Restaurant mystery shopping is a life hack I use that seems to fall under the radar. I first started mystery shopping over 5 years ago, doing only a few mystery shops to get the hang of it. As I got more comfortable with them, I started doing them more frequently. I’m now at a point where I’m doing over a dozen restaurant mystery shops each month, often getting hundreds of dollars worth of free food each month.
If you’re unfamiliar with mystery shopping, the way it works is that restaurant companies want to make sure that their restaurants are keeping up with certain standards. To do this, restaurants contract with mystery shopping companies that engage mystery shoppers. These mystery shoppers visit these restaurants, going “undercover” to test the food and service. In exchange for doing this work, mystery shoppers get their meals reimbursed and sometimes receive a small payment on top of that.
I’ve been doing restaurant mystery shopping for over 5 years now, using it to get myself thousands of dollars worth of free food. Indeed, in the 5+ years I’ve been restaurant mystery shopping, I’ve probably received $10,000 or more worth of free food. That’s an incredible amount of free food.
The value of mystery shopping goes beyond just getting some nice meals out. When it comes to personal finance, managing your big three expenses – housing, transportation, and food – is one of the keys to a successful financial life. This makes obvious sense since these three expenses account for over 60% of your average household’s yearly spending. If you’re able to reduce these three expenses, you’ll likely find yourself in a better financial position than others who aren’t as cognizant of these costs.
Taking advantage of mystery shopping is one way I’m able to dramatically reduce my food budget, especially when it comes to what I spend going out to eat. At the same time, since I get my meals reimbursed, I’m also able to spend a good amount on my credit cards, earning good signup bonuses – a nice side benefit of mystery shopping.
People have asked me how mystery shopping works. Unfortunately, it’s a bit complicated because there are so many mystery shopping companies out there and the types of shops in your area will be different than the ones in my area. That being said, some basics should apply to anyone interested in mystery shopping.
In this post, I’m going to go over how restaurant mystery shopping works and how I’ve been doing it to get tons of free food every month.
The Basics Of Mystery Shopping
Restaurant mystery shopping generally consists of three steps:
- Find a restaurant mystery shop near you.
- Review the instructions and complete the shop as per the instructions.
- Fill out a survey detailing your experience.
The first step is to find a restaurant mystery shop. To do this, you’ll need to sign up for the various mystery shopping companies out there. There are a lot of different companies, so if you want to maximize the number of shops you can do, you’ll need to sign up for all of them. Unfortunately, there is no central place to find all the mystery shops in your area, so finding shops will mean signing up for each company and checking them periodically for available shops. I’ll go into more detail about the mystery shop companies I use in the next section, as well as how I check for shops.
Once you’ve selected a mystery shop, your next step will be to carefully review the instructions. You’ll generally be able to see what the mystery shop requirements are before you accept the shop. I recommend doing this because you don’t want to take a mystery shop that you can’t complete or that is more hassle than it’s worth.
Reviewing the instructions for your shop is very important because you’ll need to follow the instructions for your shop exactly or you’ll risk having your mystery shop rejected. Most restaurant mystery shops require you to do the following:
- Complete the shop on the day assigned. This is important, as the biggest mistake you can make is doing the shop on the wrong day.
- Call the restaurant in advance and ask a question about the restaurant to evaluate their phone service.
- At the restaurant, you’ll usually need to identify the host, seater, server, and manager. You’ll usually be able to get the name of your server from your receipt. For the host, seater, and manager, you’ll need to remember what they look like so you can describe them in your report.
- Order whatever the required items are. Generally, most restaurant mystery shops will require you to order an appetizer, two entrees, and a dessert. Your mystery shop will tell you how much the shop will reimburse. This amount will usually be enough to cover all the required items you have to order, but depending on the mystery shop, you may have to be strategic about what you order to avoid going over.
- Most restaurant mystery shops will require you to take photos of your food before you eat it. Some may require you to take photos of the exterior of the restaurant and/or the interior and bathroom. Taking the appropriate photos, especially of your food, is very important because if you forget to do this, you’re basically out of luck and will likely end up with your shop being rejected. When it comes to restaurant mystery shops, do not forget to take the correct photos because there is no way to fix this if you mess it up.
- Many shops will ask you to record the timing of certain things during your shop, such as when you receive your items and when your server comes back to check in on you.
- After completing your shop, you’ll usually need to fill out the survey within a day or two detailing your experience. The survey will generally include various yes/no questions, as well as a narrative section where you’ll write about your experience.
To keep track of timing, I usually use the timestamps for photos that I take (i.e. if I take a photo of a dish, I know when I received it based on the time stamp). For things like descriptions of employees, I usually write them down using the notetaking app on my phone.
The Restaurant Mystery Shopping Websites I Currently Use
Which mystery shop companies are the best will likely vary depending on your location. I’m in Minneapolis, so the ones that work best for me may be different from the ones that work best where you are. That being said, here are the companies I’ve had the most success with over the past several years:
Marketforce is the mystery shopping company that I use the most. The assignments are easy and the surveys are simple and quick. Their website and app are also much better than most of the other mystery shopping companies.
