Business

Famed Willows Inn on Lummi Island closes, property donated

Bellingham's Lighthouse Mission Ministries is recipient
November 28, 2022 at 10:57 p.m.

By CDN Staff

The embattled Willows Inn on Lummi Island, once a legendary culinary haunt that drew patrons from around the globe, has closed, its property donated to Bellingham's Lighthouse Mission Ministries, owners announced Monday.

Future plans for the landmark restaurant and adjoining eight-room inn on Lummi Island, valued at more than $2 million, were not immediately known. 

Lighthouse Mission, in the midst of a recently approved expansion on its property in Bellingham’s Old Town, will “evaluate the best use and value of the two parcels” on Lummi Island's West Shore Drive, the nonprofit mission's President and CEO, Hans Erchinger-Davis, said in a release. 

He called the donation by owners Tim and Marcia McEvoy a “game-changer for our community.”

“Tim and Marcia’s gift is grace itself,” Erchinger-Davis said. “We're already turning [unhoused] people away due to capacity constraints, and support like this will give those on our streets a fighting chance to get their lives back.”

Lighthouse Mission Ministries is launching a $25-million project to remodel and redevelop its campus, including a new facility to replace the building at 910 W. Holly St. Demolition of the current building is expected in January or February, with new construction slated for spring 2023.

The closure of The Willows ends a period of years of turmoil surrounding accusations of sexual harassment and wage theft from employees first exposed in 2017.

Management in recent years settled lawsuits over allegations of underpaying staff, and the restaurant has been accused by some staff members of harassment and racism, The Seattle Times reported. The Willows in the past two years agreed to pay nearly $2 million to settle separate class-action lawsuits alleging wage theft, according to The Times. 

Under chef Blaine Wetzel, The Willows was consistently recognized as one of the best restaurants in America, earning a reputation for turning local ingredients into a culinary experience worthy of visits from far afield. It became a far-flung darling of food critics from across North America. 

In 2014, Wetzel tied for the James Beard Rising Star Chef Award, given to chefs under 30. In 2015, he won the James Beard Award for Best Chef Northwest and published a cookbook/memoir titled “Sea and Smoke” with author Joe Ray. The Willows Inn was regularly lauded in “Best of” lists from around the world, The Times reported.

The Willows’ troubled relationship with employees first became public with U.S. Department of Labor fines in 2017. A bombshell April 2021 New York Times report quoted workers accusing Wetzel and his staff of allowing a range of toxic workplace behavior.

The restaurant has routinely closed between December and April, but served its last dinner service before Thanksgiving, The Seattle Times reported. 

Lighthouse Mission Ministries said in the statement that it’s too early to know if a potential new owner would want to operate the restaurant and hotel or use the property for other purposes. But Erchinger-Davis told The Seattle Times that “It’s very unlikely the property will become a homeless shelter.”

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