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Restaurant Secret Shopping

Any C'hounds ever done restaurant secret shopping? I don't mean restaurant reviews but actual paid assignments to go in and be a diner in an honest-to-goodness, flatware-on-the-table restaurant, have a meal, and then report back on everything from ambience waitstaff, food, noise level, lighting and cleanliness of the restrooms? If so, was it fun? Or one of those, 'did it once, and never again' things?

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  1. I have done several chains over the years. I am not going to get specifically into which chains but most would be familiar with them

    Whether the experience is pleasant largely depends on the company that you are working for.

    One company required extensive interaction with specified employees in the operation. That required a lot of time in the restaurant and a lot of diligence. Then, they expected a thesis about the restaurant with several "follow-up" calls. When I considered all the time involved and the small compensation, I quit shopping for them.

    A second company was pretty much the same. They also made a lot of phone calls also asking for information that they could have found in my report had they read it.

    The company that I am currently working for occasionally is pretty good. They require a one page narrative and a short questionnaire. They also require a dining partner which is pretty cool as I can take a friend or my wife with me. Most friends do not know that I am "working" which works out pretty well.

    If you are planning to make a lot of money, forget about it. More often or not, all you are getting is a free meal.

    2 Replies
    1. re: jlawrence01

      Echo all of the above. Did it in college. It got old fast. Never again. Mostly went to Holiday/Village Inn types of places.

      1. re: Leonardo

        A friend did it during college, too, when the free meal was a big deal. However, the company wanted more reporting on the state of the bathrooms than the food.

    2. It starts to detract from the joy of eating out with whoever I'm with. In the past I did this and it was pretty much only a free meal, I didn't do any paid-shops that were restaurants. The paid-shops were usually retail- buy some item from list A- return it X amount of days later, write a 20 page report and make $16.37 for your efforts. When I was single and cat/puppy-free, sure, it was not a chore. Now? Not a chance. It would take away from my posting time on chowhound!
      (The only time I'm not working, cooking, cleaning or taking care of some breathing thing I sneak over here... )

      4 Replies
      1. re: Boccone Dolce

        well it depends on where you are being sent. if its a nice place- then you really can enjoy the free meal...right?

        1. re: girlwholovestoeat

          <<well it depends on where you are being sent. if its a nice place- then you really can enjoy the free meal...right?>>

          i haven't done this myself, but my friends who have done this have NEVER been sent to a place that could remotely be called "a nice place."

          1. re: westsidegal

            don't know where you live or what companies your friends are registered with.

            My eldest daughter is regularly offered meal shops at Capital Grille, Morton's Ruth Chris' and PF Changs, as well as the low end such as McD, Wendy's, Boston Market, Texas Roadhouse...
            It's a matter of geography as well as choice of shopping company. Daughter never accepts shops at restaurants she would not ordinarilly patronize, or where she does not have choice of menu (with dollar limit) as opposed to being told what dish she must order.

            1. re: westsidegal

              maybe i should have dated my post.
              my friends have not done this sort of work for over a decade now (actually probably closer to 15 years).
              probably one of the factors that caused them to leave the work was that they didn't enjoy the food at the places they were sent.
              the highest end place either one of them was ever sent was a PF Changs type of place--and that was only once.
              neither EVER went to any place anywhere near morton's or ruth chris'
              the majority of the places were low end chains that offered
              lots of deep fried menu items.
              sometimes they'd do take-out and as soon as they could turn the corner they would take a thermometer to the food so that they could report it's exact temperature.
              this was before EVERYONE had a cellphone with texting and camera capabilities.
              lot's of written, narrative, reports.
              not very efficient.
              i'm sure by now there are more efficient systems in place.

        2. Having done it for a year (at chain restos like jlawrence mentioned) it is definitely not something you do for the money. However, it is interesting if you are an individual who feels feedback (whether positive or negative) will be beneficial. The first few times I felt sort of sneaky, going to check out washrooms and all that.

          One place I went to was just hideous - filthy, extremely poor customer service, awful food. I am very objective and tried to find the good in each visit. Once we were shorted $10 and did not notice until we got home (usually we are more astute than that). When we returned to get the $10 they refused to give it to us. A month later we finally got it but at that point the establishment had found out who we were (long story). We opted not to return. It was not worth the piddly amount of pay to do a lengthy report when we were continually treated so poorly.

