As quick-service workers across the country stage strikes to draw attention to their push for higher wages, multi-concept restaurateur Tom Douglas of Seattle is addressing the issue in his own way.

Earlier this month, Douglas — whose Seattle-based foodservice empire includes 15 businesses, from the celebrated Dahlia Lounge to the more casual pizzeria Serious Pie — raised the starting pay for back-of-the-house, non-tipped employees by $2 to $3 an hour. Dishwashers, for example, now start at $12 an hour, up from $10. The starting wage for cooks increased to $15 an hour from $12. This in a state that already has the highest minimum wage in the nation at $9.19 per hour with no tip credit for service staff.

Douglas didn’t increase wages because of the strikes, and he doesn’t want to see higher pay mandated by law. He said he did it because he feels it’s the right thing to do.

Douglas spoke with Nation’s Restaurant News on his views surrounding restaurant wages, benefits and what industry leaders should be doing.

Minimum wage has been in the news a lot lately. What have you done for your restaurants to address this issue?

It’s kind of irrelevant when it comes to front-of-the-house workers, so we’ve been working on back-of-the-house, non-traditionally pool-tipped employees. Typically in a restaurant, the back-of-the-house gets a small percentage of what the waiters make [in shared tips]. That adds up to maybe $50 a month.

I’ve always felt that back-of-the-house has been an underappreciated, undervalued position as far as wages go. That’s just the way it’s always been. I came up through that particular system. When cooks complained about it, I’ve said, ‘Go become a waiter.’ That was about the only answer I would have for them.

What changed your view?

Basically, I’ve just turned 55 and my business is turning 24. I’ve got my toys. I own my home and our farm where we grow a lot of the vegetables for the restaurants. I own my cars and I’m debt-free, essentially. I just decided that, before I open another group of restaurants — which I fully intend on doing — that it was time to look at my company and what I could give back. So I started with … trying to increase the living wage for a lot of the people that live on the edge.

I’ve been on the board of Food Lifeline, our food bank distribution system, for almost 30 years, and it makes me so sick to think that my cooks are one paycheck away from that very line I’ve worked so hard to shorten. It doesn’t need to be that way.

You’ve increased pay for non-tipped employees by how much?

I’ve increased the baseline. We already offer access to health care. So if you work a full-time week here, which we declare 25 hours, after six months, you get health care. We offer vacation, a week a year after one year and two weeks after two years.  That’s waiters, cooks, dishwashers, anybody. We also offer a week a year of sick leave. And now we felt the last thing to get our piece of pie more where I think it should be was to change the baseline wage of kitchen workers.

So dishwashers went from a starting wage of $10 an hour to $12.  Prep cooks went from $11 to $13. Cooks went from $12 to $15. Then, if you can make it through a year in our company, I think there should be a higher standard wage. This is the most exciting part for me, and it’s yet to be determined about how much it’s going to cost, but the merit window opens to $20 to $22 an hour, depending on the value that you’re bringing to your job.

You’ve estimated this shift will cost the company an additional $1.3 million.

Yes, and that’s just the first year. We have 350 or so coworkers that are affected by this wage increase. Altogether we have around 800 coworkers across about 15 restaurants and other businesses.

Can you give an indication of how much you pay in labor?

Our payroll is about $1.5 million a month. It’s about 46 percent of our revenue or so. It fluctuates.