Illustration by Stephanie Rudig

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It turns out there is such thing as a free lunch. All you have to do is use your iPhone to time how long it takes for a server to deliver an appetizer. Or carefully observe a bartender to see if he is pouring free drinks. It’s all in a day’s work for a mystery shopper—someone hired to secretly measure quality of service, compliance with regulations, and more.

Perhaps, like me, the last time you heard of mystery or secret shoppers was in the 1990s, but the industry is apparently still thriving. The Mystery Shoppers Providers Association Americas (MSPA) values the industry at $1.5 billion and estimates that there are 1.5 million mystery shoppers across diverse industries worldwide.

District resident Matt Stern is one of them. He’s been a mystery shopper for about 20 different companies, but he recently signed on with D.C.-based Blink Research, which debuted in July 2016. “It’s fun,” Stern says. “I get free meals. It’s like being a spy in D.C.—no one knows what you’re doing. You feel like you’re doing something wrong, but it’s right.”

Blink Research is a one-man shop headed by founder Marc Ciagne, a Washingtonian for 25 years whose earliest jobs were in the restaurant industry, including stops at La Tomate in Dupont Circle and the long-gone American Café in Georgetown. He went on to work for AOL and Consumer’s Checkbook before moving to Person to Person Quality based in Northern Virginia.

There, Ciagne grew the mystery shopping side of the business for 12 years as managing director. In June 2016 he decided to strike out on his own and focus on his passion—restaurants. So far, Ciagne has worked with eight food clients with a combined 37 locations, most in greater Washington. He’s also amassed a database of 1,700 mystery shoppers, including 500 in the immediate area, and 195 people have completed “shops.”

Restaurants hire Blink Research, agreeing to pay between $50 and $75 per mystery shopper evaluation, plus meal reimbursement, the latter of which is the primary compensation for the mystery shopper. “Basically you’re getting a free meal,” Ciagne explains. “You’re not earning money that will go into your savings account.”

Mystery shoppers are considered independent contractors, and the Blink Research website states that the company is only obligated to send a 1099 tax form if a mystery shopper earns more than $600 in a year. It’s rare for shoppers to reach that threshold because reimbursements for expenses or mileage don’t count towards those earnings.

“Rent is expensive, so if you can save on food and still enjoy the attraction of living here in D.C., it’s a win-win-win situation,” Ciagne says. “The restaurant gets really detailed honest feedback they can use to improve their business. The mystery shopper gets not only their meal or drinks reimbursed, but they’re helping a local business in their community, which should in turn help the whole D.C. economy.”

Blink Research is very intentional about its shopper outreach. “I try to bring in young, well-educated customers,” Ciagne says. His strategies include targeting Facebook advertisements to college graduates between the ages of 21 and 35. “I’m really impressed with who has signed up,” he says, adding that he requests to connect with mystery shoppers on LinkedIn to learn about their backgrounds. “It’s fun to go through and see this person works for this non-profit, this one’s a teacher, one of them was a judge.”

The MSPA, however, recommends including demographically diverse shoppers, which means considering gender, socio-economics, employment status, and ethnicity. Many Blink Research clients are in the fast-casual sector, as opposed to fine dining, meaning they have many diners who aren’t college graduates.

“They’re not excluded from registering,” Ciagne says. “They’ll have the same access to an assignment as everyone else, but at the end of the day, a well-written report with lots of details will be a lot more useful to my clients than one that’s poorly done.”

There are several different kinds of “shops,” and some involve more writing than others. An alcohol compliance assignment, for example, simply asks shoppers between the ages of 21 and 28 to order a drink at the bar and note whether the bartender checks identification. 

Others are more involved, combining yes-or-no questions about whether a server’s appearance was neat and clean or whether a hostess made eye contact with more subjective questions that ask for 250 characters or more on elements like ambiance.

