- Blaine Wetzel was accused of fostering a toxic workplace in a story published by The New York Times.
- Former staffers accused Wetzel of racism, sexism, and misleading customers about ingredients.
- Former staffers also alleged that teenage employees were harassed by male kitchen staffers.
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Blaine Wetzel, owner and head chef of the renowned Willows Inn on Washington’s Lummi Island, has been accused of creating a toxic work environment.
A new exposé by The New York Times‘ Julia Moskin includes allegations from former employees of the Willows Inn who say Wetzel oversaw a “nightmarish” atmosphere riddled with “physical intimidation and verbal abuse by Mr. Wetzel, including racist, sexist and homophobic slurs; and sexual harassment of female employees by male kitchen staff members.”
Former staffers also alleged that Wetzel’s claims that Willows Inn only used locally foraged and sourced ingredients from Lummi Island were false.
Wetzel denied all allegations and maintained his innocence in a statement shared with The Times. Insider has reached out to Willows Inn and Wetzel for comment but did not hear back in time for publication.
Employees told The Times that Willows Inn had a toxic work environment
The Times spoke to 35 former employees, including a dozen women who said the men working in Willows Inn’s kitchen crew often harassed teenage employees with innuendos and sexual overtures. The female employees allege they were touched inappropriately, pressured to stay after work to “party,” given drugs and alcohol, and pressured into having sex by male kitchen staffers and visiting chefs. The legal age of consent in Washington State is 16.
Sarah Letchworth, 21, told The Times she was 15 when she began working at Willows Inn. She claimed that male employees used “island age” as a running joke and “Lummi Island 16” meant “that you were available for sex, and that any kind of creepy and predatory behavior was fine.”
Letchworth told The Times that Wetzel and the restaurant’s manager, Reid Johnson, were often present at events where underage employees drank with older employees until they were unconscious. She claimed that Wetzel once gave her a ride home from a party when she was 18, but drove her to his house and refused to take her home until she took shots with him.
The Times also reported that former female employees said they were continuously passed over for promotions. In March, Willows Inn settled a $600,000 class-action lawsuit after a federal investigation found instances of wage theft and unfair labor practices, the Times reported.
In response, Wetzel told The Times: “I support female chefs with all my heart (so much so that I married one). Anyone that would claim that I don’t support female chefs is lying.”
Wetzel was also accused of bullying employees, as well as using racist and homophobic language. Spencer Verkuilen, 28, told The Times that Wetzel screamed at, pushed, and sent him home when he served a customer’s course out of order.
“The way in which people were abused and belittled there was horrifying,” Verkuilen told The Times. Additionally, former employees alleged that Wetzel used racist language to describe Latino staffers and Asian customers.
Wetzel told The Times his “stepmom and brother are Chinese, my wife is Mexican, and anyone that would claim I was racist is lying.”
Employees said the ingredients Wetzel claimed were from Lummi Island — where the restaurant is located — were actually from local grocery stores or mainland distributors
At Willows Inn, Wetzel said only locally sourced ingredients from Lummi’s Island were used on the menu, but all restaurant employees interviewed by The Times said that’s not true.
The former employees told The Times that most ingredients were ordered from distributors and farms from the mainland. According to the report, some items were even purchased at local grocery stores and passed off as island ingredients.
“They said “Pacific octopus” arrived frozen from Spain and Portugal; “wild” venison purportedly shot on the island was farm-raised in Idaho; “roasted chicken drippings,” part of a signature dish, were made in big batches from organic chickens bought at Costco,” Julie Moskin wrote.
Julia Olmos, a former line cook, told The Times: “On my first day, I was cutting frozen Alaskan scallops down to the shape and size of pink singing scallops.”
Wetzel denied misleading customers with Willows Inn’s ingredients, saying, “we never misrepresent our ingredient sources.” However, Wetzel did not deny that some ingredients came from outside of Lummi Island.
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