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Alumni Stories: Reid Johnson & The Willows Inn

In summer of 2007, Reid Johnson was a Baylor University dropout, camping at national parks on the West Coast, in search of a way forward. Today, he is a Baylor graduate managing The Willows Inn, the finest restaurant in the Pacific Northwest. The journey to get there was almost as unique as the culinary experience he oversees. 

Reid grew up in the Waco area and enrolled at Baylor in 2004 with academic scholarships. Despite his academic prowess, he quickly realized that the effort needed was different than anticipated. 

“I didn’t do anything that was required to be a good student,” Reid said. “I didn’t go to my classes and study. I didn’t do my homework.” 

After three semesters, Reid had lost his academic scholarships for failing to meet GPA requirements. He opted to leave Baylor in good standing and enroll at McLennan Community College part-time while pursuing an entrepreneurial path. 

Reid started a horse-training and adventure company with a friend while also working other jobs to try and stay afloat financially. After another three semesters attempting to find his own way, he set off for a month-long national parks tour with some friends. He was somewhere in Oregon when he realized he needed to return to Baylor and finish his degree. 

“I thought by not being in school and not having that take away my attention, I would be able to accomplish more,” Reid said. “I realized that I was actually limiting the doors that would be open to me by not finishing my schooling and getting my degree.”

The next fall, he re-enrolled at Baylor with an intense focus. By the spring he had earned back his scholarships and within two years he had completed his degree. “I actually graduated from Baylor in just three and a half years,” he mused.

Following his graduation, Reid worked in marketing at Baylor for Aramark before feeling the need to escape his hometown. He briefly worked for a non-profit in the mountains of Colorado before returning to Texas to work for the Austin Film Festival. Soon after, Reid once again felt the urge to go West and moved along with his girlfriend to Bellingham, Washington, in the northwest corner of the state. 

Bellingham is about as far from Waco as you can get and still be in the continental United States. “My parents have told me that more than once,” Reid said with a chuckle. 

Although his girlfriend would be attending a graduate school program, Reid moved with no job or prospects. Just a few days after moving, he stumbled upon a listing for a part-time reservationist and marketing assistant for a local island-based restaurant and hotel called The Willows Inn. Reid applied, met with the owner and talked his way into a new position as the marketing and sales manager despite having never heard of its location on Lummi Island. Within 18 months The Willows Inn became one of the most revered restaurants in America and Reid took over as general manager.

Success can be traced back to the arrival of Chef Blaine Wetzel who arrived just over a year before Reid moved to Washington. The culinary phenom won the national James Beard Award for Rising Star Chef in 2014 and followed that up with the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Northwest. Since then, The Willows Inn has been rated the no. 1 restaurant in North America for two years running by Opinionated About Dining. The establishment appears on countless other lists and has been written up in every major food-related media entity imaginable. 

The dining experience is truly one-of-a-kind and not just because it takes place on an island that is only accessible by ferry. Dinner service is 20 courses prepared from ingredients harvested directly from the island and the ocean. The Willows Inn has its own extensive farm and uses local fishermen to provide the fish and shellfish for each meal. 

While Chef Blaine’s creations are the clear attraction to The Willows Inn, Reid keeps everything moving behind the scenes and helps create the overall vision for the guests not only at the restaurant, but also the inn.

“Reid is just scary smart, and he works his tail off,” Blaine said. “In a typical week he might do everything from hosting regular guests to building custom reservation software or negotiating with the neighboring Native American tribe, government agencies, publishers or international event coordinators.”

The challenges of providing round the clock hospitality on an island with limited resources is what excites Reid most about his work, he says. 

“I try to make sure that everyone has what they need to do the job that they need to do,” Reid said. “That’s finding a way in the budget to make that possible. It is trying to make sure we hire the right people and then set the right expectation for the guests that join us.” 

As the news about The Willows Inn has spread, some celebrities and culinary stars have made the voyage on the Lummi Island Ferry to experience the unique atmosphere at the 100-year-old inn. But Reid isn’t any more worried about those guests than he is about the relationships between the staff of 35 people and the residents of Lummi Island. 

“Having a community mindset is good in a place like this because it is like a family,” Reid said. He now lives on Lummi Island year round with his wife, Katie, the girl who originally inspired him to make the journey from Texas. The two are expecting their first child in August. “We are all out here on this tiny island, together, working a crazy, busy, seasonal schedule. I think that was ingrained into me in some way through growing up in Waco and going to Baylor: the idea of not just looking out for me, but looking out for all these people that are pulling together with me.”

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