          I still have not been paid for shops I did in January, February and March. After my first inquiry I was told the computer system was down. However, I now cannot reach them by phone or email. Whilst the amount is not large it is the principle - how can you not pay your employees? I am still frustrated with the situation.

          It is something I would consider again if it were somewhere else (i.e. an actual restaurant as opposed to a chain) where the food was actually worth it.

          1. I've done a bit of mystery shopper over the years, both retail and restaurant. Never have I had an assignment for an independent. Generally chains are interested in paying for the shoppers to insure that their product is being offered in a consistent manner. Which, to me, is the fundamental objective of a chain - they have a specific formula and it is profitable for them only if all branches follow through.

            I never worked for the mystery shopper firms, I worked through a temp agency which got these assignments on occasion. Most times I was given specific products to check, an array of questions to ask, and certain areas of the building to critically examine.

            The thing which made it profitable was mileage. Otherwise the time involved was too much for the pay. But as a consumer I felt like I could offer constructive observations which could improve future experiences for patrons.

            1. All the people who have participated in the secret shopping mentioned little pay, what exactly do you get paid for such experiences?

              I'm also interested in how you are reimbursed for your meal expenses since chefathome hasn't been paid the past months?

              I could see the extremely bad experiences being the ones the would want documented the most. Sounds like they are getting exactly what they're hoping for.

              8 Replies
              1. re: syrahc

                I didn't do shops myself but I worked at a lot of restaurants that got shopped and eventually the info gets around. Usually you get reimbursement for your meal and something menial, like $10. Sometimes it's not $10 it's just mileage. If you primarily eat at chains and don't have much to do with your spare time, it could be a way to get a few free meals but I wouldn't look at it as a money maker. Keep in mind that you usually have to order certain things as well, so it's not like you can go and get whatever you want.

                1. re: syrahc

                  For me the pay for restaurants was usually a few bucks above min. wage. But that would be a per visit amount. Sometimes it took less than an hour, sometimes more...

                  I generally did shopper assignments just for specific non-food service industries.
                  Those companies requested me year after year. This caused the temp agency to prefer me for any shopper calls they got. I would take them if I had a 10-14 day period built into the assignment which covered a fair geographical area. That way I could work them in with my errands. Most times I accepted the jobs more to keep my relationship good with the agency, which helped me out in other areas.

                  On a slightly different direction, the secret shopper system is what keeps employees saying many of the inane, canned spiels you experience at chains. They know they are going to be shopped, they know this is the sort of thing their company wants checked, and there are a lot of companies where the employees raise or even job can be greatly affected by the results of the shoppers report. People at the corporate level seem to look at these reports very seriously and without a true understanding of how that aspect of the company really works. Often the shopper is provided with a flow chart script. Shopper is instructed to say "Boy, what a scorcher it is out there!" Then see if server responds with the "correct" summer promo suggestion of "Our Blue Lagoon Exotic Slush Cooler will refresh and revive! How about a pitcher for the table along with our ultra yummy coconut macadamia prawn poppers?" If they offer it up right, thats what you order, otherwise you ask about these items and see if they describe them with the "correct" degree of fervor...and so it goes. The amount of stuff the shopper has to memorize (no note taking that could tip them) removes most chance of enjoyment. Most companies don't allow you to complete reports in the parking lot to reduce the chance of you being spotted. So next time your grocery clerk asks if you found everything you needed, know that they know this is the silliest time of your shopping trip to inquire, but their company hires shoppers to check that it is said at that point...

                  1. re: meatn3

                    Personally, I must admit that I take notes as I need to get every name correct. Every restaurant visit that I have ever taken requires you to check out the bathrooms. I will head into the stall and note the names. The rest of the meal I can pretty much remember.

                    I have never found the experience to be disruptive to having a good meal. Most of the places that I do are $50-60 meals.

