Getting paid to eat out

Get Started as a Restaurant Mystery Shopper

by Jim Erskine

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Does everyone in your family love to eat out -- except for your wallet? If so, you might be interested to know that you can actually eat free and even get paid to eat out at many restaurants in your community ... acting as a "mystery shopper".

The term "mystery shopper" might bring to mind those old television commercials depicting fussy houseguests scrutinizing their friend's homes for dirty table tops and water-spotted dishes. But to local restaurants and retail businesses, "mystery shoppers" are a valuable resource which helps them evaluate their service, customer satisfaction, and potential problem areas.

Many restaurants spend big bucks to have independent companies evaluate their product. What the management is interested in is the basic things that make or break their customers' perception of the establishment -- how long it takes to be seated; how friendly and helpful the waiter/waitress is; how long it takes to receive your order; the quality of the food, and whether your order was delivered correctly or not; the cleanliness of the restaurant and restroom facilities; if the customer feels they got their money's worth, etc.

The use of "mystery customer" evaluations dates back to the the depression days of the 1930s. However, the technique has largely been shrouded in mystery, and the general public largely unaware of its existence. While some businesses criticize "mystery shoppers" as unscientific and subjective, others find them extremely valuable -- especially as its reputation as a legitimate form of marketing research has improved.

"Mystery shoppers" show up in a lot more places than restaurants, too: shopping malls, banks, retail shops and recreational parks also have professional snoopers on the lookout for gum-popping clerks, dirty restrooms and dressing rooms, properly displayed merchandise, and pushy salesmen.

And just who carries out these secretive inspections? Most "mystery shoppers" are just ordinary folks -- sometimes longtime customers of an establishment, sometimes first time customers. The key to landing such assignments is knowing where to look for them, and making your services available. Or, even better -- create your own opportunities, and earn not only a meal, but also a good consulting fee in the process.

How to find "mystery customer" assignments:

  1. Link up with established "mystery shopper" companies. You can do this two ways. Watch the classifieds in your local newspaper. "Mystery shopper" companies will occasionally advertise for "mystery shoppers" for their client stores in many areas. When you call for information, they will take down your name, address and phone number. You'll be contacted later by letter or phone, and given an assignment to "shop" at a specific location on a specific date. They will send you details on all the specifics. Once you return the evaluation form, you are reimbursed for the cost of your purchases and usually also receive $5-$10 per visit as payment for your services. You can also link up with established "mystery shopper" companies by taking the initiative and contacting them directly. Although there may not currently be a need for a "shopper" in your area, you can get on their lists for future assignments.
  2. Use caution: How to Avoid Work-at-Home Scams

  3. Call local franchise restaurants and get the phone number for their district or regional office. Then call the regional office, ask if they use "mystery shoppers" and ask how you can apply for the position. Some restaurant chains will have their own forms for you to fill out. Others may just ask you to send a detailed letter describing your visit, along with the receipt for your meal. You may receive a flat reimbursement (usually $15 or $20), or full reimbursement based on your cash register receipt. Shoneys, Inc., for instance, has an extensive "in house" "mystery shopper" program for their restaurants (Shoneys, Captain D's, Lee's Fried Chicken, etc.). Apply by calling 1-800-626-5630.

  4. Consider starting your own independent "mystery customer" consultation service, offering customer service reports to restaurants and retail businesses in your community. Because of the high fees charged by professional "mystery customer" companies, many locally owned and independently-owned franchised restaurants do not participate in this type of program. This creates an excellent opportunity for the local, home-based entrepreneur to step in and provide a more reasonably priced service. You can do the evaluating (and dining) yourself, or assign the task to a friend or family member. No office or overhead is required in setting up your own "mystery customer" service, other than the time and effort required to market your services. By first contacting local store management with a letter outlining your service, and following up by phone, it is quite easy to line up several accounts -- allowing you to eat out for free as often as you wish, plus earn $20 or more per hour for your efforts. You might also consider similar service to other retail businesses in your area, such as theaters, groceries, specialty shops, etc.

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Whichever route you take to get your assignments, being a "mystery shopper" can be fun (and filling!) for the whole family, even your wallet!

updated April, 2013

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