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Washington Fine-Dining Restaurant Willows Inn Nixes Stage Program

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It’s been ordered to pay $149,000 in unpaid wages and damages

Willows Inn/Facebook

One of the Pacific Northwest’s most acclaimed fine dining destinations will no longer be able to lean on unpaid labor. The Willows Inn, located on Washington State’s Lummi Island, has been ordered to cough up $149,000 in unpaid wages and damages to 19 kitchen employees following a Department of Labor investigation.

According to a DOL press release, the restaurant “violated the Fair Labor Standards Act by failing to pay overtime and minimum wage to its employees.” The Willows Inn required its entry-level kitchen staff to work one month for free as as a “try-out period,” and once hired, “kitchen workers were paid daily rates from $50 per day for up to 14 hours per day” with no overtime.

Last year the Willows Inn snagged a Beard Award for Best Chef: Northwest for chef Blaine Wetzel and was named one of Eater’s Best Restaurants in America. Dinner at the restaurant, which is a brief ferry ride from Seattle and also includes a small boutique hotel for overnight stays, runs $195 per person before tax, tip, and wine.

Ambitious young cooks frequently work unpaid stints at acclaimed restaurants in order to gain valuable experience, network, and pad their resumes; as Matt Tripp wrote for Eater in 2015, “Stages are the hallmark of fine-dining restaurants: a Michelin-starred restaurant will most likely have at least one stage in its kitchen on any given night, and many of America's best restaurants have an ever-changing roster of stages constantly passing through the kitchen doors.” But though the practice of staging may be widespread, in the U.S. it’s technically illegal for restaurants to put people to work without paying them.

The Willows Inn’s website still includes information on the restaurant’s internship program, though it does not specify whether interns are paid or not. Reached for comment via email, the restaurant provided the following statement:

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.

While the ethics and legality of using unpaid stagiaire labor have been heavily debated in recent years, many of the world’s highest-echelon restaurants depend on it: Writing for Eater back in April, Corey Mintz argued that many of the restaurants on the hallowed but controversial World’s 50 Best list would simply not be able to function without stages eager to work for no pay. 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.

Luxury Inn on Lummi Island to Pay Workers $149K in Back Pay, Wage Violations [DOL]
Why America’s Best Restaurants Might Lose a Crucial Labor Source [E]
The Willows Inn Is a Fine-Dining Astonishment [E]