A contract catering site might not be the most obvious setting for a secret agent, but "spies" are becoming common in staff restaurants. It's not James Bond exactly, but the highly confidential art of mystery shopping. Amanda Marcus reports.
Mystery shoppers have been used in other areas of hospitality, such as retail outlets and hotels, for some time, but they are a relatively new tool for contract caterers. Yet they can offer a very accurate picture of how a business is performing.
Food service company Charlton House has been leading the way in its use of mystery shoppers for business and industry contracts (B&I) since 1999, and firmly believes in the benefits of a fresh pair of eyes. "We use them to help ensure that the customer's experience remains at its best," explains chief executive Robyn Jones. She says that an independent observer brings to light aspects of the business that are easily missed by those who are closely involved with a site.
"One easy example was a contract where the client's restaurant and deli bar were on the top floor of a building," she says. "When our mystery shopper got out of the lift, she could vaguely see an entrance to a restaurant on the right but there was no sign to the deli bar, which was to the left. A first day at work can be very intimidating and there's nothing worse than not knowing how things work. The first question is usually, 'Where are the toilets?' But the second is, 'Where can I get fed and watered?'."
Compass is a more recent convert to mystery shopping in the contract catering sector, although its retail business has been using them for some time. Little Chef restaurants, for example, are mystery shopped once a month against national brand standards, and the operations manager is informed on the same day if there are any significant issues at a site.
Having seen the benefits for its retail businesses, Compass is now about to launch a formal mystery shopping programme within its B&I sector across the UK & Ireland group, using an independent agency, which it declined to name.
Compass says that its mystery shopper programme will dovetail into its current client and customer surveys, and focus groups, to offer a full internal and external benchmark, review and assessment of a client's operations. When a client requests a mystery shop, Compass will pass on the costs, while new clients will be offered it as part of a service agreement.
However, a mystery shopping service is not prohibitively expensive. Charlton House, for example, pays an external agency £65 to visit one of its sites, plus the cost of the food consumed at the site. The fee includes the shopper's travel expenses, as well as follow-up reports.
Charlton had been paying £50 per site visit but recently changed agencies - Jones says that the new company offers a better reporting service. She says: "We get far more extensive reports, as well as the option of telephone surveys for sites where a mystery visit is not possible." These might include contracts such as directors' dining, where access is restricted, and sites where a mystery shopper would have trouble blending in, such as a sixth form college. In these cases, a member of the catering staff is telephoned and questioned about the service and food on offer. It doesn't produce a "fly on the wall" report but at least it offers clients some feedback on the standards of catering and service.
As well as the cost per visit, there is a set-up charge, which varies according to the size and requirements of the caterer. For a straightforward questionnaire, which can be tweaked using existing software, a mystery shopping agency can draw up a tailored brief and supporting software for an initial fee of £500. This can rise to several thousands for big organisations with more complicated structures, requiring question-by-question analysis and regional breakdowns, for example.
Jones uses the service on average once every quarter for 76 of Charlton's current 80 B&I contracts - the others are subject to telephone assessment. Only she and her client are aware that a mystery shopper is to visit the client's site on a given date.
The two main barriers to using mystery shoppers at contract sites are access and cashless systems, according to Jones. Where security needs to be notified, for sites which have controlled access, confidentiality is a must. "We can't have security tipping off the catering manager," says Jones, "otherwise the whole thing is pointless." Where sites are cashless, the client has to arrange for the mystery shopper to pick up a hospitality or cashless card.
Although contract catering sites are harder to benchmark than national brands, Jones says that the variety of the contracts in Charlton's portfolio isn't an obstacle, since the company's priorities are the same for all sites. "We work with the agency on a set of questions which form the basis of the survey, and these are weighted according to our company's priorities," Jones says. "So for us, food is the most important, followed by service, beverage, hygiene, marketing and signage."
The shopper enters the data on the tailor-made survey and assesses the site against any previous visit.
Compass will be setting up its mystery shopping programme to assess all aspects of service, as well as the food. The marking system will take account of such issues as whether the site is new or a recent refurbishment, and its levels of subsidy.
Once the information has been collected by the shopper, it is passed back to the agency, which then analyses the results and compiles a report for the client. In Charlton's case, the area manager of the site gets a copy of the report, and its results are discussed at the company's monthly meetings.
Charlton absorbs the cost of the programme as an added service to clients. Jones says: "We feel it's a service we should be providing, and the costs aren't that great."
Teresa is a full-time mystery shopper working for several companies. She is booked per visit and earns an average of £5-£15 per trip, plus expenses.
"The visit begins as soon as I enter the restaurant," she explains. "Most important is my first impression. Are the staff in control? Are people queuing for food? What does the counter look like? I time my wait in the queue - if staff are doing their best at a busy time, they won't be marked down, but if people are waiting and staff are chatting, they will. Then I question the staff while choosing my food to see how much they know about what they're serving. Once seated, I observe the staff and the seating area, as well as testing the food.
"It's not a yes/no survey. Each judgement has to be supported by information, according to the customer's needs. For example, is the food fresh and appealing? Are the serving utensils properly used? Are products clearly labelled? Is there enough variety and is the product clearly priced? Did staff smile and make eye contact?"
Teresa's usual technique for staff restaurants is to pretend that she's visiting for a meeting, or is from another branch. "I try not to engage with fellow customers in case I'm spotted," she says, "but I always ask the staff where the toilets are and see how friendly their response is."
In five years, she has never been caught out. "I don't think it's spying," she reflects, "because the aim is a positive one. I'm not trying to get anyone into trouble."
And although Teresa loves her work, there is a downside. As she says: "You can't diet and you can't be a picky eater."