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Shop Till You Get the Drop

Occupations: Undercover customers prowl restaurants and other establishments to secretly evaluate service and unmask dishonest employees.

October 15, 1997|LARA M. ZEISES | THE BALTIMORE SUN

BALTIMORE — By day, Candace Rader works part time as an admitting officer at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center. But by night, Rader, 44, prowls the suburban streets in hopes of catching an unethical barmaid or cracking the newest ring of buffet scam artists.

Meet Candace Rader, dining room detective.

Or rather, don't meet her exactly. For Rader to do her job as a so-called mystery shopper right, keeping a low profile--and an unfamiliar face--is imperative.

Rader has worked for Fairfax, Va.-based Restaurant & Hotel Services for the last three years. About twice a month, the company dispatches her to go undercover to area eateries that have asked to have their service evaluated. For each 13-page report she turns in, Rader is reimbursed for her meal and often that of a companion--usually her husband, Tim, who helps out with the spying.

Rader got the job after answering a newspaper ad. It had piqued her interest because she and Tim eat out "at least three times a week." Also, she admits, "My husband and I are very critical of service and food."

Her job description, though, does not include being a critic. As Restaurant & Hotel Services co-owner Mike Bare says, "We don't want people's opinions; we want the facts."

His mystery shoppers, Bare says, are hired by restaurants to act as human cameras, recording things like the amount of time it takes to be seated and whether or not the server recommends an appetizer--not how good the appetizer tastes.

Several mystery shopper companies operate throughout the country. Some organizations specialize in retail shopping. Others evaluate bowling alleys, gas stations, movie theaters and banks. At Restaurant & Hotel Services, run by Bare and his wife, Dale, the focus is on food.

To make their work as inconspicuous as possible, mystery shoppers like Rader are required to exercise a keen sense of memory. As Dale Bare points out, you can't be frantically taking notes when a waiter walks by. She suggests sneaking off to the bathroom to make notes. Or, if you feel you must do it at the table, pretend to be planning a party with your dinner guest.

The Raders employ a more high-tech method--a miniature tape recorder. Tim slips it into his pocket, waits until the coast is clear, bows his head closer to the recorder and tapes a play-by-play of the meal. Candace later transcribes the tape and faxes in her report.

While restaurants are their primary clients, the Bares' company also evaluates bars, hotel chains, health clubs and cruise lines. The bigger the job, the more substantial the fee, although Dale Bare admits that the choicest assignments are reserved for the agency's top dogs--including herself.

As one of her company's original mystery shoppers, Dale Bare has more than 10 years of undercover experience. The couple started the company out of the basement of their home after Mike, a veteran of the restaurant industry, decided to apply his skills in a new way.

Besides general evaluations, he says, mystery shoppers may also be used to help catch "dirty" employees. They might be assigned to a specific bartender to watch where he puts the money and how he pours the drinks. If a customer orders a double scotch, a server could pour a single, charge for the double and pocket the difference--a common practice.

Buffets also offer dishonest employees a quick way to turn a buck. With buffets, only the server sees the check. So when four people order the buffet, the server could draw up an alternate ticket charging for just two meals. Again, the difference is pocketed. It becomes the mystery shopper's job to help catch these small-time thieves.

"Everybody thinks it's a cool thing to do," Mike Bare says. But Dale Bare warns, "While this is a fun thing to do, it's a service first. People's jobs are at stake."

Payment for the evaluations is minimal; shoppers are paid $15 for a bar report, more for larger jobs. But the shoppers don't seem to mind. The company receives as many as 50 applications each day, from ads, referrals or its Web site.

And business is booming, the Bares say. They now employ roughly 3,000 mystery shoppers to evaluate more than 6,000 clients across the United States and abroad.

"Once upon a time, we had an 8 1/2-by-11-inch flip chart with our clients' names on one page," Dale recalls. "We got so excited when we had two pages. . . . Now, if we had flip charts for all our clients, we'd have to have them lined up from here to California."

Out of all her evaluations, Rader says she's had only one truly horrible dining experience--the result of a vicious server.

"It was satisfying to be able to write that," she says. "People object to being treated that way, and they should."

Hopefully, she says, her report cost that bad apple her job--saving other unsuspecting customers from her nastiness.

"That's what it's all about," she says.

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