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Farm-to-Table Will Just Be a Way of Life, Says MRA's Bob Luz in Predictions for 2015

Massachusetts Restaurant Association CEO and president Bob Luz reflects on changes to the industry in 2014 and what's coming up next.

Bob Luz
Bob Luz
Katie Chudy for Eater

When we last spoke, you had just taken on the role of CEO and president of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association. How have things been going since then?

It's been about 18 months since I took on this role, and overall, things have been great. This year in particular, it's been a little bit of a challenging run from a legislative and government action front, and it's been fast and furious. There are a lot of things that have affected the industry. I spend much more time on Beacon Hill than I expected. But we're a tough and resilient industry.

"Waitresses and bartenders don't make minimum wage, but they are some of the best paid in the industry."

There were a lot of changes. Any in particular that you think hit home the hardest?

Minimum wage was a tough one. The real concern was on the tip wage. Waitresses and bartenders don't make minimum wage, but they are some of the best paid in the industry. There was a bill put forth that would have doubled the tip wage. We worked really hard on a compromise bill that will raise the wages over the next couple of years. Sick leave was another big change that will affect us in 2015. There were a host of other things, but those were the big ones.

What changes are you proud of having accomplished since you started?

We've really proud of changing the model of how we do business. We've moved people from our offices in Southborough to being out in the field and meeting with people more. We also added the first field representative who will be working to connect with the next generation of leaders, and we're really looking to bring in a lot of young people, since there's been a huge influx in talent. That's been a fun thing, getting our team out into the field and getting in touch with people directly. We're also doing a lot of fun events. We actually have one coming up with Harpoon, which will give everyone the chance to connect.

Looking back on 2014, there were a lot of changes to the city, one being the extension of the T hours. Have you seen any changes or benefits that this has made on the restaurant industry?

Yes, we actually contributed to that. When the governor asked for companies to stand up and support, we were one of six companies that stood up to get involved. It was important for us because it's a great way to get guests home safely but also for the employees. It's been a great program that we're very confident and hopeful will continue. We've been very active in pushing for it, and we've seen a lot of positive from it.

What are some of the changes you've seen to the industry this year that will carry on into 2015?

We're eating out more than ever, which is good. There are also more locations than there's ever been. There's still a continued higher growth in fast casual places that serve food freshly, like Clover; that's a high-growth area. There are also a lot of local chef-owners. Those people in that segment will continue to embrace the farm-to-table movement. There's going to be a stronger emphasis on local beverages and small-batch distilleries too. That's all the rage. Also, the Food Network has made celebrities out of chefs, and I think bartenders are going to be more into the limelight, especially when they pair it with locally-made products.

What do you think about the term "farm-to-table"?

I think we'll start to lose the term, and it will just be a way of life. The millennials are looking to really support local businesses and keeping things within a small geographic footprint. I don't think this is something that's going to go away, and I think there's a strong emphasis. The dining public is looking for it. It will start to lose that trendy term and become the way we live. You see it more and more in neighborhoods that are just sprouting out, like the waterfront and soon, Eastie. It's funny, the developers in the past wanted strong national chains because they knew rent was a guarantee. It's all changed; now they want local, chef-driven establishments where the chefs know the neighborhood. I mean, look at Assembly Square and how much that has changed. People want to live where they can walk everywhere.

Do you foresee any specific food trends emerging in 2015?

Tapas and small plates continue to be a trend that's here to stay. Similar to farm-to-table, I think the term "small plates" will go away, and it will just be a way of life. I think the diners want to try a bunch of things when they go out. The burger trend isn't going away, and fun pizzas are making a resurgence with unique toppings.

"I think that the Chili's and the Applebee's of the world have more of a challenge."

How are chain restaurants faring with this emphasis on local and chef-driven restaurants?

It's a challenge for them, for sure. A lot of them are located near big box stores, which are slowly going away, and they've had to reinvent themselves and hope to become more of the neighborhood by playing down the fact that they are a chain. Roger Berkowitz has a done a great job by changing each Legal Sea Foods to fit into the neighborhood and have a different feel. Some have been good at adapting. 99 Restaurant is another one that tries to be a non-chain chain. I think that the Chili's and the Applebee's of the world have more of a challenge.

What are some of the goals for the MRA in 2015?

As we enter into 2015, we're looking to quiet out the legislative agenda. They've changed a lot, so we're hoping that we can quiet that down a little so that we can take out all the noise and hopefully people can just get back to doing what they do. There also seems to be an industry attack. The media tends to blow out one or two bad employers, and it tends to affect the whole industry. I love this industry because you can literally go from the dish room to the board room, but there's a smear campaign from people who are not really in the business. It's unfortunate because in Massachusetts we're 10% of the workforce.

"We're not meant to be a full-time, fully-benefited workforce, and sometimes people paint us pretty badly because of it."

Where's this smear campaign coming from?

It's the big unions that really aren't local and don't understand. For instance, some people are saying that McDonald's workers should be earning $15/hour. The business model for a Big Mac doesn't support that sort of wage. Now I'm not defending McDonald's, just giving an example. These are jobs that people are meant to grow from, and not every industry is meant to be a job where someone can support a family of four. We're not meant to be a full-time, fully-benefited workforce, and sometimes people paint us pretty badly because of it. Because we're such a large employer, sometimes there are more challengers, and I just don't think it's the right thing to do.

Anything else you'd like to share about the MRA from this year and as we move into the new year?

I don't want to spend much time on the negative because it's such a good industry, and there's so much growth and opportunity. It's really just an exciting time to be in our industry.