s conclusion, the students hosted a pop-up of a restaurant concept they had built from the ground up.
The program received much buzz in local news outlets, and Webb and Barnett have no shortage of other similar stories from the restaurants.
“We had a young man who came to us, worked in our organization, learned from us, did the right thing, and then recently left to start his own entrepreneurial venture,” Barnett says. That young man established his own clothing line and now has a brick-and-mortar shop; he still stays in touch with his former employers. “Once you show somebody that you genuinely care about them and you’re genuinely invested in their success as a person, more than likely they’ll run through a brick wall for you. They will be very appreciative, and they’ll work hard for you.”
While these anecdotes can be difficult to quantify, the stores’ numbers do suggest a correlation between engaged employees and a strong business. Webb says their stores are consistently top performers in the system. Last year, one store posted the highest increase in same-store sales; another earned the same honor several years in a row.
For all its success, Webb and Barnett’s business philosophy boils down to the golden rule—and common sense. “Performance is a microcosm of how people feel and their commitment to do the right thing,” Webb says. “It’s not rocket science. They’ve got to be able to believe in the leadership, but also believe that what they’re doing is in their best interest. You’ve got to connect to their humanity and to what they want to create for themselves.”