                    Where the real money is made is in doing surveillance in bars to make sure that the bar staff is not robbing the owners blind. I do not do that kind of work as it potentially requires making appearances in a court of law which would detract from my everyday employment,

                    1. re: jlawrence01

                      When I did it, I brought crayons and paper for my child, or used the ones provided by the restaurant, and made a few notes on names and timing hidden in the scribbles. Just made sure to take it with me when I left if I didn't think I'd be able to remember all the details.

                      It's interesting, but not very lucrative. Basically just a free meal.

                  2. re: syrahc

                    The reason I started doing it is I was new to the community, wanted to get to know people and eating establishments, etc. I am also the type of person who always completes forms, surveys, and so on as I believe feedback is extremely important.

                    The one place I mentioned that was so bad is still very bad - FOUR shoppers started (and stopped) shopping that location in the past two months. I was told by the agency who hired me that it is rated as the number 1 rated worst place in Canada for food, cleanliness, staff turnover, friendliness and customer service!!! I can imagine. On each shop I kept hoping for changes but it just never happened. Sometimes we went there (you get an assigned week you must go but not a specific day) and it was closed! This is a place that is to be open 365 days a year. Each time was the same as the last, no improvements. Then because of a complaint (it was closed numerous times so we found it very annoying taking the time to go, not planning meals at our house). Our bills were often incorrect, food order incorrect or incomplete, extremely poor customer service, etc.). Eventually they found out who we (husband and I went together) were so we had to stop going there. Not that that was hard - we did not want to continue. The reason I did is because I felt a certain obligation to complete the shops as assigned.

                    If that was not enough the agency who hired me has not paid me for the past few shops. I am absolutely irate - I was told I was the best report writer in this region as I am extremely objective and thorough. I really did a good job. I received an email from the payroll department going to myself as well as several other shoppers notifying us that the computer system was down and that we would soon be paid. Well, that was in March. They still have a website and phone number - I've left messages. I have no idea what is going on and do not know what step to take next.

                    All in all mystery shopping is very interesting but I would find it so much intriguing to go to an actual restaurant rather than a chain where the food is reputed to be poor to begin with. If I lived in a large centre with more variety I would do it again but NOT for the pay. I only received $10 per report plus reimbursement of food.

                    1. re: chefathome

                      If you didn't read my post below, I suggest you check in with forums.volition.com under mystery shopping. You can ask if others have had problems with this company and what to do about it.

                      1. re: mlgb

                        Thank you - I did read your post but somehow missed a few words! I will check into that as soon as I post this. Appreciate it!

                    2. re: syrahc

                      I haven't shopped in a few years because, as other said, it takes away the fun aspect of dining out to be required to track every detail and have to order specific items. I found I just couldn't do it with the kids, and when I was dining without kids I wanted to relax and enjoy myself. Compensation for fast/food restaurant shops I did was never very hgh, your meal and maybe $8-15, but often it just covered your meal.

                      The more experienced you are, the better the shops you get offered. Non restaurant shops can pay more- I was just offered a time intensive shop that would have involved a lot of driving around and a partner to do it with you but would have paid $360 plus a $180 bonus.

                      Most of the places I worked with require you to have a Paypal account to get paid. And I have read stories on http://forum.volition.com about people who wrote negative reports having a hard time getting paid because the restaurant tries to rebut the negative feedback.

                    3. I have assisted clients in the past with doing fraud checks on employees at bars and taverns. Requires you to spend several hours at the bar sipping, talking and keeping your eyes open. Tough job but I was qualified.

                      1. I've done everything from fast food chains to fine-dining $200 reimbursement dinners. Worked for dozens of companies. After you work your way up in the pecking order you can get into some pretty good places. I agree with jlawrence, it depends on the client company (and if you like the resto) as to whether it was worthwhile. I always found doing the shop fun and interesting, although writing the report was not always fun depending on the company. For the higher end places you need a bit of training. You always have to write in an objective manner, not like a restaurant reviewer. You never rate based on personal preference, there are standards that you are asked to evaluate, timings, was the food served hot, etc. If you've ever been a supervisor you'll understand the drill.

                        The bar evaluations do pay a bit more cash as well as reimburse for purchases. I did a few (and it was very interesting because I observed one theft and one server drinking) but I also got a bit concerned about having to do court appearances. But now I know how bartenders steal!

