Chef/owner Tom Douglas has led the Seattle restaurant scene for nearly three decades, and now he’s teaching the industry that sustainability starts with your own team.

Seattle’s dining scene, a quirky one propelled by petite-sized restaurants big on celebrating Pacific Northwest ingredients, has grown considerably since Tom Douglas opened Dahlia Lounge with wife Jackie Cross in 1989. The longevity of that downtown restaurant—the centerpiece of what is now the self-taught James Beard Award–winning chef’s (still growing) empire of 23 food-based businesses—is testament to his visionary knack. The prolific restaurateur has a line of rubs and spices, has written four cookbooks, has fostered a following as a radio personality, and is an astute entrepreneur with a reputation for profitable ventures. He’s also a thoughtful leader who realizes his bottom line is contingent upon a motivated, nourished staff—so he provides them with perks like health insurance and free meals. Here, Chef Douglas discusses his unwavering love for Seattle, his penchant for building an enterprise based on instinct, and his commitment to the importance of embracing sustainability across all realms.

You opened your first restaurant in Seattle nearly 30 years ago and remain one of the city’s powerhouse chef/owners. As an East Coast native, what made you want to launch and grow your company here? 

Seattle is an awesome place and we aligned ourselves not just with our restaurants, but also with the city–with its progressive nature, natural resources, and philanthropic beliefs. With great role models like Starbucks, Nordstrom, and Microsoft to emulate, we jumped right in. I worked in restaurants here before opening my own. I was well known at Café Sport, where I was the chef and general manager, because I brought crab cakes to Seattle. There were mountains of crab at Pike Place Market, yet no crab cakes, and I was from the mid-Atlantic, where they were everywhere.

Since opening Dahlia, the city’s culinary might has only strengthened. What do you think makes it special? 

There is such talent here and a lot of us are independent operators. Ethan Stowell, Renee Erickson, and myself, we all have multiple restaurants but are still very much independently owned. 

I don’t open a new place unless I can pay cash for it. There’s an incredible boom happening now. The economy has been white hot, but flat from a business perspective because a dozen new restaurants are opening every week, making it harder to get attention.

At Dahlia Lounge, the Taste from the Sea includes fresh seasonal seafood such as Alaskan King Crab, Yellowfin tuna, raw Kampachi, and hard-smoked black cod.

You have had numerous opportunities to expand beyond Seattle. Why have you stayed local? 

We are lucky enough to have a kid, and our business isn’t necessarily suited towards children. It’s hard to be away every night and weekends and do what you want on your day off. You always take it home with you, and for me, I just didn’t want to live my life on the road. I watched my peers do it, and it wasn’t the healthiest thing for their relationships. I feel good that my daughter recently passed the bar. But I just joined a group that was bidding on a business that’s an hour and half away, south, in Chambers Bay overlooking Puget Sound, so that will be my first project outside of Seattle. It’s always fun to explore something new—at any age.

Overseeing a chain of restaurants with the same menus and design schemes in place is certainly a challenge. But you launch one markedly different concept after another, all unified by the same ethos and values, which is even more difficult. Eating a banh mi burger at Brave Horse Tavern, for example, hardly resembles tucking into rotisserie chicken at Palace Kitchen, smoked beef quesadillas at Cantina Leña, or soba-wrapped tofu at Tanaka San. What is your process? Do you have a gut feeling about your forthcoming spots, which translate into this organic collection? 

Absolutely. Sometimes an idea is driven by a hole in the marketplace or the location. I wasn’t planning on a third location of Serious Pie, but Starbucks thought it was the perfect match for [the company’s] roasting plant and I agreed. But I don’t like to replicate often because I don’t get as much back, in my mind.

You have been a champion of the local, sustainable, and organic food movement from the beginning, well before it was fashionable to flaunt such ingredients. Reflecting that devotion is Prosser, the farm you and Jackie own in Eastern Washington, above the Yakima River, which supplies some desirable produce to your restaurants. 

We bought the farm 10 years ago for my sun-deprived father-in-law and started growing a little kitchen garden. Jackie fell in love with it, growing on a half acre here and there. Whatever you don’t irrigate here is brush, but we now have 80,000 pounds of beautiful, organic produce. We run the farm like a kibbutz, figuring out the budget and what it’s going to cost for a year, and then charge our restaurants on a monthly basis based on their percentage of business. They essentially pay rent on the farm, and when produce arrives, the chefs come and vie for it—unless it’s something specially grown for them, like the certain cucumber Lola loves using for the Greek salad—and it travels in a refrigerated van over the mountains to the city.

Out of convenience—and a fear that they are contributing to the depletion of wild salmon—many chefs opt for farmed salmon on their menus. But you are an activist for the wild variety, promoting the notion of “Eat Wild, Save Wild,” and realizing that the humble fisherman can’t compete with the abundance of cheaper farmed fish. You felt so strongly about this that you even became a producer of Mark Titus’ 2014 documentary “The Breach,” which illuminates the plummeting salmon population in Alaska and one company’s ill-conceived plan to build an open copper-pit mine on Bristol Bay, one of the richest sources of sockeye salmon. What was that experience like? 

