I’m a Mystery Diner and Got To Eat More Than $12,000 Worth of Restaurant Food for Free

by posted in MAKE MONEY, Passive Income Ideas, Remote Job Opportunities, Side Hustle Ideas

A typical weekend evening starts for me much as it does for many others: I go out to eat, often with a friend. I enjoy trying new places or returning to regular favorites. However, the difference between me and most other guests is that I’m not taking photos to share on social media; I’m taking photos to record timestamps of when a dish was delivered to my table.

I’m not just feigning interest as the server mentions the housemade lemonade, I’m actively listening to ensure they did call it out in the first place.

I’m only partially listening to my friend I’m dining with because I’m paying attention to how a bartender makes the drinks because I want to see if they are consistently measuring the shots they pour.

I may get up to use the bathroom, or more accurately, I may get up to investigate the bathroom at some point during my meal, regardless of whether I need to use it, as I need to check if the counters are wet or wiped down.

And the biggest difference? At the end of the meal, I’m not spending my own dollars to pay for the experience. That’s because I’m there as a secret shopper or mystery diner.

How Mystery Dining Works

Photos courtesy of Julie Parent

Before a few years ago, I had never heard of secret shopping. A friend mentioned it, and I was intrigued. I did a little research online and found out that secret shoppers are compensated for eating at restaurants, shopping at stores, or using services to evaluate the quality of the experience.

I was immediately drawn to the idea of secret shopping, specifically restaurant dining. I love eating out and am always looking for new places to try, but I’m also extremely cost-conscious. I decided to sign up to be a secret shopper for EyeSpy, not knowing what I was getting into.

Signing up was very straightforward, and I was able to get started right away. Secret shopping as a side hustle quickly became my way of life.

Every month, I choose from different restaurant assignments, ranging from quick and casual takeout to time-saving delivery to high-end dining. The assignments include descriptions of specific tasks, the compensation, and the available dates. I generally take on about one in-person shop per week.

Depending on the client, the compensation could be $60 worth of takeout, $125 for a casual dine-in, or up to $250 for a multi-course fine dining experience.

Sometimes, I pay directly (yay, credit card points!) and am reimbursed afterward; other times, I’m provided a gift card.

Mystery Dining Requirements

Each assignment has specific instructions tailored to the client’s interests but generally focuses on the service elements, food quality, and cleanliness.

At the end of my experience, I complete an online evaluation, answering targeted questions, such as:

  • Did the server check back within 3 minutes of a dish being delivered?
  • Was the dish set down in front of me with the protein facing me?
  • When I ordered a generic cocktail (as instructed), did they try to upsell me to a premium spirit?
  • Was the bathroom clean and well stocked?
  • Was the outside sidewalk free of debris?
  • Were all the lights functioning?

Here’s an example of what an evaluation sheet looks like. 

Mystery dining evaluation sheet

I also provide a narrative of my experience.

Higher-end establishments require the most extensive and detailed evaluations, often asking about things I never would have noticed. These may take an hour or more to write up fully, but most are considerably shorter and take 30 minutes or less.

Repeat evaluations of the same business generally take less time, as I’m already familiar with the questions and can write them up more quickly.

Takeout evaluations are always shorter than dine-in evaluations, generally focusing on order accuracy (you’d be surprised how often an order is missing something!) and packaging.

While most secret shops are focused on mystery dining at restaurants, the company I secret shop for works with delivery services too. These save money and time (to do more secret shops!).

I would not normally opt for delivery given the additional fees, but they are covered for me with the secret shops. The absolute best? Using my shops to get groceries delivered. It’s a great way to save money on my everyday expenses.

These delivery evaluations are generally very short and fast to complete.

I’ve also been fortunate to pick up assignments when I travel, as the company works with clients nationwide. I simply let the schedulers know when and where I’ll be traveling, and they try to line up jobs for me.

This allows me to keep my overall travel costs down, as dining is the biggest component of travel costs for me outside of flights and hotels. It also gives me an easy itinerary for dining in a new city!

Mystery dining isn’t about making money as much as it is about allowing you to treat yourself and splurge when you normally would be more frugal.

Often, assignments require evaluators to order an appetizer, dessert, and drinks along with the meal, so rather than minimizing my costs, I enjoy a full-course meal. I love doing assignments that let me indulge in the extras or require me to check out higher-end places that are generally outside my price range.

How Much Free Food Did I Get?

Mystery Diner

In the first three months of 2024, $664 worth of meals was covered via gift cards or reimbursements. In 2023, the total was ~$4800, and the year before was $7111 (a very active year for secret shopping!).

In case you don’t have a calculator handy, that’s over $12,500 worth of tasty food!

I don’t have a car, so I only take opportunities within walking distance (or delivery). However, I could easily double my mystery shops if I traveled further or wanted to devote more time to the assignments. I generally do one in-person weekly assignment and as many delivery ones as possible.

My friends also benefit financially from my secret shops, as their meals are covered when they join me, in exchange for the fact that I’ll pay slightly less attention to them while we eat. Many of them have also signed up to be mystery shoppers after hearing about my “gigs,” as I call them.

Want To Become a Mystery Diner? Here’s My Advice

Seafood Spaghetti with Tiger Prawns, Scallops, Mussels, Calamari, Salmon and Tomato Sauce, dinner, food, restaurant, eat
Image Credit: Shutterstock.

I advise anyone interested in trying out this side hustle to ensure you have the time, focus, and discretion required to do a good job. Being a successful secret shopper requires strong observation skills, memorizing instructions, and a genuine interest in providing honest feedback, all while staying undercover.

If I had to pursue secret shopping as a side hustle again, I’d probably be more selective about assignments.

I started by taking nearly every offered assignment, but I’ve learned that some assignments are more enjoyable and a better match for me. I’ve learned to be more selective about the assignments I accept, picking only those that offer the best compensation, the most interesting dining experiences, or are more convenient. I shy away from those that have lengthy evaluations, are far away, or serve cuisine I’m not interested in.

That said, evaluating places I never would have selected has led me to discover new favorites.

After several years, I still find secret shopping a unique, rewarding, and generally quite tasty side hustle that allows me to enjoy dining out while saving money.

I’ve also learned a lot about the restaurant industry. I’ve become more aware of what goes into making a great dining experience and, for better or worse, learned to be a more critical consumer.

Whether you’re looking for a way to supplement your income or reduce your dining expenses (while enjoying new restaurants), secret shopping is a great option. I turned my love of food and attention to detail into a profitable and enjoyable side hustle I wish I had discovered sooner.

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