Dream Job or Toxic Work Environment?

The restaurant industry has long been famous for chefs who yell, insult, and throw things at their staff. Various reality TV shows, such as Hell’s Kitchen, have even glorified celebrity chefs throwing temper tantrums when something comes out of the kitchen with minor imperfections, and even targets of such abuse often say it’s just part of the job: you put up with the abuse, you get better, and you move up the ladder until you’re head chef at your own restaurant … if you’re a man.

Recent movements, including #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, have called for society to stop enabling the toxic behavior of white men in power, including chefs. Change doesn’t happen overnight, but the call has been heard and the tide has shown signs of turning, however slowly.

One of the most recent chefs to come under fire for creating a toxic work environment, as well as for allegedly violating various labor laws is Blaine Wetzel, head chef and co-owner of the Willows Inn. The inn is located on Lummi Island near the San Juan archipelago in Washington State and is only accessible by ferry. People come from all over the country to stay at the inn and eat at the restaurant, all while enjoying the rustic scenery of the island, but the employees allege the true story of the inn is much uglier.

Many former employees of the Willow Inn allege Wetzel used sexist, racist, and homophobic slurs with his staff. Wetzel also allegedly used a slur to suggest some of his staff members were mentally challenged when he didn’t consider their work to be up to par.

According to several employees, the abuse wasn’t always verbal, especially when it came to the girls and women who worked at the Willows Inn. Wetzel and other male employees allegedly plied them with drugs and alcohol (including underage employees), often to the point of unconsciousness. The toxic behavior started at the top with Wetzel who at one point allegedly offered a girl a ride home after work, then drove to his house and refused to take her home until after she’d taken shots with him. He then allegedly drove her home while drunk.

Various female employees allege that no matter how hard they worked or how long they worked at the Willows Inn, they were never promoted to sous-chef or chef. Instead, they were allegedly made to watch their male counterparts who came in after them get promoted above them.

In 2017, after an investigation, the Department of Labor fined the Willows Inn $149,000 for various labor violations, including forcing employees to work 14-hour shifts for as little as $50, and using interns as free labor. In addition to the fine, the restaurant was forced to end its internship program.

In March of 2021, the Willows paid an additional $600,000 to settle a class action employment lawsuit filed by 99 of its former employees. The lawsuit alleged various labor violations, including failure to pay overtime or provide legally mandated breaks for employees working 14-hour shifts. The lawsuit further alleged the restaurant misappropriated tips, but the settlement did not require the restaurant to admit to having done anything wrong.

But the workers allege their mistreatment was just one part of the story. The other part is the fact that travelers were lured to the island by the promise of fresh, locally sourced ingredients when the reality was that much of the food used in the restaurant’s dishes was frozen and shipped from other parts of the country, and sometimes even other parts of the world. They also allege diners who requested vegetarian and vegan options were regularly served standard menu items with chicken and fish, although, to date, no lawsuits have been filed regarding those allegations.

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