In an April 27 New York Times expose, former employees from Lummi Island’s critically acclaimed Willows Inn accuse the restaurant of being, in short, a nightmare work environment. Among some of the most troubling claims in the article are that chef-owner Blaine Wetzel and the restaurant’s manager Reid Johnson oversaw a pattern of sexism, sexual harassment, and racist bullying at the Willows Inn, and that staff members allegedly preyed on teenaged girls from the island. The piece also claims that the carefully cultivated image of local sourcing was false, with items purchased at grocery stores passed off as island-grown ingredients.
Wetzel denied all of the allegations regarding sexism, harassment, and racist abuse, and he also refuted most of the claims regarding ingredient sourcing. Johnson did not provide a comment to the Times for the article.
The Times spoke to 35 former staff members, including female employees who said they endured constant sexual harassment from male co-workers and female cooks who were repeatedly blocked from promotion. Among them were a few locals who started working at Willows Inn when they were teenagers, and claim that certain male kitchen staffers touched them inappropriately and plied them with alcohol.
Sarah Letchworth, a former female employee who was 15 when she started working at Willows Inn, said that her male co-workers had a running joke about “Lummi Island 16,” which meant that “you were available for sex, and that any kind of creepy and predatory behavior was fine.” She also claimed Wetzel once offered to drive her home from a party when she was 18 but coerced her into doing shots at his house first, then drove her home drunk.
Wetzel denied Letchworth’s claims in the piece and said the following regarding the allegation that female cooks didn’t advance in his kitchen: “I support female chefs with all my heart (so much so that I married one). Anyone that would claim that I don’t support female chefs is lying.”
In addition to an atmosphere of misogyny, the Times also spoke with former employees who claimed verbal bullying was rampant, including the claim that Wetzel would put workers down “using a derogatory term for mentally disabled people to disparage them.” The sources in the article also say that Wetzel used “racist language” to describe Latino employees and Asian customers, all claims which Wetzel denied with a similar phrasing to his sexist and sexual harassment refutation: “My step mom and brother are Chinese, my wife is Mexican, and anyone that would claim I was racist is lying.”
The story paints a grim picture of what was allegedly going on behind the scenes for years at Willows Inn, but the culture of deception also apparently extended to the plate. Though the restaurant touted its meticulous preparation of produce grown on Lummi Island (particularly the inn’s own small farm), former employees claim most of the ingredients actually came from mainland purveyors — and even from grocery stores, on occasion.
The “wild venison” the restaurant advertised as from Lummi was actually farm-raised in Idaho, and “roasted chicken drippings” in one dish allegedly came from poultry bought at Costco. “On my first day, I was cutting frozen Alaskan scallops down to the shape and size of pink singing scallops,” Julia Olmos, a line cook who worked at the restaurant from 2017 to 2019, told the Times. Wetzel denied these claims, too, saying “we never misrepresent our ingredient sources,” but he did admit that many ingredients come from outside Lummi, including organic chickens.
The Times’ report arrives weeks after the Willows Inn settled a $600,000 class-action lawsuit related to wage theft, in which former employees accused Wetzel and management for “failing to pay minimum wage for all work performed, overtime wages, and to provide or pay for rest and meal breaks under Washington law.” The lawsuit was related to a labor violation notice the restaurant received roughly four years ago, in which the restaurant allegedly violated labor laws by having its “stages” — culinary interns who generally work for free in fine-dining restaurants — work for as many as 14 hours a day, with no overtime and day rates as low as $50.
In response, the restaurant nixed its staging program but denied any wrongdoing. A settlement was agreed upon by both parties in October 2020. Wetzel told Eater Seattle that the lawsuit allegations “are in no way accurate” and claimed it was “a tool that this specialized law firm uses to greatly exacerbate a citation we received from 2016.”
Eater Seattle reached out to Wetzel and Johnson for further comment on the allegations in the New York Times article, but did not hear back before publication. We will update this piece if more information emerges.