The Willows Inn — the Lummi Island fine dining destination helmed by chef and co-owner Blaine Wetzel that, in recent years, faced numerous allegations of racism, sexual harassment, and wage theft — has closed permanently, the Seattle Times reports.
The new owner of the Willows Inn, a Bellingham nonprofit called Lighthouse Mission Ministries whose mission is to end homelessness in Whatcom County, received the property as a donation from previous co-owners Tim and Marcia McEvoy. The Christian social service nonprofit says it does not yet have official plans for the restaurant and inn that comprise the Willows Inn but could theoretically sell to a new owner-operator to help fund a new facility in Bellingham.
The narrative surrounding the Willows Inn shifted dramatically over the past half-decade. Once on virtually every regional and national best-of list, including Eater’s in 2016 — in part for its claim of sourcing hyper-local ingredients from idyllic Lummi Island — the restaurant began to show signs of trouble in 2017, when a Department of Labor investigation led to the end of the stage program and a $149,000 fine for unpaid wages and damages to 19 kitchen employees. Though Wetzel denied wrongdoing, in early 2021 the restaurant paid $600,00 to settle a related class-action lawsuit that alleged wage theft.
Shortly thereafter, a New York Times expose painted a damning picture of a toxic workplace, with 35 former employees alleging sexism, sexual harassment, and racist bullying on the part of Wetzel and manager Reid Johnson. The 2021 report also claimed that the restaurant would sometimes purchase ingredients at grocery stores like Costco and pass them off as island-grown. (Wetzel denied most of the allegations in the piece but did admit that many ingredients come from outside Lummi Island.) In May 2021, protestors gathered outside the restaurant to call for action based on the allegations.
Just last month, the Willows Inn agreed to settle another class-action lawsuit related to the previous one alleging wage theft — this time for more than $1.37 million, the Seattle Times reported. “The Willows Inn also currently faces three civil cases in state and federal courts,” according to the Times. “All three were brought against the restaurant by former employees.” It appears the fallout may continue.
Willows Inn chef and co-owner Blaine Wetzel did not provide comment to the newspaper or Eater Seattle, but during a presentation at the Vallarta-Nayarit Gastronomic Festival last month, his wife, chef Daniela Soto-Innes, revealed that she would open a restaurant in Mexico in 2023, saying, “We’re going to bring the entire family from the Island (Lummi) to Nayarit and embody our roots again,” per the Puerto Vallarta Daily News.
Update: December 1, 2022, 1:05 p.m.: This article was updated to reflect that Wetzel is not officially involved with Soto-Innes’ upcoming restaurant project in Mexico.