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The Willows Inn, luxury restaurant on Lummi Island, caught underpaying staff in labor investigation

Brunch on the deck of the foodie-famous Willows Inn on Lummi Island includes a stellar view. Willows Inn reached a settlement with the U.S. Department of Labor in which the company agreed to pay $74,812 in unpaid overtime to 19 kitchen workers and an equal amount in damages, totaling $149,624 for the employees.
Brunch on the deck of the foodie-famous Willows Inn on Lummi Island includes a stellar view. Willows Inn reached a settlement with the U.S. Department of Labor in which the company agreed to pay $74,812 in unpaid overtime to 19 kitchen workers and an equal amount in damages, totaling $149,624 for the employees. rponnekanti@thenewstribune.com

The Willows Inn, a world-class restaurant on Lummi Island, violated federal labor laws by underpaying kitchen staff and requiring trainees to work for free in a month-long tryout for a job, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

The upscale inn has earned glowing reviews from food critics for its luxurious, fresh, homegrown menu since 2011, when The New York Times named it one of “10 Restaurants Worth a Plane Ride.” To reach the Willows it takes a five-minute ferry ride across from the Lummi Peninsula, too, a journey that has become a pilgrimage for those willing to spend more than $200 per person for a 15-course meal.

Over the past two years, however, the restaurant has broken federal labor laws by underpaying staff, or having interns work menial jobs such as painting the buildings, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division.

“The restaurant required entry-level kitchen staff known in the industry as ‘stages’ to work one month as a free try-out period before they were considered for paid employment,” according to a news release from the federal agency. “Once on the payroll, the kitchen workers were paid daily rates from $50 per day for up to 14 hours per day with no consideration of weekly overtime premium.”

At The Willows Inn, stages – pronounced staahj, from the French word stagiaire – would clean dishes, polish silverware, collect herbs, prepare vegetables, assemble dishes, clean the facilities, and paint the exterior of the buildings, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. It’s common practice at high-end restaurants, though it’s illegal under U.S. labor laws, said Jeannette Aranda, director of the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division office in Seattle.

Aranda pointed out that the tasks assigned to interns didn’t fit with the purpose of an internship: to learn from the chef, rather than simply being free labor. She noted that the restaurant cooperated with investigators.

The Willows Inn agreed to pay 19 workers their unpaid overtime hours, worth $74,812, plus the same amount in damages, for a total of $149,624, in a settlement announced by the federal agency Monday. All of the 19 worked in the kitchen. None were servers. As part of the deal, the restaurant will end its staging program. Its website still has a page where interns can apply, with a note that interns perform “the same duties as all chefs on staff.”

The restaurant’s head chef, Blaine Wetzel, won the Rising Star Chef of the Year award from the prestigious James Beard Foundation in 2014. The following year he was handed the James Beard award for Best Chef in the Northwest. This year The Willows Inn was named the No. 1 restaurant in the country, in a list with a methodology that’s endorsed by stats expert Nate Silver.

A recent review in Eater hailed the restaurant as “a fine-dining astonishment,” for its opulent farm-to-table menu: fried mustard leaf battered in mustard flour, spread over a puree of oysters, arranged with edible flowers grown on the island; “flaxen wedges of raw chanterelle mushrooms dusted with fine shavings of smoked smelt and dried cherry tomatoes,” to be thought of as bar snacks; and fresh seafood caught or foraged each day along the island’s coastline.

On Monday afternoon the restaurant released a statement to The Bellingham Herald: “We operated a stage and internship program that allowed young chefs to stage in our kitchen to gain work experience. These were passionate individuals who sought us out for the opportunity to stage at the Willows Inn. All were volunteering chefs, some were compensated in variety of ways including daily rate and lodging. Once we were informed by the Department of Labor that the practice of staging was illegal we ended the program immediately.”

The restaurant’s general manager, Reid Johnson, did not respond to a request for further comment. Wetzel couldn’t be reached Monday.

An article posted on Eater’s site Monday points out the case could be the first sign of a crackdown on the custom of using stages in fine dining restaurants.

“At least here in the U.S., it seems inevitable that more restaurants will be facing labor crackdowns like the one at The Willows Inn, and what exactly that will mean for the fine dining world will remain to be seen,” reads the article in Eater.

The public can call the U.S. Wage and Hour Division in Seattle at 206-398-8039 for questions about compliance with wage laws.

The name of the U.S. Department of Labor was incorrect in earlier versions of this story.

Caleb Hutton: 360-715-2276, @bhamcaleb

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