In terms of the available mystery shops, the restaurants on Marketforce are primarily fast-casual restaurants (specifically a very well-known national burger chain), so you’re not going to get high-end shops here. These shops are generally for one person, so you won’t get a ton of free food, but it is enough that you can regularly get yourself a few free lunches and dinners each month.
Marketforce is also nice because the shops pay pretty well. Most of the shops I complete pay at least $9, but can get as high as $25. I do so many Marketforce mystery shops each month that it’s now become a significant source of side hustle income for me each month.
A Closer Look
A Closer Look is one of the better mystery shopping companies I use. This company offers more high-end restaurant shops, which makes it good for getting nice meals out. Most of the meals I get here reimburse $130 or more, so you’re going to get some good meals from this company.
The surveys do require a bit more time to complete compared to some of the other mystery shopping companies I’ve used, but it’s not that bad and as you do more surveys from this company, they do get easier (you’ll start to understand what they are looking for and what things you need to remember).
Coyle is a newer mystery shopping company for me, but it’s quickly become one of the best for my area, offering a ton of excellent restaurant mystery shops with good reimbursements. The shops are generally straightforward, but their surveys are probably the most annoying to complete because they ask for a lot of information.
It’s also frustrating because almost every time I fill out a survey, I get follow-up questions from them asking me to clarify answers and provide additional information. The information they ask for is usually stupid and they’re usually just asking me to rehash in written form the survey questions I’ve already answered. It can also be difficult to remember the answers to these questions because they’ll send me these follow-up emails days after I submit the report.
My advice with Coyle is to essentially rewrite the answer to every question you answer in the narrative section of your survey, even if you’re just repeating the same information.
Despite how annoying the surveys can be, Coyle is still one of the best mystery shopping companies I’m currently using.
Bestmark used to be one of my favorite mystery shopping companies because they offered good shops and the surveys were easy to complete. I still like Bestmark a lot, but the number of shops I get from them has dropped significantly over the years. I still get a few shops from them each year, so it’s worth signing up with them.
Second To None
Second To None is another mystery shopping company I’m signed up with that provides a few decent mystery shops for me each year. The shops with Second To None are different because a lot of them are delivery shops. This is nice because I can order food on my phone and have it delivered to me.
The surveys for Second To None are also easy to complete. With the delivery shops, you usually have to take a bunch of photos of your order, but this isn’t difficult.
Reality Based Reports
Reality Based Reports has a few good mystery shops that I complete every few months. These shops are for pretty good restaurants in my area, so I’m always happy when I’m able to get a shop from them. The website is low-tech, so be aware of that, but it’s not a problem for filling out the reports after your shop.
Intellishop is another mystery shop that I mainly use to get a free car wash each month, although I do occasionally get a decent restaurant mystery shop from them too. Like with Reality Based Reports, the website is low-tech, but the reports are easy to fill out.
Customer Optix is owned by Intellishop, but it uses a different website, so I list it here as a separate mystery shopping company. I think you use the same login as the one you use for Intellishop. The website is pretty decent looking and the surveys are easy to complete.
How Do I Find Restaurant Mystery Shops?
With so many different mystery shopping companies, you might wonder how I find all of these shops. For some companies, I have to manually check the website to see if anything is available. Marketforce, A Closer Look, Coyle, and Bestmark are the main websites that I have to manually check. I’ve gotten into the habit of checking them every couple of days to see if anything is available.
For the other mystery shopping companies, I receive an email from them when they have shops available. If it’s a good one, I’ll try to immediately log into my account and grab the shop. If you do this, you’ll probably need to make sure you have a flexible schedule because you don’t want to grab shops and then not complete them, otherwise, you risk getting booted as a mystery shopper.
By manually checking for shops and grabbing shops when I see them in an email, I’m able to keep a steady stream of restaurant mystery shops each month. Note that most restaurant mystery shops will limit how often you can do them, usually once every 90 or 180 days.
Traveling While Mystery Shopping
Another nice thing about mystery shopping is that you can use it to get yourself free food while you’re traveling. To do this, you’ll need to log into the different mystery shopping company websites, and then search by zip code for shops. Find the zip code of the place you’re going to and see if there are any shops available for the days you’ll be there.
I do this a lot when I’m traveling and can often get some good meals. Of course, you’ll need to plan ahead if you’re looking to do mystery shops while you’re traveling since if you search for shops too late, they’ll likely already be reserved by someone else.
Mystery shopping started as a small experiment for me to see how it worked but has now become a regular part of my life. I’m now at a point where I get so many mystery shops each month that it’s sort of ridiculous. My calendar is filled with mystery shops each month.
As with anything new, start small and take it slow when you first start mystery shopping. You need to make sure you do things correctly because the worst thing that can happen is you complete a mystery shop but do something wrong and get your shop rejected. With time, mystery shopping gets easier, especially as you start doing the same mystery shops and filling out the same surveys.
Your average household spends over $3,000 per year going out to eat at restaurants. I get more than that just from my mystery shops, which is pretty incredible. Even if you aren’t as hardcore as I am, getting a few meals covered each month can significantly reduce what you might otherwise be spending going out to eat.
It’s been over five years since I did my first mystery shop. Things have changed a bit since I first started mystery shopping, but assuming things remain about the same, I expect I’ll be able to keep up with these mystery shops for years to come.