Outback Steakhouse Nixes Employee Surveillance Program Following Customer Backlash

Kindra Cooper

Employee surveillance

Outback Steakhouse backpedaled on its decision this week to use an AI-powered surveillance program to improve customer service at one of its locations in Portland, OR. 

The computer vision program, called Presto Vision, takes over existing surveillance cameras and uses machine learning to analyze footage of restaurant staff at work and interacting with guests. The software aims to track metrics like how often a server tends to their tables or how long it takes the food to come out. 

The restaurant chain’s announcement courted backlash on Facebook and Twitter over apprehensions of privacy invasion and placing undue stress on employees. The company subsequently decided the program is no longer the best way for restaurants to improve customer service. 

“We know our franchisee had the best of intentions when testing technology to help provide exceptional service,” a spokeswoman said in a statement. “But, we all know that hospitality is best achieved when serving our customer’s needs in the moment.”  

Read more: 4 Companies Using Machine Learning to Keep a Close Eye on Employees

Jeff Jones, CEO of Evergreen Restaurant Group, which operates the franchise, originally said video footage would be deleted within days of being recorded and that no diners’ personal information would be collected. 

Outback isn’t the only fast-casual restaurant to use surveillance technology. Most quick-service restaurants use surveillance cameras to ensure customers aren’t stealing and that employees are following health protocols – the difference is that these cameras aren’t souped up with powerful analytics tools. 

Employee surveillance(Image credit: Outback)

Domino's recently introduced the Dom Pizza Checker that uses in-store cameras equipped with machine learning capabilities and sensor technology to make sure employees are making pizzas correctly. The cameras can identify pizza type, topping distribution and correct toppings and if employees don't execute the order correctly they are instructed to make it again. 

Read more: Before You Automate People's Jobs, Here Are Some Things to Consider

Presto Vision can reportedly even detect if a customer’s drink is empty and alert a manager via text message. The now-defunct pilot at Outback Steakhouse would have involved monitoring how crowded the lobby is and how many customers decide to leave rather than wait for a table. 

“We expect Presto Vision to bring about a tectonic shift in the restaurant industry,” Rajat Suri, founder and CEO of Presto Vision, said in a press release. “E-commerce websites have always had detailed analytics on how customers navigate their sites, but restaurants have never have had access to this information in their physical stores.”  

At the end of each shift, the manager would receive an email of compiled statistics, which they can use to identify problems and infer whether servers and kitchen staff are doing their jobs. 

While it’s a relief for many that Outback has axed its would-be surveillance program, it may be a matter of time before another QSR proposes to push the envelope under the subterfuge of improving customer service.