LUMMI ISLAND, Wash. – Carrying hand painted signs with slogans like “Take sexism off the menu!” And “Racism is NOT a local ingredient,” about 50 protesters gathered Friday night outside the Willows Inn, a world-famous restaurant on this small island near the Canadian border.
Protesters, mostly islanders, demanded the resignation of Blaine Wetzel, the restaurant’s chef, who has been accused by 35 former employees of creating a workplace riddled with homophobic and racist language, violence verbal abuse, sexism and sexual harassment.
Mr Wetzel, 35, who built his reputation on touting the Willows’ pristine ingredients as sourced from Lummi and the surrounding area, is also accused of cheating on patrons – who pay at least $ 285 for dinner with taxes and service, drinks not included – regularly using supermarkets and commercial ingredients, and ordering restaurant staff to lie about it.
Since April 27, when The New York Times ran an article detailing the allegations, which Mr Wetzel has largely denied, he has not made any public statements.
Because of this, protesters said, and because many accusations of sexual harassment came from women who grew up on the island, local resentment erupted against the leadership of the Willows: Mr. Wetzel; Reid Johnson, the longtime manager, who also remains in place; and Tim McEvoy, co-owner of the inn. None of the three men responded to a request for comment on the protests.
David Young, an organizer, tacked in his sailboat in the bay in front of the hostel, his sails bearing giant red letters that read, “Can he lie?” And “Goodbye Blaine and Reid.” He said accountability failures made public action necessary. “It’s too late for them to change their ways now,” he said.
Restaurant diners had been moved from the outdoor terrace to the dining room, and tall black curtains had been installed, obscuring the bay and its famous spectacular sunsets.
As customers entered the parking lot, where two security guards were checking reservations, a few protesters shouted “Shame” and asked customers if they had seen the Times article. A woman in a car said “Yes” and continued into the restaurant.
About two hours after the start of the protest, a man and woman came out of the restaurant and had a heated exchange with the protesters, with the man shouting a curse at the crowd. Some protesters shouted at them, “Take advantage of this exploitation” and “You don’t have a backbone. In response, the man said, “Prove it,” presumably referring to the accusations in the Times article.
According to three people who worked at the restaurant and requested anonymity for fear of professional consequences, 10 staff members – almost half of the total – resigned shortly after the publication of this report; hundreds of reservations have been canceled and deposits from these customers, typically in the order of $ 500, have been refunded without comment.
Local businesses that made custom products for the Willows – Camber Coffee, Constant Crush Winery and Wander Brewing – said they immediately ended their collaborations.
Loganita Farm, which has long been the cornerstone of Mr Wetzel’s claim that he only cooks with ingredients from Lummi Island, has also announced plans to stop doing business with the Willows. Although he often referred to Loganita as “our” farm, she was never a 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 viewed the protest as “a storm in a teapot”. He said Loganita will continue to grow vegetables for the restaurant. “I like producing local ingredients and local jobs,” he said.
Mary von Krusenstiern, the head farmer, worked on the farm for nine years and lived in the area her entire life. Although Loganita was not involved in any of the sourcing allegations, she resigned days after the allegations were published.
“I felt ethically and morally compromised by the association, and I didn’t want to sit around waiting for him to resign,” she said of Mr Wetzel. “I wasn’t about to be on the wrong side of history in my hometown.”
A week after the Times report, the Willows sent a statement to their mailing list saying the team was “saddened” that the workplace caused “undue stress”; that no sexual harassment had ever been reported to those responsible; and that its hiring, training and human resources efforts had improved in recent years. But individually, Mr. Wetzel, Mr. Reid and Mr. McEvoy have remained silent.
Last week, the three men contacted protest organizers and asked to meet in person. David Young, whose boat was carrying the sails during 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 had detailed the company’s plans to improve transparency, accountability and employee support, but would not discuss asking Mr Reid and Mr Wetzel to leave.
The Willows website now has a “Responsibility” section, which contains a “Workplace Action Plan 2021”; descriptions of the hostel’s community outreach initiatives; and a sourcing guide that lists Costco among its dozens of local producers.
When Mr. Wetzel took over The Willows in 2010, he transformed it from a local restaurant and inn into a global destination. He did so in part by replicating many elements of Noma, the popular Copenhagen restaurant where Mr. Wetzel worked for two years under chef René Redzepi – from his hyperlocal sourcing of ingredients to his leather aprons to through its culinary culture of verbal violence. This kitchen, like many at the highest level of gastronomy, was then a notoriously toxic workplace. Mr. Redzepi is one of the few top chefs to have recognized his own role in these abuses.
“I know I was part of the problem,” Redzepi wrote in an email last week. “My anger issues affected my team and helped weaken the culture of our industry.”
But, he said, a decade of conscious effort is now devoted to making kitchens fairer and more inclusive. “I decided that I didn’t want to be part of the transmission to another generation.”
Some of the Willows protesters said whoever is responsible, there is simply no room on the island for an expensive destination for the global elite.
A woman cooked hot dogs and baked beans outside the restaurant for the protesters, with a sign saying, “Who needs $ 500 plates.” Free smoked sausages for ALL.
Sarah Perry, a pediatrician, came with her three daughters, husband and mother, who have lived on the island for 55 years. She said she had fond memories of working at the hostel as a teenager, but the current management’s exploitation of employees was “unacceptable”
“For me, the tragedy is that it could be this beautiful symbiosis, it really should be, and it has become a parasite,” she said. “They just suck up all the beautiful things in the place and don’t give back in a meaningful way that doesn’t have their mark everywhere.”
Julia Moskin reported from New York and Hallie Golden from Lummi Island, Wash.