                        Most companies want the report within 24 hours or less, which means your nice evening out can be tempered by the thought of having to prepare the report when you get home.

                        If you get into the higher end places you must go with a companion, so as not to stand out. The partner needs to be coached on how to interact with the server (or better yet, not to say too much at all).

                        If this is something you're thinking of doing, check out the forum.volition.com under Mystery shopping. You can ask if there are payment problems with a particular company. It does happen.

                        After a while you learn to select the companies that are fast-payers. Only rarely did I find one who used vouchers. But it's a good way to earn mileage points on your credit card if you can afford to pay your balance off. My "good companies" will pay me before the bill is due.

                        1. I have done this for the past year and have found it to be a good way to enjoy some free meals and hotel stays. I have stuck with high end places, and I'm not sure it's worth the work for a meal below $100. The report can take anywhere from 30 minutes, to four hours (two night hotel stay) to complete. It helps that I'm a teacher with the summer off, so spending a morning working on a report doesn't take spare time away from me. Staying at a high end hotel in NYC , is worth 4 hours of work to me. When I see the bill at check out and laugh that it equals my teacher's paycheck for 2 weeks, it works for me.

                          5 Replies
                          1. re: Sap115

                            Wow - it would be cool to do such shops! The only one available within an hour radius of here are low-end chains. I can definitely see how the ones you do would be worthwhile!

                            1. re: chefathome

                              You have to take the low paying chains shops to prove your dependability. You're not going to get the good shops until you've proved yourself.

                              1. re: Chris VR

                                Depending on where you are located, some companies specialize in higher-end restaurants. If you're in a major metropolitan area it doesn't take long to get the good ones IF you are able to follow instructions and provide the right kind of detail.

                                The Volition forum is the best place to go to ask about which companies are the best for restaurant shopping, however expect to do a bit of research on your own because the shoppers with the "plums" aren't going to give up those leads readily.

                                1. re: Chris VR

                                  They've told me I'm their best shopper. I live in a small centre - the highest price for an entree here is $9.95 - not one single "restaurant" but rather just chains, unfortunately...

                                  1. re: chefathome

                                    Yeah, it's going to get old doing all that work for a $10 entree. Although for a while it's interesting learning the industry standards for service, etc.

                            2. My father did it for a pizza chain for a while. I think he thought it was interesting.

                              1. i mystery shop all the time. not only does it give me a bit of pocket money, it gets me out to places and meeting people i'd never normally see or talk to. i've done tons of coffee shops, often three or four a day in airports, frozen yogurt chains, chicken joints, and now i'm starting to do high end restaurants. i also like to do parking shops. they pay based on how long you are required to stay park and i usually jus go find a coffee shop or a good restaurant and sit down with my computer and work, while getting paid for nothing. i love seeing my city through fresh eyes. and you never know when something crazy is going to happen, as it often does.

                                1. I've done this for the group of restaurants I'm associated with. It's fairly enlightening, since most of the staff already knows me via wine classes, yet the service still suffers sometimes (it's a pretty busy place).

                                  I enjoy doing it, since it's usually with a manager friend. They want us to go all out and order cocktails, wine, appetzers, etc. There are some obligatory check-points, though: The bathroom must be visited (not only to check out the condition, but for the waiter to fold or replace my napkin), recommendations must be made, managerial presence must be felt, proper timing and utensils, etc.

                                  We always have a great time, as the food is spectacular where I work. I wish I got to do it more often...just to check out the wine service. :)

                                  1. I have done this many times, for a large and varied group of mystery shopping providers. I posted recently about one to stay away from due to reimbursements long overdue to many evaluators, but the mods took it down (even though it was factual as well as actionable legally, which I am pursuing.) If you need info on this, email me. I will be happy to help you get started. I have been doing this for years, and if you don;t mind long narrative reports requiring extensive in restaurant observations, with short reporting deadlines, you might like it. I do, as it upgrades my dining lifestyle.

