A month after a New York Times report detailed disturbing allegations against Lummi Island’s critically lauded Willows Inn, locals are turning the heat on management. On Friday, May 28, a group of about 50 protesters gathered outside the restaurant during dinner service, carrying signs that read “More Decency Less Awards” and “Willows Wore Out Welcome,” in response to the litany of complaints from 35 former employees against chef Blaine Wetzel and manager Reid Johnson.
According to the original Times report from April, Wetzel and Johnson oversaw a pattern of sexism, sexual harassment, and racist bullying at the Willows Inn over the course of years, and deceived customers into thinking that ingredients sourced from outside vendors (including grocery stores like Costco) were locally grown.
Among the former employees quoted in the April article were Lummi Island 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. One said 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.” Wetzel denied these allegations; Johnson did not respond to a request for comment.
The sources in the article also say that Wetzel used “racist language” in the workplace. One chef told the Times that he and another Asian-American staff member confronted Wetzel about a racist slur directed at them, but that Wetzel denied ever using the slur (the staffers then resigned within a day). In a response to the Times, Wetzel refuted the allegations by saying, “My step mom and brother are Chinese, my wife is Mexican, and anyone that would claim I was racist is lying.”
The fallout has been swift. The New York Times says 10 people (nearly half of the Willows Inn staff) resigned soon after its report was published and that hundreds of reservations were canceled, refunding $500 deposits to customers without comment. In addition, several local purveyors — including Camber Coffee, Constant Crush winery, and Wander Brewing — have ended their relationship with the restaurant.
The Willows Inn now has a “workplace action plan” detailed on its website that notes it will “organize and provide mandatory (paid) training for sexual harassment and retaliation prevention, inclusion/diversity and for managers leadership training.” In the sourcing section, the restaurant lists companies such as Costco and Sysco as vendors, among smaller partners. A description in that section reads, “We wish to be fully forthright with our product sourcing, any lack of transparency to the origin of our products would only discredit the outstanding ingredients we work with and the artisans who create them.”
The Times spoke with a few protestors gathered on Friday, who seemed unmoved by the restaurant’s attempts to increase transparency. A few organizers reportedly got into a heated exchange with a man and woman outside the Willows Inn as dinner service continued; another cooked hot dogs for the crowd that gathered. One protestor, who rode his boat by the place with sails that read “Bye Bye Blaine and Reid,” told the paper, “It’s too late for them to change their ways now.
Eater Seattle reached out to Wetzel and Johnson for comment on the recent protests but did not hear back before this piece was published.