Steak With A Side Of Surveillance: Outback Restaurants Adding Employee-Tracking Analytics To Its Cameras

from the why-manage-a-team-when-you-can-manage-a-spreadsheet? dept

Update: After this story went out, the owner of Outback Steakhouse reached out to let us know that they have cancelled this test and do not intend to use it. The company noted that the franchisee had good intentions, but that Outback didn’t think it was an appropriate project.

Surveillance growth markets are the best growth markets. Amazon, not satisfied with tying up the online shopping and data storage markets, is moving forward aggressively with plans to become the government’s top surveillance vendor, as well as the friendly face of (cop-enabled) home surveillance via its Ring doorbell camera. A swarm of analytics companies have descended on the massive amounts of data generated by social media/cellphone users to turn haystacks into marketable needle sources.

Anywhere a camera can be installed, a camera has been installed. Some are mute witnesses, incapable of doing anything more than providing playback of recorded footage. But some have additional features, like facial recognition tech or the ability to read license plates.

Your local eatery may be the next frontier for a curious blend of data analytics and surveillance. Louise Matsakis reports for Wired that Outback Steakhouse is tying analytics software to its existing cameras. The goal is to provide better customer service, but the backend resembles a dystopian sci-fi plot line.

As casual dining chains have declined in popularity, many have experimented with surveillance technology designed to maximize employee efficiency and performance. Earlier this week, one Outback Steakhouse franchise announced it would begin testing such a tool, a computer vision program called Presto Vision, at a single outpost in the Portland, Oregon area. Your Bloomin’ Onion now comes with a side of Big Brother.

According to Presto CEO Rajat Suri, Presto Vision takes advantage of preexisting surveillance cameras that many restaurants already have installed. The system uses machine learning to analyze footage of restaurant staff at work and interacting with guests. It aims to track metrics like how often a server tends to their tables or how long it takes for food to come out. At the end of a shift, managers receive an email of the compiled statistics, which they can then use to identify problems and infer whether servers, hostesses, and kitchen staff are adequately doing their jobs.

Suri compares this tracking program to a Fitbit, saying it does nothing more than present “metrics” to management at the end of the day. But that’s nothing like a Fitbit, which doesn’t present metrics to user’s employers at the end of the day. And a Fitbit can’t cost someone their job if the person scanning the data decides the Fitbit wearer just isn’t putting in enough effort.

The system can do more than reduce employees to statistics. It can also reduce customers to statistics. Presto Vision will also monitor wait times and count how many customers opt to eat elsewhere when faced with long lines. Supervisors could receive texts informing them of long lines — something they’d never be able to figure out on their own by, I don’t know, walking by the entrance.

While this sounds like it might work out better for customers, it probably won’t. Employees who feel their every motion is being tracked and graded are seldom happy employees. Those who linger a bit too long talking to customers or coworkers may feel they’re lowering their batting average and begin behaving more like the automatons Outback would possibly prefer to have waiting tables.

Customers will also feel the pinch. When analytics replace customer interaction, diners will be hustled through their meal and presented with a check as quickly as possible to free up tables for waiting customers whose very presence is sending a stream of texts to the supervisor’s phone. (Presumably, the system can be modified to send texts to those even further up the corporate ladder, along with compiled analytics from dozens of restaurants.)

Worse, it will destroy the confidence of good employees who know how to do their jobs well. Nothing irritates exceptional employees like micromanaging nagware.

The Outback pilot is still in early stages, but Suri sees broad potential in Presto Vision. The software has the potential to detect things like when a guest’s drink is almost empty, he says as an example, and prompt servers to offer them a refill.

Yes, it’s true that employees who don’t like tech that reduces them to numbers can find work elsewhere. But even if you ignore all the downsides of switching employers (income uncertainty, the oh-so-thrilling job search process, etc.), the number of options in the same field that aren’t already riddled with surveillance+analytics tech is swiftly dwindling. Matsakis reports major dining chains like Applebees and Olive Garden already deploy tech that reduces wait staff to numbers, as do places without dine-in options, like Domino’s Pizza.

