LUMMI ISLAND, Wash. – Wear hand-painted signs with slogans like “Take sexism off the menu!” and “Racism is NOT a local ingredient,” about 50 protesters gathered on Friday evening in front of the Willows Inn, a world-famous restaurant on this tiny island near the Canadian border.
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 characterized by homophobic and racist language, verbal abuse, sexism and sexual harassment.
Wetzel, 35, who has earned a reputation for touting the Willows’ pristine ingredients as sourced from Lummi and the surrounding area, has also been accused of passing customers – who pay at least $ 285 for dinner with tax and service without drinks – through Regular use of having fooled supermarket and commercial ingredients, and ordering restaurant staff to lie about it.
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 charges came from women who grew up on the island, local resentment against the Willows management has spread: Mr. Wetzel; Reid Johnson, the longtime manager who also stays in place; 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 pacing in his sailboat across the bay across from the inn. Its sails had huge red letters that read, “Can 35 Lie?” And “Bye bye Blaine and Reid.” He said the lack of accountability required public action. “It is too late for them to change their ways now,” he said.
The diners in the restaurant had been moved from the outside deck to the dining room and large black curtains hung to hide the bay and its famously spectacular sunsets.
When 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 yelling at the crowd. Some protesters 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 asked for anonymity for fear of professional consequences, ten employees – almost half of the total – resigned shortly after this report was published. Hundreds of reservations have been canceled and deposits from these customers, typically in the range of $ 500, have been refunded without comment.
Local companies that made custom products for the Willows – Camber Coffee, Constant Crush Winery, and Wander Brewing – said they 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. Though 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 has lived in the area all her life. Although Loganita was not involved in any of the procurement allegations, she resigned a few days after the allegations were published.
“I felt ethically and morally affected by the association, and I didn’t want to sit around and wait for his resignation,” 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 posted a statement on their email list that the team was “sad” that the workplace was causing “undue stress”. that no sexual harassment has ever been reported to managers; and that his attitudes, training and staffing efforts had improved in recent years. But as individuals, Mr. Wetzel, Mr. Reid and Mr. McEvoy were 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 did not talk about asking Mr. Reid and Mr. Wetzel to leave the company.
The Willows website now has a “Responsibility” section that includes an “Action Plan for Workplace 2021”. Descriptions of the inn’s community outreach initiatives; and a sourcing guide listing Costco among its dozen local manufacturers.
When Mr. Wetzel took over the Willows in 2010, he converted it from a local restaurant and inn to a global destination. He did this in part by mimicking many elements of Noma, the acclaimed Copenhagen restaurant where Mr Wetzel worked under chef René Redzepi for two years – from hyper-local sourcing of ingredients to leather aprons to the kitchen culture of verbal abuse. Back then, like many of the highest quality, this kitchen was a notoriously toxic workplace. 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,” Mr Redzepi wrote in an email last week. “My anger issues influenced my team and contributed to undermining the culture of our industry.”
But, he said, it has now been a decade of conscious effort to make kitchens more equitable and supportive. “I’ve decided that I don’t want to take part in passing this on to another generation.”
Some of the Willows protesters said there is simply no place on the island for an expensive target for the global elite, regardless of who is responsible.
A woman was cooking hot dogs and baked beans outside the restaurant for the protesters with a sign that read, “Who needs $ 500 plates? Free Vienna sausages for EVERYONE. “
Sarah Perry, a pediatrician, came with her three daughters, husband and mother, who have lived on the island for 55 years. She said that she had fond memories of working at the inn as a teenager, but that the current management’s exploitation of employees 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 suck in everything that is beautiful in the place and in no way give back anything that their brand doesn’t have everywhere.”
Julia Moskin reported from New York and Hallie Golden from Lummi Island, Wash.