Get Your Start Working in Food with Seattle's Thriving Food Service Sector

working in food service industry seattle magazine
Ivar's and the waterfront booster Bob Donegan

Although it may be best known for its aerospace and tech industries, Seattle has a thriving food sector, with acclaimed restaurants all around the city and a bevy of chefs and bartenders who have attained celebrity status. It’s a great place to start a career in food or just sock away some cash while preparing for the next move.

Food service and preparation accounts for more than 111,000 workers in the Seattle-Bellevue-Everett area, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And there are thousands of openings around the region, from a pastry cook at Canlis to a server at The Georgian Room to a manager at Kidd Valley Hamburgers (in December 2013). On the fast-food front, a recent search on the job aggregator site Indeed.com indicated that Seattle-based coffee giant Starbucks as well as national chains such as Pizza Hut are among the companies—in any category—with the most job openings in our area. While these may not seem like dream jobs, the good news is that at least some of these jobs are bucking national trends in terms of pay and benefits.

While several national chains, McDonald’s and Taco Bell in particular, have recently been the targets of living-wage protests, several hometown food service moguls in both the fast-food and finer dining arenas are known for their supportive employment policies. In addition, there are signs that SeaTac’s recent vote to raise the minimum wage to $15 for many jobs, including hospitality, may find traction in Seattle.

Celebrity chef Tom Douglas, a longtime fixture on the Seattle food scene whose restaurants include Lola, Palace Kitchen, Dahlia Lounge, Etta’s and Serious Pie, employs some 755 people in the area and recently raised starting pay for his back-of-the-house staff by $2–$3 an hour.

“Tom began talking about raising wages about ten years ago,” says Devony Boyle, human resources director for Tom Douglas Restaurants. “In July, he said, ‘We’re doing it.’ He put his money where his values are.” Boyle notes that many who begin as line cooks have already put an enormous amount of time and money into their culinary education. “We want our line cooks to stay with us and continue to grow with our company,” she says. “That’s one of the reasons we raised wages.”

Two beloved area chains, Dick’s Drive-In and Ivar’s, as well as Starbucks, have long taken that same approach when it comes to their food service employees. They offer wages and benefits that most people would never associate with fast-food restaurants.

“When people ask us what our most important asset is, we respond: our employees,” says Bob Donegan, president and CEO of 75-year-old Ivar’s seafood chain, which has about 850 employees. When Donegan arrived at Ivar’s in 1997, turnover was high and pay was low. Increasing wages for staff and managers helped the chain to both attract a much better caliber of worker and save money on training. “We put enormous thought into making our employees happy,” he continues. “They like the pay, they love the benefits and they really love the environment.”

Echoing the sentiment is Jim Spady, company vice president of the six-location Dick’s Drive-In. “You need to take care of your employees,” he says. “We pay the highest minimum wages to start: $10.25 an hour.” That number goes up to $10.75 after about three months.

Starbucks preaches from the same prayer book. “What sets us apart is our investment in people,” says Blair Taylor, chief community officer for Starbucks. “When we do well, we’re going to share that success with our people.”

This approach is in tune with the times. Although many people assume minimum-wage-earning fast-food workers are high school students with after-school jobs, the reality is quite different. According to the Economic Policy Institute, almost 90 percent of people earning at or near the minimum wage are at least 20 years old, and 43.8 percent have more than a high school education.

Meanwhile, Ivar’s, Dick’s and Starbucks offer even their part-time workers full benefits, including medical, dental, vision and a 401(k) plan with matching contributions. Dick’s offers college/vocational/self-improvement scholarships for up to $22,000 over four years for employees working 20 hours a week, while Ivar’s offers educational assistance to its managers, as well as a yearly scholarship grant. Starbucks has Starbucks U, which helps reduce out-of-pocket expenses for education and gives its employees stock in the company (called “Bean Stock”). Starbucks is also a progressive corporation, offering adoption assistance and health coverage for dependents, including domestic partners.

However, there is still some room for improvement. A common complaint from some who start at the barista level at Starbucks is that there isn’t a path for advancement into the corporate offices. The company acknowledges the issue and is trying to figure out how best to address it. “We’re trying to zero in on our high-potential people,” Taylor says. “Once you’ve risen to store manager, we need to come up with creative ways to tap into that potential.”  

Promoting from within is very much encouraged at Ivar’s, Donegan says. “On day one, we can tell you what a career path is like,” he says. “You can go from crew staff to assistant manager to store manager to district manager.” Donegan rattles off several examples of employees who began their Ivar’s careers frying fish, including the company’s head of purchasing and the head of its sports and entertainment division. “The average person stays with us for 20 years.”

At Tom Douglas Restaurants, Boyle notes, it’s common for employees who start as bussers and sous chefs to rise through the ranks. The Tom Douglas name, coupled with Seattle’s reputation as a foodie city, attracts those seeking both front- and back-of-the-house positions. “We find that on the cook side, people say they’ve come specifically to Seattle for their career,” she says. “We want them to have a successful career with us.”

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