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New MRA CEO Bob Luz on the Future of the Industry

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Photo: Bob Luz/Katie Chudy

Last month, Peter Christie, President and CEO of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association (MRA), retired after 24 years of service. Stepping into his shoes is Bob Luz, a longtime veteran of the restaurant industry with a background in human resources and training. While settling into his new role, Luz spoke with Eater Boston about his industry experience, his goals in his new position, and what changes he anticipates the future holds for the restaurant industry.

For those who may not be familiar with the MRA, could you sum up what you do?
The MRA is a not-for-profit business that represents the best interests of its members, and it focuses on five strategic directives: 1) Advocacy: there's a lot of legislative issues that come up that affect our businesses, and when I say businesses, I mean everything from fast food, casual, family dining, full service dining, caterers, hotel and institutional services and everything in between, so really it's a broad spectrum. 2) Training and Education: providing our members with the tools that they need so that the people that work with them can better serve the public. 3) Networking: just getting the group together to think about how to collectively question, "how do we win?" as opposed to "how do I win?" 4) Cost Savings: Identifying opportunities where we can band together to get a deeper discount for our membership. 5) Disseminating all of that information.

Who is currently part of your membership community?
Our industry is largely driven by independents, so they are our biggest number. We have a fair amount of strong regional chains such as Bertucci's, up to national chains like McDonald's, but largely, our membership is driven by the independents.

Do you currently do a lot of work with food trucks, or do you plan to?
We have one food truck member right now, but that is an emerging member of growth for us and one area that we'll start to make more growths in.

How did you get into the restaurant industry and how do you think your background will help you in this role?
I graduated from UMass Amherst with a degree in Hospitality Management, went to work in Restaurant Operations, became a general manager, became a training general manager, moved into HR and Training, and have been with restaurant companies in various areas of HR for the rest of my career. When I first started talking to Peter Christie, he was very excited because he felt I would bring an element to this job that was critical for the next leader, and it was Peter having the vision to say, "I think this is great for you." He went to the board and that's how I ended up here.

What are some of the things that you are most looking forward to achieving now that you're Chief Executive Officer of the MRA?
Honestly, one of the biggest keys for us is to stay on top of the advocacy program because there's so many things from a compliance and regulation standpoint that are potentially out there to affect our business. But also one of the bigger ones for me, given my background in HR & Training, is that I think we can improve on the delivery of training and education to our members. I'm very passionate about that, and I think this is one of the greatest industries in the world where someone can start as a bartender and end up running a $350 million company, like John Grady of Ninety Nine Restaurants, starting off as a bartender and now he's president.

People can get into this business at any level they want and grow into some really neat positions. Providing people with opportunities for career lattice is really important to us and educating the younger generations of the quality of life and a fun atmosphere that go along with this industry. In fact, a big project we're working on is Pro-Start — a high school program that is currently in 22 schools across the state that introduces the food service industry to juniors and seniors and shows them how they can grow a career in it.

How do you see the restaurant industry changing over the next couple of years?
It's changing in a lot of different ways, and the highest growth segment that we have today is quick-casual, largely driven by a younger demographic who is less concerned about sitting down and having a full service experience for an hour and a half and more concerned about fresh food, prepared quickly and in a cool and hip environment. Even in casual dining experiences, they are trying to figure out how to get a little more quick-casual, and there's that change in attitude and value happening now.

Food trucks are a great example where you bring the food to the people instead of the people going to the food, so it's a pretty dynamic time in terms of what our business model is and what it will be in the future. Secondly, there's the role that our government is playing in our business with healthcare reform and tip wages, for example, and those changes can have dramatic impacts on the way we do business. Being able to work with legislators so that they can understand the nuances of what we do is critical so that we can protect our businesses and grow them.

There's a lot of conversation around tipping right now, any thoughts on that subject that you'd like to share?
I think the system that we have today works. People often get confused on the $2.63/hour wage, and it's easy to say that there hasn't been a wage increase in many years and that's true but not true at the same time. When a restaurant raises its menu prices, the servers' income increases because they receive a certain percentage of the bill as a tip. I think that's a hard connection for legislators to make if they haven't been in the business, but if you think about menu prices over the last 8 years, they've gone up dramatically, and servers' wages have gone up with that. In 1999, the average server's wage was $7.14/hour, and today it's up to to $13.13/hour. And Massachusetts has the highest tip gratuities in the country.

So we're good tippers then?
I think it's more that we've educated and have worked with legislators and business owners to get their employees to declare their tips and to understand the downside of not declaring tips and how it can affect what you make on unemployment and worker's compensation. Massachusetts does it better than any other state, and we think a large part of that is us working with the government and the business owners to make sure we do the right thing.

You've lived in other areas of the country. How do you think Massachusetts as a whole differs from other parts of the country that you've lived and worked in?
For one, we have a population density that is incredible; you have a large group of people living in a small area, and that provides opportunity. That being said, there's probably too many restaurants on Main Street these days and we just overbuilt a bit and we have to get right-sized for better alternatives. Another challenge we see is that up here, real estate is so expensive and there's a lot of concepts that can work in other parts of the country but not here, so that's a challenge for us to make it more affordable so we can keep that cutting edge restaurant moving into this geographic area.

Do you have any favorite local restaurants?
I have close to 2,000 members as part of the MRA, so I like to say that I have 2,000 favorite restaurants. We have some wonderful members in every segment of the business. You have great fast casual restaurants like Boloco that just does a great job and casual dining chains like Ninety Nine Restaurants that have 61 locations across the state to fine dining restaurant groups — like Steve DiFillippo, CEO of Davio's, and Jeff Gates of the Aquitaine Group just do a great job. From independents to multi-unit operators and everyone in between. Donato Frattaroli of Restaurant Lucia in the North End also does an outstanding job.

Any advice to offer anyone currently in the restaurant world or wanting to break into it?
This is an industry where you can go as far as you want and you can go into work every day and it's a blast and it's fun. I always told my father when I graduated from UMass that I was going to go work in the restaurant industry, and when he asked me if I was going to stick with it, I told him that I would until I stopped having fun, and then I'll move into another job. Here I am, 30 plus years later, and I'm still having fun everyday and I think it's a great time to be in this industry. I think it's challenging, but those that accept those challenges can do very well for themselves.

Biggest challenge is that everyone wants to get into the restaurant business, and people that want to get in need to realize how far of a bottom line we work with and how challenging it is to be in this industry. There are not a lot of businesses where you can take a product from raw form to finished form in 12-14 minutes and put it in front of a demanding consumer who will give you immediate and critical feedback. That's a lot of pressure. But to me, that's the excitement of what we do, to take somebody in that short of a time frame, and give them a great experience. That's what it's all about.
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— Katie Chudy