Famed Washington State Restaurant Willows Inn Faces Sexism, Racism and Wage-Theft Allegations: Report

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Blaine Wetzel, chef at The Willows Inn on Washington's Lummi Island, prepares dishes at Exquisite Corpse in New York City's Chelsea district, September 24, 2011. Getty Images

In addition wage theft allegations, other employees told The New York Times that the Willows Inn's claims of where some of their ingredients came from were not true, saying that things said to have come from the island were sourced from other places.

Former workers at a restaurant on Lummi, a tiny island off Washington State, have told The New York Times that the kitchen at the Willows Inn is not all that it has been made out to be, with claims of overworked employees, sexual harassment, verbal abuse, and lies about the the sourcing of ingredients.

The top chef of the internationally known restaurant, Blaine Wetzel, is also being accused of racism and sexism. In March, the restaurant agreed to pay $600,000 to settle a class-action lawsuit after a 2017 federal investigation found the wage-theft accusations against the restaurant to be true, the New York Times reported. As part of the settlement, the Willows Inn didn’t admit any wrongdoing, the Seattle Times reported.

The $600,000 payout wasn’t the only time the Willows had to pay up. In 2017, employees at the restaurant reported the restaurant to the Department of Labor for requiring some employees to work 14-hour days for a mere $50 and also using interns for free labor, The New York Times reported. They had to pay out $149,000 and end their intern program.

In addition to wage theft allegations, other employees told The Times that the restaurant’s claims of where some of their ingredients came from were simply not true, saying that things said to have come from the island were sourced from other places. Wetzel denied these claims.

“On my first day, I was cutting frozen Alaskan scallops down to the shape and size of pink singing scallops,” Julia Olmos, 24, a former line cook, told the paper.

Other former employees told The Times that teen employees at the restaurant were given drugs and alcohol and pressured into having sex with men who worked at the restaurant. Women working in the kitchen also described having a hard time getting promoted. Wetzel, 35, denied those allegations. One former dining-room manager, Meredith O’Malley, 29, told The Times said she eventually resigned from the restaurant due to its toxic culture.

O’Malley wasn’t the only one. Spencer Verkuilen, 28, claimed Wetzel shoved and screamed at him in front of customers during a shift, a claim Wetzel also denied.

“The way in which people were abused and belittled there was horrifying,” said Verkuilen, 28.

Several employees reportedly told the paper that homophobic, mysogynistic  and racist language were used by Wetzel in the kitchen  Last summer, chef Larry Nguyen says he quit after he and another Asian-American chef confronted Wetzel about offensive language they say he had used in the past, including a racist slur directed at them. Nguyen claimed Wetzel denied he ever did, so both chefs, along with another sous-chef, resigned, according to the paper.

Wetzel has denied using offensive language, telling The Times: “My step mom and brother are Chinese, my wife is Mexican, and anyone that would claim I was racist is lying.”

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