It’s not that this data is useless. It’s that it’s seldom as useful as the person it’s handed to believes it is. Some things can’t be quantified, no matter how many cameras and algorithms are grinding away in the background. Turning personnel management over to tech solutions seldom results in better management or better employees. What it does tend to do is remove discretion, which means employers may feel forced to cut loose employees they actually believe are doing well just because their stats aren’t in the acceptable range. And the worst employees are the ones who have learned to game the system. They’ll game this one too, staying out of firing range while providing almost no value to their employers or their customers.

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Companies: outback steakhouse, presto

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Comments on “Steak With A Side Of Surveillance: Outback Restaurants Adding Employee-Tracking Analytics To Its Cameras”

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This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

"We’re having trouble filling tables and as such revenue is way down. Should we revisit our kitchen practices and menu?"

"NO! Let’s spend millions on analytics. It’s our lousy, freeloading underpaid servers that are the problem!"

"Should we perhaps increase their pay to incentivise hard work and attract better employees?"

"NO! Big brother the hell out of ’em. I saw a TV show once that said this works."

Also you touched on this with your comment about customers feeling the pinch, but we definitely can tell when we’re being hurried along whether it’s in the form of the server coming by every two minutes to ask if we want the check, to the music being incredibly loud so as to baffle conversation. Except the reaction to that is we just don’t go there anymore. OOPS!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I was eleven years old when I was talked into helping out in a kitchen at a restaraunt for a day scrubbing pans and other messy dishes. In fourteen hours I had earned a whopping $1.50 or $0.11 per hour. I wish their was a great ending to that story like I now own fifreen bistro eateries in NYC but no good came from that day. Sorry.

Anonymous Coward says:

The motto of America's restaurants: We pay workers crap...

"We pay workers crap, and guilt our paying customers into making up for it in gratuities" is pretty much the motto of the entire American sit-down restaurant business to the point that, whenever a jurisdiction proposes to introduce a decent minimum wage law, the restaurateurs trick their own workers into going to the statehouse to oppose this by threatening to lay off their staff.

I wonder how that business model, of abusing gratuities not as a reward for above-average service but as an excuse to pay people badly, will fare if the ever-watching evil eye camera causes servers to replace good (or at least marginal) service with rushed service to keep their numbers up. Will the sheeple tip less in response?

This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it.

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Which one is it liar?

You know damn well there’s a submit a story button. You just have noting but the worn down nubbin of an ace to grind. Except you actually think breitbart is a reliable source. So maybe not bro.
Maybe you’re so fucking stupid that you haven’t realised that after a decade here and some ten thousand posts.

AricTheRed says:

I’d stopped eating at Backsteak Outhouse a long time ago, this just finished off the prospect of a meal there for me and anyone I’d go with.

Although in all honesty there are few I’d be willing to go and eat out with there anyway, although the two that come to mind are Deputy Dickwad & his brother in-law the FBI agent, cause they are totally in to the whole Rekognition thing anyway.

Ninja (profile) says:

I remember one time I went to a place with my girl to eat some burgers and fries that we had never been to. We were treated very politely and they made efforts to make our experience good, cozy. At a point our waiter spent like 5-10 minutes chatting with us about the place, how was the food, some small chat not related and tips on other flavors we could try. It was a very pleasant experience. We have been going there at least once a month ever since the first time. The service is the same every time and they actually apologize when it’s crowded and they can’t give you more attention. No surveillance needed.

But yeah, let’s make the interactions as lifeless as possible, should work wonders!

michael says:

Nothing new here

All the things they’re tracking are things that were tracked by the register back when I worked at Pizza Hut in the early ’90s. You had to enter it all in by hand back then on a very stringent schedule, so a camera would actually have been preferred.

There’s nothing new here, except that the servers now get to just do their jobs instead of checking in constantly with the dumb point-of-sale system.

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