Cloak-and-Dagger Dining

A peek inside the world of a real-life mystery diner

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

Let’s call her Josephine, after Josephine Baker, who spied for the Allies during World War II. Because revealing her real name would cost Josephine her job. Like me, she gets paid to visit top restaurants and report back on her experience. But while my name and my face are widely known in the local food-and-beverage world, virtually nobody in the industry knows who Josephine is. And while I write for newspapers and magazines, she works for a company that gets paid by restaurant owners to spy on their own employees.

Josephine won’t tell me the name of the company she works for, because she would likely be terminated if I called and asked about her. (In case you couldn’t tell, this is all very secretive stuff!) But she shows me her permit from the Private Investigators Licensing Board that allows her to serve as a mystery diner. Better yet, she shows me an assignment form from her employer (with its name redacted) that demonstrates exactly what she needs to file.

The form is eight pages long. It begins by asking for the time and date of her reservation, her table or check number and the name and description of the hosts, servers, bartenders and manager. She then has to fill out about 200 questions regarding her experience: making her reservation, checking in, getting a drink at the bar and dining. They range from commenting on various employees’ behavior and appearance to whether the busser asked permission before removing food from the table to the freshness of beverage garnishes.

And, Josephine clarifies, these aren’t simply “yes” or “no” answers. “I have to write a long narrative. [For example], ‘I called on this date. It rang three times. Abby answered the phone. She had a kind tone in her voice.’” To make sure she gets it right, she covertly texts herself notes throughout her meal about things such as when her water arrived and how long it took her waiter to visit the table.

That’s clearly much more detail than you’ll find in any of my reviews—or any professional review. So I could only hope Josephine is well compensated. Sadly, she informed me, mystery dining isn’t something one does for the money. “I get reimbursed [for the meal], plus $30,” she told me as my draw dropped. “So basically I get to eat for free. But let me tell you, it’s way more than $30 worth of work.”

Of course, when your assignments include dinner with a guest at restaurants the likes of Carnevino, B&B Ristorante, China Poblano, Jaleo and STK, those free meals are a pretty nice perk. With a schedule of one or two assignments a week, Josephine clearly eats better than most. And if she continues working for this company she could very well progress to reviewing luxury hotels both inside and outside of Las Vegas, or even cruise ships, which would mean some pretty nice free vacations.

But as I read over all of the forms, I’m struck by her need to name every employee, or at least provide a detailed description of their appearance. When I write a negative review of service, I never name names. Nonetheless, I always feel a little guilty when I hear someone has gotten fired for something I wrote. How does it make Josephine feel that she could be costing people their jobs?

“Like shit,” she responds bluntly. As a result, she says, when a dining room is slammed, she might overlook a minor infraction. “I never lie on my evaluations,” she insists. “But if it’s something very minute that I can leave out, then I will, if it’s going to possibly hurt somebody’s job.”

If you think you can handle the stress, and the intense attention to details, there are plenty of companies on the Internet hiring mystery shoppers and diners. Personally, I’ll stick with this magazine.


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