More than a year after allegations of a toxic workplace culture surfaced, one of America’s (seemingly) most idyllic restaurants has closed. The Willows Inn property, one inspiration for the recent chef-y horror film The Menus, has been donated to a non-profit, The Seattle Times reported on Monday.
Since the restaurant opened on Lummi Island in 2010, a flood of diners from around the world made the two-hour drive and ferry ride from Seattle, Washington, for a taste of its rustic-chic menu and lush surroundings. But over the past five years, the Willows Inn has faced a series of lawsuits, plus an April 2021 New York Times investigation outlining accusations of wage theft, sexual harassment, and racist bullying. Despite the allegations, droves of employee resignations, and various protests by locals, the restaurant managed to stay open until November of this year, finally serving its last meal the week before Thanksgiving.
The new owner of the property, which is valued at an estimated $2 million, is the Christian nonprofit Lighthouse Mission Ministries, located in the nearby city of Bellingham. Previous owners Tim and Marcia McEvoy donated the sprawling hotel, farm, and dining room to the social services organization, which primarily seeks to end homelessness, according to The Seattle Times. It’s still unclear if and when the Mission will seek a new owner for the property, but the sale could theoretically raise a lot of money for its work. “It’s too early to know if a potential new owner would want to operate the restaurant and hotel rooms in a similar manner,” the organization said in a statement.
The restaurant gained esteem in its early years, mostly for its hyperlocal menu from former Noma chef Blaine Wetzel, which earned rave reviews on virtually every national best-of restaurant list (including a 2013 mention by Bon Apétit). Yet the Willows Inn has been clouded in controversy for the past half-decade. Here are some of the reasons why:
- In 2017, the restaurant was ordered to pay $149,000 in damages and unpaid wages to kitchen employees. According to a 2017 Eater report, the Inn required its entry-level employees to work a one-month long unpaid trial. Once hired, they were allegedly paid daily rates as low as $50 with no overtime and 14-hour shifts.
- In early 2021, the restaurant paid $600,000 to settle a class action lawsuit riddled with similar accusations. At the time, Wetzel denied any wrongdoing.
- Later that same year, a New York Times investigation uncovered allegations from 35 employees of verbal and sexual harassment, brutal 16- to 18-hour days, and sexist and racist bullying by Wetzel and manager Reid Johnson. According to the Times, workers accused Wetzel of pressuring young female employees “to drink alcohol, use illegal drugs and have sex with male kitchen staff members and visiting chefs.” The piece also alleged that the restaurant was passing off store-bought ingredients as being island-harvested. The owners denied the accusations then; the resulting class-action lawsuit, featuring 137 former employees, was settled this year for $1.37 million.
- According to The Seattle Times, the Willows Inn also faced three other individual civil cases of over wage theft and wrongful termination this year. the New York Times reports that those have since been resolved.