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I'm a Restaurant Mystery Shopper—Here's How It Works

There's a chance you've stood next to a mystery shopper and had no idea.

I had always heard about mystery shopping, but thought it was one of those mythical things that existed only in fiction and wasn't actually a realistic job someone could do. Several years ago, though, I decided to actually put some time into researching mystery shopping to see if it was a real thing, and what resulted was years of shopping restaurants and getting free meals—and getting paid on top of it! Yes, I was a mystery shopper, and here's exactly how it all works.

Becoming a mystery shopper is easier than you may think.

If you Google "mystery shopping," you'll find a whole host of sites to get you started. You can sign up with however many you want, but it's an arduous process each time to get going. It's like starting a new job—you have to fill out paperwork, but once you're in the system, you have access to available shops at a variety of restaurants. The good news is, though, is that it costs you nothing to sign up and get started.

For me, I mostly shopped fast food places. Many of your favorite fast food restaurants participate in mystery shopping, so if you want a few free meals, this might be an option for you. Be aware, though, that once you've signed contracts with mystery shopping companies, you can't openly talk about who you're shopping with and where. So all I can tell you is that popular places are, indeed, mystery shopped.

Yes, you get free meals, but you do have to put in the work.

When it comes to the actual mystery shopping, you have to pay attention to the details. You'll get a form before the shop that will tell you exactly what you're looking for, so it's important to read that form before you go into the restaurant. For example, one fast food place I used to shop frequently would ask me to time how long I waited in line and how long it took for me to get my food. It also asked to describe the outfit each employee I interacted with was wearing and how many times the fry cook shook the fry basket after taking the fries out of the oil. I also had to evaluate the entire establishment for cleanliness—including the bathroom and the exterior.

If a fast food place had a drive-thru, you also had to evaluate that experience. I would go inside the restaurant, do that piece of the evaluation, and then get in my car and go through the drive-thru to place another order. I was also often told exactly what to order. Some shops required me to place a special order, where I would have to order a menu item and ask them to change something about it (no onions, extra cheese, etc.).


The best part about mystery shopping, though, was obviously the free meals! Mystery shopping rarely pays much, but you do get free food. The fast food places I was shopping typically covered the cost of the meal and paid a $5 to $10 fee on top of it. When the companies would get desperate to have shops covered, though, they would start offering bonuses. There were a couple of shops I was able to grab that had upped the fee to $25 or more.

RELATED: The easy way to make healthier comfort foods.

Mystery shopping isn't for everyone, but it's always worth it.

With mystery shopping, it's important to consider the time investment and other costs that go into it. It's probably not something you could do as a full-time job, first of all. Depending on where you live in the country, there might not be a lot of shops available to you. Living in the San Francisco Bay Area and having a car made mystery shopping a breeze for me. I did probably five to 10 shops a week, depending on my schedule at my full-time job. Having a car was key—I was able to travel farther to get to shops or do a bunch in a day while driving from one to the next. I had to figure in the cost of gas, though, so that's also something to keep in mind.

Mystery shopping restaurants is really fun if you have the time for it and don't have a lot of expectations of making a lot of money. It's a good way to be introduced to new restaurants and get meals for free. I loved to sift through the listings and look for places I could stop at while traveling or even restaurants in airports. I got many free coffees before boarding flights all over the country!

If you want to get started, you can literally just google "mystery shopping" and start signing up. Remember though that you are working and if you mess up your evaluation form, you run the risk of not having your meal paid for and not being paid. So while it's a ton of fun, you still want to make sure you're giving it your full attention and effort.

Hedy Phillips
Hedy is a freelance writer with years of experience covering buzzy food trends, wellness, and weight loss. Read more about Hedy
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