How to become a restaurant mystery shopper

"You might see them but you probably won't know they're there — if they're doing their job properly," reads the opening of a 2001 article for Sensors Quality Management discussing the growing mystery shopping industry. Nearly 20 years later, the sector is still going strong. TrendSource reports that mystery shopping has grown into an estimated $2 billion dollar industry, so who are these secretive customer service spies and how do they get to dine out for free? Mystery shopper Michelle Schroeder-Gardner broke down the realities of the job for Making Sense of Cents. Schroeder-Gardener got into the mystery shopping game to make a few extra bucks and, of course, get some nice perks along the way, including (almost) free restaurant meals.

Becoming a mystery shopper is relatively simple. A quick Google search turns up multiple sites where aspiring shoppers can apply online for the position. Restaurant Cops asks potential shoppers several questions to see if they're cut out for the job: "Do you consider yourself to be a more selective diner than the average diner? When you dine do you notice how employees handle themselves when they are not waiting on you? When you are served at a restaurant, does timely service make a difference to you? Have you ever said to yourself, 'The owner of this restaurant should know about this'?"

Eating at restaurants on someone else's dime sounds like a dream job

Some companies, like Best Mark, assign shoppers to everything from car dealerships to makeup counters, there are others that focus more on restaurants. Coyle Hospitality's client roster includes everything from fine dining giants like Jean-Georges and Nobu to The Cheesecake Factory and Yards Brewing Company.

Eating at restaurants on someone else's dime sounds like a dream job, but Eat This, Not That warns that mystery shopping isn't going to make the big bucks. For fast food mystery shops, usually the cost of the meal is covered plus a $5 to $10 fee. During the course of the meal, the mystery shopper is required to observe not only the dining experience and quality of food, but are also asked to pay attention to minute details such as employee uniforms, wait times, and overall cleanliness of the establishment. Mystery shoppers agree that while the money making potential is nominal, the opportunities to dine out abound, and attention to detail is key. "If you are looking for mystery shopping to be your free meal ticket, understand that there will not be much time for relaxing. While it is true that some shops require little work, others require much, much more," writes a longtime mystery shopper for Wise Bread.