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Food Detectives

A N Onymous whispers the secrets of mystery dining

Published on January 14th 2010.

Food Detectives

I've been operating undercover for about six months now. I can't tell you my name or who I work for. I observe, take notes, and leave without arousing suspicion. I file my report to headquarters the next day.

First off, you have to keep looking at your watch. You need to know how long it takes for the servers to greet you. How long before you get a table. How long before they take your drinks order. How long before your drinks are served.

Or at least that's how it's supposed to work. I was recruited to this profession by a friend who works in the office of a small group of restaurants. On the instructions she sent, it said that I should 'act normal', like just another customer, so that the restaurant staff would treat me in the same way as they treat everyone else. I thought that sounded straightforward, I've been acting normal all my life. I haven't had free meals once a month all my life though (for me and three friends), and a special questionnaire to fill in afterwards. It changes everything.

First off, you have to keep looking at your watch. You need to know how long it takes for the servers to greet you. How long before you get a table. How long before they take your drinks order. How long before your drinks are served. No, waiter that's not an idle doodle I'm doing on the napkin – it's a minute by minute account of your movements since I arrived. Oh, and that little sketch I've drawn – it's you. Complete with distinguishing features so that you can be identified by your superiors at their next customer service meeting.

Of course, a mystery diner has to be subtle about all this. Be normal, remember. But it's hard when you've got an unlimited tab and you've been living off bargain bin ready meals for the last week. Besides, it's not 'abnormal' to order yourself two desserts, is it?

The restaurant I spy on doesn't like the mystery diners to order a starter without being asked first, so that they can check that their staff are encouraging you to have one. It's a problem because sometimes they don't ask – and when this happens you can only leave a meaningful silence for so long before you reluctantly turn to the main course page.

And if they do ask, it's equally awkward. You've given them your main course order, then all of a sudden, just because they suggested it, you decide that you will have a starter after all. And your three friends will as well. Now that's the power of cross-selling for you.

Once the food arrives, you've a few things to check. Is it hot? Is it nicely presented? How would you rate the taste on a scale of one to five. I usually tick 'five' because this restaurant generally produces very good food. And it's free – I'm not going to complain. Oh, yeah, except that's my job.

As it happens, there's usually very little to moan about. The fact that the restaurant has its own mystery customer scheme is evidence that they take service and food quality seriously. They even hire two mystery diners to operate in the same restaurant. I once arrived to find my counterpart dining at the table next to me – a shock because we're not supposed to go on the same night. But when you're out in the field, you have to keep your cool in all circumstances. To a casual observer we would have looked like complete strangers. The next day we both hastily contacted headquarters to check that they'd still pay our bills.

They hire two mystery diners in the interest of fairness – a good review will cancel out a less than favourable report. And although bad experiences are rare, there are occasional issues. An unwiped table. A forgotten side dish. A delay before the drinks order is taken. 'Don't you know who I am?' I want to say, but can't.

That's the thing with being a mystery diner. You can't draw attention to yourself or you could be identified from your comments on the questionnaire, and then replaced. Although I heard that in one restaurant, the staff knew who the mystery customers were for months before the management realised. It makes you wonder whether the mystery customers knew themselves that they'd been rumbled, and were just keeping it quiet. They probably got the best service in the city, but they missed the fun part which is getting somebody sacked.

Only joking. That's not what it's about. Still I have one ambition left in mystery shopping land. I need to collect a few more restaurants. Expensive ones. Luxury ones with valet parking. I never want to pay for a meal again.

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