Then there are tasks that aren’t so straightforward. Some clients want mystery shoppers to catch bartenders giving away drinks or drinking on the job. “One way to make extra money as a bartender is to give away free drinks and collect more money in tips,” Ciagne says. So a mystery shopper will visit several times to “groom” a bartender to see if he’ll eventually toss her a gratis gimlet. 

Ciagne admits he gets uncomfortable when a client asks mystery shoppers to set someone up. After all, mystery shopping should be used for employee incentive programs, not as a punishing tool for firing staff, according to MSPA ethics.

“A lot of people have the misconception that the primary objective is some sort of policing function when really a big part of it is finding people who are doing things right, even when management isn’t looking over their shoulder,” Ciagne says.

That’s precisely how TaKorean, a Blink Research client that spends about $800 a month on mystery shops, uses its feedback. “We want to use mystery shoppers to develop store leaders and everyone else,” says founder & CEO Mike Lenard. “It’s tied to our profit-sharing program—we have bonus programs in place all the way to hourly-level folks.”

TaKorean also uses mystery shoppers to ensure that staff members relay what differentiates it from more traditional taco shops. “In a fast casual, we’re not going to have a person who can describe a dish like you do sitting down at Kinship,” Lenard says. But he expects them to know that their salsa includes Korean gochujang (fermented chili paste).

Recognizing talent and rewarding it is critical as local restaurants face a major talent shortage and heavy turnover. Five hundred new restaurants opened in the District over the past two years, according to Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, so water-cooler gossip in kitchens across town is all about how difficult it is to find and keep staff.

“Mystery shopping can help with that too,” Ciagne says. “You want to identify who those people are, you want to keep them, reward them, and get them into management training programs if you’re trying to expand.”

Indeed, restaurants like TaKorean looking to open new locations are ideal Blink Research clients, according to Ciagne. “You want to take that awesome customer experience at your first location that made you successful … and recreate that over and over again, and you don’t do that by winging it.” 

You do it by codifying what builds customer loyalty and retention. And doing that often requires taking a step back.

“One of the risks of running your own restaurant and being so close to the action day after day is you don’t have that bird’s-eye view,” Ciagne explains. Mystery shoppers combat myopia by offering fresh eyes that are emotionally detached from the restaurant. “Shoppers will notice things right in plain sight that owners and managers haven’t.”

To better understand the mystery shopper experience, I registered with Blink Research and accepted an assignment to have lunch at a full-service restaurant in Southeast D.C.—but not before I pinged Matt Stern and another Blink mystery shopper who preferred to remain anonymous for tricks of the trade.

Stern tipped me off to mobile apps like “Shop It” to help record data when dining, while the anonymous Blink Research shopper advised me to carefully read all the questions before arriving at the restaurant so they’d be top of mind. “And take notes on your iPhone so it doesn’t look like you’re filling out a survey,” she adds. Stern had some final words of assurance. “It’s easy, like writing a story about your dinner—if something went wrong, it’s easy to remember.”

Off I went with 93 questions to tackle and a reimbursable lunch budget of $40 plus a $5 token fee for parking. It wasn’t so different from writing restaurant reviews except that it was far more exacting. How long did it take before a server greeted you? Sixteen seconds, according to my stopwatch. How soon were your drinks served after ordering them? Just a few minutes.

Stuffed and back at my computer, it took me 35 minutes to answer the questions, including several where I was required to scribble at least 250 characters of subjective prose about the meal. So did the amount of work feel like a fair exchange for a free meal? 

Not quite. While this particular shop reimburses up to $40, it’s almost impossible to stay under budget and answer all the questions. How was I to evaluate how much time had passed between appetizers and entrees without ordering an appetizer? How was I to check if I would be carded when ordering alcohol without making a boozy purchase? The total bill for two salads, an order of bread, and two glasses of wine came close to $100.

Ciagne calls restaurant mystery shopping “the ultimate side gig,” even equating it to driving for Uber. It’s a message that should resonate in a city full of side-hustlers. But the truth is, mystery shopping is more like a fun hobby than a side job.

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to lhayes@washingtoncitypaper.com