When was the last time you went to a customer´s table, asked how everything was, and they actually told you? Exactly. Nobody wants to be the bearer of bad news. It took me a while to figure out when you asked a customer " How was everything", in Minnesota, and the answer was "Nice.", you were almost out of business.
Struggling to get an honest answer from your polite customers is not the solution to the service problems that every restaurant owner periodically faces. Just like any other team, restaurant staff members occasionally hit a slump. And, since the only score is the customer count and average check price, the game may be over before you realize your star players were crashing. You certainly don´t want to invite Simon Cowell, or his brit friend, Chef Gordon Ramsey into your culinary kingdom for their opinion, so what do you do? Leave it to instinct?
Great restaurant owners have an feel for these slumps. Most can tell in the morning when getting an answer to the question "How´s it going" from a chef, manager, or wait person, what kind of day, or week it is going to be.
And, with modern technology, an owner can tune into his dining room, kitchen, and other areas of the house, with a click of the mouse. But, that doesn´t always solve the problem.
My brother in law, Don Burks, installed cameras in his restaurant, Randy´s Steak House in Frisco, Texas. He told the staff they were there and that he would be monitoring the restaurant. Moments later, he watched on camera, as the bartender mixed himself a drink and drank it as though he were on Punked. When confronted, the bartender claimed he forgot the camera was there. So, even though the lens helps bring problems into focus, how do we correct them? Hiring professionals and training continually is the primary solution. But often our eyes and ears alone cannot spot everything.
In walks the mystery shopper. I know, I prefer the name undercover spy, also. But mystery shopping does work. The question is, on which level do you need to perform the task?
When I grew to multi-unit status in two states, I knew I needed help above my management team to report on the conditions that absentee ownership propagates. Cameras were out of the question. I didn´t want to see that guy drinking, 1800 miles from where I was sitting.
I reviewed mystery shoppers. But that was over a decade ago.
Today, Mercantile System has one of the most refined operations in the country for restaurant owners. Leaning more to the "Field Survey" concept that Dan and Valerie Cosgrove have developed for their 50 year old company, the data they deliver is astounding and presents a better package than just mystery shopping. Plus, it is financially worthwhile if you have a multi- unit operation that covers major territory.
In my conversation with Hallie Harron, she has developed a small mystery shopping company in Prescott, Arizona and offers reports so detailed she can tell when a training seminar has been given in the restaurants she shops. Which goes back to the training topic that we all know must happen on a regular basis.
One of the greatest ways to perform mystery shopping is in-house. We developed our own form, highlighting the areas we needed to analyze. The three page questionnaire seemed more in depth than it actually was and dealt with service, appearance, cleanliness of staff, bathroom and restaurant. One section graded the food, another the timing of the service, and another the personality of the wait staff and the cordiality of the management.
We made a list of our best and worst customers- we wanted an unbiased cross section- and annointed them our mystery shopping team. We gave them gift certificates, instructed them on what we needed, and told them they had to be honest, sometimes brutally, when filling out the answers to the questions. We reimbursed them for their tips and made it a point to rotate the list and the certificates.
When we began the program we told the staff that a mystery shopping company had been hired, and that if unfamilar people were dining, they were probably the mystery shoppers. They got great service.
The program was a monumental success. We not only realized our training weaknesses, in many instances we got professional feed back from the customer on how to make things better. The good will proved to be a boost to regular business. It also rewarded some people who had supported us over the years, even when things weren´t so smooth. We also made them feel as though they were contributing to our business.
And, that was a tasteful gesture that I would recommend to any restaurateur that may be wondering "How was everything tonight"?
Upon the return from my first vacation I asked Chef Scott Maanum if anything happened while I was gone.
“Nothing you should know about” was his reply.
I called mystery shopper Dick Corson. Scott was right.