The thrills and anxieties of the secret shopper
ILLUSTRATIONS BY STEVE TEARE
The first time I ate out as a so-called “mystery shopper,” an anonymous diner hired by the restaurant’s owner to critique it, I hadn’t been at a restaurant with cloth napkins in about a year. Dining out wasn’t in my budget then.
The vaguely business-casual outfit I’d pulled from the back of the closet felt like a costume, and I could have sworn the hostess stared at me suspiciously: Did I look out of place, or did she suspect my real reason for being there? When my waiter walked up to my table, I raced through my mental checklist: Was he smiling? Making eye contact? What was his approximate height? Was his clothing clean and neat? I surreptitiously pulled out my phone after he left and made note of his exact greeting (“Hello, ladies”) and the time he had left (7:28pm).
My friend must have noticed the stricken look in my eyes; she leaned across the table and asked if I was okay. “Yeah, this is so fun!” I said, snapping into a sunny smile. And I wasn’t lying: There was something exhilarating about playing spy for a night, not to mention the mountains of fancy food that awaited us. But there was also the feeling of panic I kept pushing down: the sense that everyone in the restaurant knew what I was doing and that they were going to call me out for it, saddling me with a three-figure bill I would have trouble paying.
In my stretches of unemployment and underemployment, I had savings to keep me above water and a do-it-yourself streak that served me well. I taught myself to cut my own hair and made laundry detergent out of a box of borax my old roommate had left underneath our kitchen sink. It was pretty easy to mend my old clothes instead of buying new ones and to replace my Netflix subscription with a library card. But the one luxury that was hardest to justify was the one I missed the most: eating a fancy meal out without panicking over the dent it left in my bank account. What they used to call “gracious living” can be difficult to access these days, and eating out is the main way most of us get to experience it. No matter how good my home cooking was, something was always missing.
If you’ve found yourself short on funds, you’ve likely had the experience of trolling the Internet for quick ways to make cash: selling your hair on the black market (women can get even more money by letting fetishists shave it for them, I learned) or taking online surveys (the best ones I found paid a dollar for about 30 minutes of nonstop clicking).
I’d heard about mystery shopping, of course, but I always assumed the gig was a scam—and much of it is. Would-be mystery shoppers should avoid any company that makes you pay for access to listings, and no one should expect to make the bulk of their income from this kind of work.
But when a friend of mine invited me to stay with her on a ritzy hotel mystery-shopper assignment, I got to see firsthand how fun and decadent the business could be. Rachel was a freelance journalist who lived in a collective art space and enjoyed the kind of adventurous life that made me feel irredeemably square in comparison. She described trips to New York hotels bankrolled by the company—they even reimbursed her for travel costs—and how she strayed from her otherwise vegetarian diet for indulgent seafood feasts. “You’d be great at this,” she mentioned, and the next night I applied to work with her company, dreaming about steak dinners and all-expenses-paid cruises.
This is how dining out as a mystery shopper works, from start to finish: You read a list of jobs and apply for the ones you want. If you get selected, the company emails you and sends you a long list of rules, along with a checklist and report to fill out. You go eat and then fill out the report. Afterward, the company reimburses you for your meal and provides a small payment (for me it’s usually $15).
Here are some of the unexpected downsides of mystery dining: There are a lot of those aforementioned rules. You must order three courses, but sometimes certain courses must be split with your guest. Each person can have only two alcoholic drinks—no bottled water. You are specifically forbidden from ordering filet mignon or lobster. And your dining companion will inevitably break the rules. Nobody wants to stick to the two-drink minimum, and when a friend of mine ordered sparkling water at one mystery shop, I must have looked as though I wanted to murder her, because she spent the rest of the night apologizing. Even more infuriating are the guests who want to spend the entire meal talking about the fact that you’re mystery shopping and pepper you with questions about what they should be doing.
The worst part might be the write-up afterward, though. The checklist has hundreds of items and the report is excruciatingly detailed. It usually takes me four hours to write the thing, sometimes longer. Everything must be written in the same affectless tone—the voice of a robot as restaurant critic. I remember one dish of osso buco: the broth had a faint aroma of anise; the meat was meltingly soft and the gremolata tangy in contrast. Here is my description of the entrée for my report: “The osso buco was served hot in a shallow white bowl. The meat was tender and flavorful. The dish was an adequate size for one. The dish exceeded expectations.”
Every time I mystery shop, I swear it’ll be the last time. Boyfriends and roommates have watched me work on the reports late into the night to get them in before deadline and persuaded me that it’s not worth it. I’m always worried my reports won’t be up to snuff or that a server overheard my guest say the words “mystery shop” and tipped off their boss.
But then I log into the jobs board, just to see—and there’s that Japanese place I’ve wanted to go to for ages, with a $200 reimbursement. Even when I have enough cash to go out to eat as a civilian, it’s never with the same abandon. Maybe I’ll skip the charcuterie plate or the apricot soufflé—if not for my wallet, then for my waistline. But a mystery shopper knows no such limits, eating and drinking more than her fill every time.
Mystery shopping has heightened my sensitivity to good service, and sometimes I think that’s what I miss the most when I can’t afford the luxury of dining out: the feeling that I’m being cared for. Even the most lackadaisical servers fill your water glass and whisk dirty dishes away; they’ll refold your napkin while you’re in the bathroom and pack up your leftovers. But mystery shopping transforms the restaurant, its staff and even the food into my adversary. There’s no question that mystery shopping is its own thrill ride, paranoia and all, but it’s impossible to forget why you’re really there.