The bartender caught me staring, again. 

“Do you think they know what we’re doing?” I whispered. My friend Aliki and I averted our gaze as the bartender eyed us suspiciously. 

It was 8:17 p.m., we were 28% of the way to my dining budget, and I had 40 minutes before we could leave the beer garden. 

Such is the world of mystery shopping, or in this case, bar auditing. 

I was on assignment for Blink Research, a DC–based market research company that focuses on the dining industry. Clients hire Blink to provide independent evaluations of their restaurant or bar; in turn, Blink sends a “mystery shopper” from their database to conduct an undercover audit. As a mystery shopper, I’m tasked with dining at different establishments, keeping my eyes open, and then heading home to write up a report on the quality of service or compliance with regulation. 

Though Blink also pays its shoppers a small fee per assignment, the most attractive part is the dining budget, which sometimes reaches $70, making this job particularly appealing to young foodies with a palate more refined than their bank account. It’s also a mutually beneficial relationship between consumers and clients: millennial shoppers get a complimentary meal at a trendy bar or restaurant, and restaurateurs get critical feedback from an important market segment.

I had read about mystery shopping before, but there seemed to be a lot of grey areas. Companies would pay you to try out their services? And all you had to do was write up a short review, maybe spy on their employees and report any noncompliant behavior? Did people get fired because of these reports? Was that even legal? 

“I mean, I have had clients who use the mystery shopping reports to affirm what they already suspected was going on,” Marc Ciagne, the founder of Blink, says. “But it’s pretty rare for an employee to terminate based solely on a report.”  In his view, mystery shopping could actually be a positive incentive, if represented in the right light. “I encourage my clients to de–emphasize the program as a policing function and emphasize it as a way to improve service and reduce risk.” 

I decided to sign up, and one short form later, I was on my first assignment. I did what research I could, but when I invited Aliki with me tonight, I still had trouble explaining exactly what we were doing. “I’m basically auditing,” I said to her in the car ride over.  “It’ll be fun! It’s like we’re spies!” 

Officially, mystery shopping is about much more than free food and subterfuge.“It’s a way to collect very detailed, honest feedback from objective third party consumers,” Ciagne explains. “There’s a certain myopia that sets in when you’re in the same environment everyday. It’s amazing how often our shoppers make observations that the people who are working there every day haven’t noticed.”

The best mystery shoppers are the ones who can unearth those little “nuggets of information” that others overlook. The position requires someone who is equally as observant as they are articulate. After each assignment, shoppers complete a written report within 24 hours of visit. There are three main components to this report: a “yes/no” section, a written section for additional details, and a visual section where you attached photos confirming the details of your visit. Getting all three right is how you distinguished between the good and the great shoppers. “Some people are just naturals,” Ciagne explains, “and then you have others that are more glib. They’ll tell you the food was great and the service wasn’t that great, but they won’t tell you specifics.”

It’s rare, but you technically can fail an assignment by not including the minimum amount of detail required. “We try to help the shoppers bring it up to our standards,” Ciagne says, “but sometimes we have to reject it.” And a failed assignment probably also meant a failed reimbursement. In a business with such incentives, Ciagne has to be vigilant about shopper fraud.  With the current system, he asks for itemized receipts and one photo of the establishment’s interior to be included in each report. His clients also go in and check to make sure that the shopper was really there. There are even websites where mystery shopping providers can warn other companies about fraudulent shoppers, so you can be fired and blacklisted. 

Still, mystery shopping can be a rather anonymous service. Theoretically, Ciagne doesn’t need to interact with any of his shoppers, though he sheepishly admits he “has a habit” of looking them up on LinkedIn. “These people are representing Blink research.  I’m curious to see who they are and what kind of background they’re bringing to the table.” 

Knowing all this, I went into my assignment tonight with one goal: be the absolute best auditor I could possibly be. 

My phone was in front of me, open to a bullet–pointed list of observations I had jotted down on my phone: “ID checked at door by bouncers” and “No itemized receipt given at first–had to ask.” 

And then the incident happened.

I didn’t even realize what was happening at first; I was just trying to see how the bartender was scooping ice. When he grabbed two glasses and a bottle of whiskey I thought he was fulfilling an order, but then he tapped his co–worker on the shoulder and nodded towards the bartop. 

I discreetly snapped a photo just before the duo knocked the shots back and hurried off to opposite ends of the bar. “Aliki! Did you see that? Did they just drink on the job?” 

“I dunno. Maybe? It happened really fast.” 

“Wait,” I zoomed in on the photo. It was so pixelated and blurry that the glasses looked empty. “Is he going to get in trouble if I put this in the report?”

Aliki shrugged. 

Incidents like this happen during mystery shopping; one could argue it’s why the industry exists. Employers want to know what their employees are doing when no one is watching. But is it possible to base an employee’s integrity on an hour of surveillance?  I mean, what really gave me the right to judge an employee? It was technically my first day on this job too. 

Later that night, I called my father.

“Do you think they’re going to fire this bartender?”

He laughed. “Hard to say. When I was a server in college, I hated people like you.”

“Dad! I came here for free food, and I feel like I’m getting a lesson in morality. What am I supposed to do?”

“Nothing—you work for the company. You do what you’re told: you audit.”

That night, I started writing my report, and before I hit “submit,” I attached a jpeg of those two little pixelated tumblers of whiskey. 

I haven’t been back to that beer garden since, but I like to think my tactfully worded, honest report only helped them. Either way, I signed up for another assignment a week later.