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.

Filed Under: restaurants, surveillance, taylorism, work
Companies: outback steakhouse, presto


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 Oct 2019 @ 11:01am

    "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!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 24 Oct 2019 @ 11:03am

      Re:

      This is also what happens when your managers aren't actually managers but rather rank-and-file employees that you tricked into going salary.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 24 Oct 2019 @ 1:17pm

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 Oct 2019 @ 11:13am

    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?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 24 Oct 2019 @ 11:18am

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

      What's worse is some management takes the tips too.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Mike Coudwell (profile), 28 Oct 2019 @ 6:50am

      Re: Burger-G restaurants

      Actually, there is a "Burger-G" restaurant chain in the Middle East.

      <sarcasm-mode-engaged>

      Oh no! I hope Marshall Brain doesn't get sued for copyright infringement! And @mhajicek for posting the link, or ME, for commenting on the link

      </sarcasm mode disengaged>

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    The Door Handles Of Death brought to you by Tesla, 24 Oct 2019 @ 11:37am

    Google Developing System to Spy on Employees

    https://www.breitbart.com/economy/2019/10/24/google-accused-of-developing-system-to-spy-on-employees /

    [I take out the "accused" hedge that Breitbart put in, because this is WAY better attested than the Ukraine idiocy.]

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Gary (profile), 24 Oct 2019 @ 12:06pm

      Re: Google Developing System to Spy on Employees

      Oooh. It says there that this is the system that Hillary used to trick people into her sex basement under the pizza place!!

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 24 Oct 2019 @ 2:02pm

      Re: Google Developing System to Spy on Employees

      Never, ever cite breitbart if you want to be taken seriously.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 24 Oct 2019 @ 2:32pm

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    AricTheRed, 24 Oct 2019 @ 11:40am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Baron von Robber, 24 Oct 2019 @ 1:07pm

    Manager: "Waitress #1413! Our software suspects you of unauthorized eating of our inventory over that 3 months!"
    Waitress #1413: "I'm not eating your food. I'm pregnant."
    Manager: "You're fired."

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 Oct 2019 @ 3:50pm

    Don't give Outback such a hard time

    Look, nothing about Outback is in any way Australian, so give them a break - at least they are trying in their own, small way to match the surveillance state the Aussie government is implementing.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Ninja (profile), 25 Oct 2019 @ 7:37am

    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!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    nerdrage (profile), 26 Oct 2019 @ 12:25pm

    why not cut to the chase

    Stop hiring humanoids as servers and have everything delivered by robot. It's what they want, obviously. Then the robot can be directly programmed to move faster. Faster dammit!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    michael, 29 Oct 2019 @ 11:11am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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