Food

The Willows Inn Closes After Abuse Allegations and Lawsuits

After numerous allegations of sexual harassment and lawsuits claiming wage theft, the Willows Inn, a world-renowned restaurant and inn on a tiny island in the Pacific Northwest, has closed.

An investigation by The New York Times in April 2021 revealed that workers at the Willows said they had been subjected to verbal and sexual harassment, required to work 16- to 18-hour days, and bullied with sexist and racist language. The owners denied those allegations, but after the Times report, 137 employees filed a class-action lawsuit against the restaurant over working conditions, wage theft and wrongful termination; it was settled this year for $1.37 million. A previous suit was settled in 2020 for $600,000, with a proviso that the plaintiffs would not speak or respond to any members of the press.

Several former employees said the owner of the property, Tim McEvoy, told workers last week that the Willows would not reopen for the 2023 season, and that the property would be donated to charity and likely sold.

On Monday, the Lighthouse Mission Ministries, a Christian social service agency for homeless people based in nearby Bellingham, Wash., confirmed in a statement that the $2 million property had been donated, and that the organization “will evaluate the best use and value” for the buildings and land. “It’s too early to know if a potential new owner would want to operate the restaurant and hotel rooms in a similar manner or do something different,” the statement added. (The donation was reported Monday by The Seattle Times.)

The restaurant’s longtime chef, Blaine Wetzel, made the Willows famous on his arrival in 2010. He had come direct from working at Noma, in Copenhagen, as a proponent of the chef René Redzepi’s elegantly rustic, hyperlocal style of cooking. Mr. Wetzel became a star, winning awards and spots on global “best of” lists that drew diners and disciples to the Willows — a two-hour drive and a ferry ride from Seattle — by claiming that the ingredients for his multicourse tasting menus were foraged, caught or grown on idyllic Lummi Island.

Blaine Wetzel, the restaurant’s chef and co-owner, built a global reputation on claims that he used only ingredients found on tiny Lummi Island. Credit…Stuart Isett for The New York Times

The Times investigation revealed darker truths. Restaurant employees said that Mr. Wetzel’s behavior was abusive and erratic, that his language was obscene and sometimes racist, and that he prevented women from rising to top positions in the kitchen. Inn workers, many of them young women who lived on the island, said they were pressured to drink alcohol, use illegal drugs and have sex with male kitchen staff members and visiting chefs.

The Times also found that Mr. Wetzel not only routinely ordered food from farms on the mainland, but also sent employees to Costco, Target and other supermarkets for ingredients when supplies ran short.

Although many employees resigned immediately, and island residents staged protests, chanting and waving signs at diners as they arrived at the inn, the restaurant remained open through its 2021 season, closing for the winter last December. Mr. Wetzel’s wife, the chef Daniela Soto-Innes, brought on a new kitchen team for the 2022 season that began in March, but reservations dropped and the inn closed early, serving its final dinner the week before Thanksgiving.

The inn’s corporate entity, Freshore LLC, received federal paycheck protection loans of $359,623 in 2020 and $270,309 in 2021, both now forgiven.

Neither Mr. McEvoy nor Mr. Wetzel responded to requests for confirmation or comment. (McEvoy Oil, Mr. McEvoy’s family business, was founded in 1932 and bought in 2019 by Coleman Oil, one of the largest fuel distributors in the region.)

At a recent gastronomic conference in Mexico, Ms. Soto-Innes announced that she and Mr. Wetzel were opening a restaurant and farm in Nayarit, north of Puerto Vallarta.

According to Toby Marshall, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, the remaining individual lawsuits over wage theft and wrongful termination, brought by three former employees, had as of last month been “resolved to the mutual satisfaction of all sides.”

The lawsuits also named the longtime Willows general manager, Reid Johnson, who left this year for the upscale Friday Harbor House, a popular destination on San Juan Island. That restaurant’s executive chef, Jason Aldous, who worked at the Willows from 2013 to 2015, was arrested in June and is charged with multiple counts related to a sexual relationship with a female employee, a minor whom he and his wife had invited to live in their home.

The Willows was one of the main inspirations for the recent movie “The Menu,” exploring the dark side of fine dining and celebrity-chef culture.

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