In 1987, Peter Christie was nearing the end of his tenure as a volunteer board member of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association when he confided to his wife that he dreamed of claiming the top job at the organization. At his final event, a dinner at Anthony’s Pier 4, he was approached by the volunteer leader of the association, who said, “Would you be interested in [the outgoing MRA leader’s] job?” Christie recalls. Since then, he has served as president and CEO of the association, a post he held until this week. July 12 will be Christie’s last day at the helm; his longtime friend Bob Luz succeeds him. “It’s been a great career,” says Christie. “It sounds corny, but I really believe that we’re at our best as human beings when we’re helping other people in some way. I just had the good fortune for these past 26 years of helping people in our industry and getting paid to do it.”
Q. How has the local restaurant culture changed during your time at the MRA?
A. The competitive nature of the industry has become much more difficult. Back when I was in the [restaurant] business in the ’80s, you could do a mediocre job and still make money. That’s not so anymore. I think regardless of what niche you are — fine dining, casual dining, quick casual, quick service — the consumer is far more educated and has a lot more choices. The competitive business is such that [restaurants] just have to do a good job no matter what it is, identify their niche, do an excellent job, and execute, because it’s so competitive. If they fail, if their tag is fine food and they’re not delivering fine food, guess what? The customer is far more sophisticated than they’ve ever been. If it’s affordable prices and value, they better be giving value because the customer knows value. The good side of that is that dining out has become a big part of the entertainment dollar. It started with people like Emeril Lagasse and today with the Food Network and so on, it really put the focus on the pleasures of food and the fun to be had. It’s great for the industry, but as a result it’s become very competitive.
Q. What is your legacy?
A. In terms of our advocacy with our state regulatory agencies, state Legislature, and so on, I think we’ve raised the bar of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association so that we’re a very viable state trade association that is knowledge-based. We’re not sensationalist, we’re not headline grabbers. We’re respected. We work with, for example, the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission and the Department of Public Health. We don’t think of those relationships as adversarial, we realize that we all have the same ultimate goals. We work in a way that those agencies would probably agree that we both recognize the goals and the job of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association is to let those regulators know how those regulations will affect us and how to best implement the same goals without damaging the industry. Honestly the biggest contribution that we’ve made during my tenure at the helm is providing our members in the industry with solid information about rules and regulations that they need in order to stay in compliance in a continually changing environment, to stay out of hearing rooms and courtrooms so they can better focus on running their businesses. I’m sure that we’ve positively affected many, many businesses who would have found themselves — not from malintentions, but through ignorance — in deep trouble. I like to think that we’ve done a really good job at that.
Q. What kind of initiatives did you advance?
A. We created an educational foundation
and we’re in 25 high schools around the Commonwealth with a curriculum where juniors and seniors are being introduced to our industry. We then help them with paid internships, help them find jobs. We provide scholarships, over $1.4 million in scholarships. We did it selfishly. A decade ago we knew we were going to be needing managers and we wanted to attract people and let them know the values of our industry, the good careers and career ladders that are possible. Chris Coombs, who owns dbar, Deuxave, and Boston Chops, he was a graduate of our pro start program at Peabody High School. Then he went to the Culinary Institute and he owns three restaurants now and is a young leader in the industry, under 30. So I think that educational foundation and the good will and the good things it will do will be part of the legacy of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association. I’m not the guy responsible, it’s the organization that’s responsible, I’m just the leader who helped oversee it and make it happen.