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Islanders protest at the Willows Inn over allegations at work

LUMMI ISLAND, Washington – With hand-painted signs with slogans such as “Take Sexism Off the Menu!” And “Racism is NOT a Local Ingredient,” about 50 protesters gathered in front of the Willows Inn, a world-famous restaurant on this tiny island near the Canadian border, Friday night .

The protesters, mostly islanders, called for the resignation of Blaine Wetzel, the restaurant’s head chef, who was accused by 35 former employees of creating a job riddled with homophobic and racist language, verbal abuse, sexism and sexual harassment.

Mr. Wetzel, 35, who has built his reputation for promoting the Willows’ pristine ingredients as being local to Lummi and the surrounding area, is also accused of deceiving customers – who pay at least $ 285 for dinner with tax and service, without drinks – by regularly checking supermarket and commercial ingredients and ordering restaurant staff to lie about them.

He has not made any public statements since April 27, when the New York Times published an article about the allegations, which Mr. Wetzel largely denied.

Because of this, protesters said, and because many of the sexual harassment allegations came from women who grew up on the island, local resentment has flared up against the Willows’ management: Mr. Wetzel; Reid Johnson, the longtime manager who also remains in office; and Tim McEvoy, the co-owner of the inn. None of the three men responded to requests to comment on the protests.

David Young, an organizer, was cruising back and forth in his sailboat across the bay across from the inn, his sails bearing huge red letters that read, “Can 35?” And “Bye, Blaine and Reid.” He said the lack of accountability required public action. “It is now too late for her to change her behavior,” he said.

The diners had been moved from the outside terrace to the dining room and large black curtains hung to hide the bay and its famous spectacular sunsets.

As the guests pulled into the parking lot where two security guards were checking reservations, some protesters shouted “shame” and asked customers if they had seen the Times article. A woman in a car said “yes” and went on to the restaurant.

About two hours after the protest began, a man and a woman came out of the restaurant and engaged in heated exchanges with protesters, with the man shouting a swear phrase at the crowd. Some demonstrators shouted to them: “Enjoy this exploitation” and “You have no backbone”. In response, the man said, “Prove it,” presumably referring to the allegations in the Times article.

According to three people who worked in the restaurant and requested anonymity for fear of professional consequences, 10 employees – almost half of the total – resigned shortly after this report was published; Hundreds of reservations have been canceled and these customers’ deposits, typically $ 500, have been refunded without comment.

Local companies making bespoke products for the Willows – Camber Coffee, Constant Crush Winery, and Wander Brewing – said they had ended their collaboration immediately.

Loganita Farm has long been the cornerstone of Mr Wetzel’s claim that he only cooked with ingredients from Lummi Island. Although he often referred to Loganita as “our” farm, it was never part of the Willows and is separately owned by Steve McMinn, a former Willows investor.

In a telephone interview, Mr McMinn said he sympathized with the former employees but saw the protest as “a storm in a teapot”. He said Loganita will continue to grow vegetables for the restaurant. “I like making local ingredients and doing local jobs,” he said.

Mary von Krusenstiern, the head farmer, worked on the farm for nine years and lived in the area all her life. Although Loganita was not involved in any of the sourcing allegations, she resigned a few days after the allegations were published.

“I felt ethically and morally compromised by the association and didn’t want to sit around and wait for his resignation,” she said of Mr. Wetzel. “I didn’t want to be on the wrong side of history in my hometown.”

A week after the Times report, the Willows posted a statement on their email list saying the team was “sad” that the workplace was causing “undue stress”; that no sexual harassment has ever been reported to managers; and that recruitment, training and human resource efforts have improved in recent years. But as individuals, Mr. Wetzel, Mr. Reid, and Mr. McEvoy remained silent.

Last week the three men contacted the protest organizers and asked to meet in person. David Young, whose boat was sails at the protest, said the group refused to meet with Mr. Wetzel and Mr. Reid but sat down with Mr. McEvoy on Sunday. They said he detailed the company’s plans to improve transparency, accountability and employee support but would not talk about asking Mr. Reid and Mr. Wetzel to leave.

The Willows website now has a “Responsibility” section that includes an “Action Plan for Workplace 2021”; Descriptions of the inn’s community initiatives; and a procurement leader who lists Costco among its dozen of local manufacturers.

When Mr. Wetzel took over the Willows in 2010, he turned it from a local restaurant and inn to a global travel destination. He did this in part by replicating many elements of Noma, the acclaimed Copenhagen restaurant where Mr Wetzel worked under chef René Redzepi for two years – from the hyper-local sourcing of ingredients to the leather aprons to the kitchen culture of verbal abuse. Like many at the highest level of fine dining, this kitchen was a notoriously toxic workplace at the time. Mr Redzepi is one of the few top chefs who has recognized his own role in this abuse.

“I know I was part of the problem,” Redzepi wrote in an email last week. “My anger problems influenced my team and contributed to diminishing the culture of our industry.”

But, he said, a decade of conscious effort has now been made to make kitchens more equitable and supportive. “I’ve decided that I don’t want to be part of passing this on to another generation.”

Some of the Willows protesters said there is simply no place on the island for an expensive travel destination for the global elite, regardless of who is in charge.

A woman cooked hot dogs and baked beans for the demonstrators in front of the restaurant, with a sign that read, “Who needs $ 500 plates. Free Viennese for EVERYONE. “

Sarah Perry, a pediatrician, came with her three daughters, husband and mother, who has lived on the island for 55 years. She said she had fond memories of working at the inn as a teenager, but the exploitation of employees by the current management was “unacceptable”.

“For me the tragedy is that this could be this beautiful symbiosis, it really should be, and it has become a parasite,” she said. “They just soak up everything beautiful about this place and don’t give something back in a meaningful way that doesn’t have their brand.”

Julia Moskin reported from New York and Hallie Golden from Lummi Island, Washington.

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