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: puiwa

                                      Hi, are you still a secret shopper for restaurants? I saw your Chowhound post from Feb 2010. Shauna85@gmail.com

                                    2. Yes, I have done 100's of bar spottings. My tag is postemotional and my brain candy is all over the Bar "Buy backs" thread in the 'Not About Food' section.
                                      What i have found is an enormous # of free drinks being given out, most often by so-called Bar Mgrs. who tend bar and are thus able to cover their tracks.

                                      i tend bar for the company that provides this spotting service. No, we do not spot our own bars.

                                      I have never had to make a court appearance. Here in MA workers are "Employees at Will" who can be dismissed with/without cause.

                                      It pays about $40 for a 1 hour visit and 1 hour entering the report. it is very interesting work. You will never think about bartenders the same way again.

                                      1. I secret shop a few different chains (in Canada). I prefer to eat at independent restaurants but many of my friends (especially those from small towns or who have lived in suburbia forever!) prefer to eat at chain restaurants, so secret shopping is one way I can join them for a meal without having to pay for anything. I don't make any profit from it, but I don't usually lose more than five bucks in the end, so it's fine with me.

                                        One thing that I find frustrating is that I am obviously significantly more intelligent than the people working at the secret shopping company. The questionnaires that I have to fill out are full of mistakes and many of the questions don't make sense. Sometimes there are multiple-choice questions where none of the options reflect my experience, and there isn't an "other" option where I could write and explain what happened. So I just choose the answer least likely to make them contact me for follow-up. That's their problem; not mine.

                                        1. I've done this, but I've found that a free meal and sometimes a little pay on top of that is WAY too little for how much work is usually required. This goes for retailers as well, but resto shops often want the kind of detailed reporting that my day job does but at half or less pay. No thanks.

                                          1. I've done mystery shopping of every type for two years. Mostly I choose the higher paying ones. But I enjoy interspercing focused business shops, I enjoy doing restaurant shops too, where you get a small payment, $10 to $15, and your meal coverage to a certain amount, like $35. It doesn't cover a lot. But let's face it: we all like to go out to dinner, tr eat friends and family, and we DO it. It's a great deal to go out, make a $10 and have 2/3 of the bill covered. Opens a lot of doors in this economy. Some restaurant shopping companies have you so busy focused on what is happening, that you don't really get any enjoyment. Others, you can do the job and still have a relaxing, underwritten meal at a good restaurant. I say it is great, if you do most shops for the money you make, and then save on recreational eating out by doing a little work, while having your meal paid for. Note: You pay up front and the company reimburses you. Hey, you can order a pizza delivery, take a picture of the pizza, sit back and watch the game, and then fill out a brief online survey. What's not to love?

                                              1. re: Bill Hunt

                                                It's impossible to know what you have to say, Bill, with a three word phrase(period) and one word(period). If you have something to add, I would like to read it. Again, I've shopped places where the survey kept me so vigilant I didn't enjoy it. Other companies were simpler, and I enjoyed a great meal with my friend. I've shopped Applebee's, Blackhorn Steakhouse, Max and Erma's. I consider them nice restaurants. I won't mention which shops allowed me to enjoy the meal and which were so complex I was tasting nothing.

                                                1. re: Jackiesk

                                                  Actually, what I have to say is that "NO," I have never been a "secret diner/shopper." Not ever, or, in other words, "NO."


                                              2. I went a couple of times with a friend who was doing it. I think it made sense in her circumstances (broke stay-at-home mom) because it allowed her a meal out, she could even "treat" me, and she doesn't mind these chain-type places (for those in Toronto, it was mostly Pickle Barrel and Moxy's that she got sent to). However seeing how much they control what you can order and require in terms of reporting turned me off. Once she missed the name of the hostess or other secondary staff and was not paid at all. When her life got busy with school work etc she stopped doing it.

                                                1. I've done it for several different companies over the last 10 years but haven't found time in the last few months. I'm not able to name the restaurants or companies, but they are all searchable online. I don't do fast food shops or shops for places I wouldn't normally eat at. I used to do mid-priced chains, upscale chains, and a few high end ($100+/person) restaurants. Basically, the bigger the reimbursement/fee, the more involved the shop.

                                                  1. Interesting thread and comments! I have never heard of this. How would one obtain a position as a restaurant secret shopper?

                                                    1 Reply