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Seattle's Dick's Drive-In Celebrates 60 Years Of Burgers, Fries And Reasonable Wages

In January, Seattle's very own Dick’s Drive-In celebrates its 60th year serving up a simple menu of burgers, fries and shakes.

Phrases like “adapt or die” may be common business mantras these days, but for Dick’s, doing things the same old way is their secret to success. With the exception of the quarter pound burgers and diet soda, a Dick’s restaurant today is pretty much the same as it was in 1954 according to Jim Spady, vice president of and son of founder Dick Spady. Jim Spady spoke with Ross Reynolds on location at the original Dick's in the Wallingford neighborhood.

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We have hand-dipped, individually whipped milkshakes that are made exactly the way they were in 1954. The hamburgers and cheeseburgers are exactly the same as 1954. The fries are almost exactly the same, but now we have to use a zero trans-fat oil because of King County health regulations, but it tastes almost the same.

Though always the same, the Seattle staple is known for doing things a little bit different from their franchise competitors. For example, Dick's has always charged a nickel for ketchup or onions. But even that policy reflects the Northwest spirit.

Well you know the rule: reduce, reuse, recycle. We’ll never increase the price, but the five cents means that people get just what they need, they don’t get more. If you go to any other fast-food restaurant and you ask for ketchup, you’ll end up with more ketchup in your bag and you’ll throw it away, right? And so by charging just a nickel, it makes sure people get just what they need.

In recent months, Seattle has experienced pushback from its fast-food workers. Recently, some staged a one-day strike picketing businesses to seek a $15 minimum wage. Dick's, though, did not have any picketers at their six locations, and Spady believes it's because the company already provides good benefits to their workers like a starting wage of $10 an hour and a $22,000 scholarship program.

This support of education is built into the culture of Dick's.

We believe that the fast-food industry is a transitional employer. We hire people, but it’s not a career job unless you are going to go into management. So if you aren’t going into management, what you should be doing is upgrading your skills so you can be a computer programmer or a health technician or a radio interviewer: some other job to get your long-term living wage. If you don’t go into management, then you are probably going to be able to find a better-paying job in some other industry and so upgrade your skills and move. And when people do that in our business we celebrate. We encourage people to continue their education, and when people get their degree, then “God speed and thank you for working with us.”

When asked his opinion about mandating a $15 minimum wage, Spady was hesitant. He said he would encourage businesses that could afford it to pay higher wages and offer better benefits, but he said he understood the costs of real estate and franchise fees. Dick's owns all of its property.

Spady has a definite perspective on where his business fits into the economy at large.

We’re the lowest rung on the economic ladder. If you put in a $15 minimum wage then that lowest rung is going to move up a lot higher and there will be people who just don’t have the skills to get that job and they will lose their job. And also you’re going to motivate employers to use automation and other labor-saving devices. You can’t climb the economic ladder unless you can reach the lowest rung. Fast food, whether we like it or not, we’re one of the lowest rung employers but we serve an important purpose because we get people climbing that ladder.