It happened out of the blue: Mark was trying to raise funds and I agreed to do the food for a gathering of his, but he was also looking for an investor, and we were so moved we wrote the largest check of the night. The way we have decimated the salmon population in the Lower 48, for a while unknowingly, is horrible. There is very little commercial salmon fishing left. When Mark showed me this movie, it was an opportunity for people like us—who make a living off salmon—to find out how to do it right. If you give people a way to do work in a more manageable and sustainable way, a chance for a different life, we can prevent a mine from wrecking a fishery in Alaska. We’re also looking at what used to be waste, like salmon belly, and feeding it to cats because tuna is also endangered now. 

Such a concerned mentality is also on display when it comes to your staff. First, with sexism prominently rearing its head in the news these days, it’s refreshing to see that your CEO is a woman, Pamela Hinckley. 

Growing up with six sisters, I’m used to women and many of our top positions are held by them. I never thought anything odd about that. Seattle is a liberal place. Pamela is a grassroots marketing guru who was a VP at Redhook Brewery and marketing director of Theo Chocolate. She’s been a friend for 35 years and is an awesome person who has taught us a lot in her six years with us. I’ve always had a hard time with merit-based work. I am a loyalty guy, but she bases on action. She’s the highest-paid person in our company, more than my partner. She’s also the tiebreaker between us.

In 2014 you opened the cooking school Hot Stove Society, where customers can make Dahlia’s famed triple coconut cream pie and get a crash course on the Manhattan cocktail. 

The coolest thing about the cooking school is that it’s an open forum for anyone coming into town. People are interested in more than a one-hour demo. I have one class tomorrow night where I’m re-creating my cookbook dinner series from the 1980s at Café Sport. From Alice Waters to Paul Prudhomme, that was one of the ways I learned how to train. Tomorrow is Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I don’t cook anything like this, but it’s so fun to follow the recipe from top to bottom. I feel honored to cook through her eyes.

But it doubles as a place for your staff to strengthen their skill sets as well, which once again shows how important they are to you. 

Internally, we’ve added our line cook school for young cooks who may or may not have gone through cooking school. This is a way for youngsters, who can’t afford culinary school but are perfectly capable of becoming maybe pizza cooks, to work their way up and move on to another restaurant. We also added a service academy, a way for us to help manage the shrinking labor market. 

You are well known for offering your team members such benefits as healthcare and PTO (paid time off), and for actively showing that you value the oft-neglected back-of-house crew. Where did this passion stem from? 

I’m a progressive liberal and plain old Democrat. When we first opened Dahlia, we wanted to do things for our city. It was about being a pillar instead of scraping cream off of the top. I just believe in the nature of and being part of the village. There are certain things in life that are pleasures, like a boat and a car.  And other things are human rights, like having life insurance and health insurance. We wanted to put our money where are mouths are by making [these assets] more affordable and attainable, something I wanted to do 27 years ago, long before it was a conversation. I also feel that everyone, whether you’re a waiter or a cook, deserves a vacation. 

You were quite vocal about the City of Seattle’s implementation of the $15 minimum wage. Because of the skyrocketing payrolls that translated into, your creative solution was to implement a 20 percent service charge to the bills at your restaurants.

For some reason the IRS makes waiters pay tax on tips. They have to declare their tips, and yet the state and city do not consider them wages. We had to go to $15 [an hour] for everybody, even if they were making $30 [an hour] with tips. We are still getting knocked for our service charge, but at least 50 percent of fine-dining restaurants here have now eliminated tipping, too.

What is the biggest misunderstanding about the service charge?

Guests want to tip so that they are able to reward, or not reward, a waiter. Frankly, I do, too. What happens is that people don’t understand the waiter is on a commission, so if they don’t make the sales, they don’t get a commission. It just comes through the house now, which is the best thing for me and for the consumer. In the past when you had bad service you would just calculate giving them 10 percent instead of 20 percent, or leave a penny on the table because you were disgusted. When that happens now, you don’t have to leave 5 percent for a bad job or 25 percent for a great one. Just like if you don’t like the chicken, you send it back; if you don’t like the service, we don’t charge you. I was in Paris recently where tips are appreciated, but not expected, and it is a much better system. From the bartenders to the waiters, I had awesome service that was not incentivized by tips. 

Hospitality is vital to your mission as a restaurateur. You’ve seen numerous changes throughout your decades in the business, but what do you think is still missing from the restaurant landscape?

We say we offer service, but really it’s a hospitality business and I have to give Danny Meyer credit for that, for thinking about it in a way I never did. As chefs, we often think: ‘Is this fish from Indonesia? Is it sustainable to get these shrimp in mass quantities without killing a mangrove?’ But sustainability starts at home. Is it sustainable for McDonald’s to not offer healthcare to its employees who then use the emergency rooms of our hospitals? Is it sustainable for Walmart employees to stand in line at a food bank because they aren’t paid enough? We should start looking at our industry in a more sustainable way, starting with our teams. There needs to be a reckoning: We are labor-intensive and we are going to put people first. Some enlightened companies are already doing it.

Feature, Leader Insights