Service rates eateries from diner's point of view

April 07, 1994|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,Sun Staff Writer

You're the manager of a local restaurant. One day the owner calls you and the other employees together and tells the group he's paid a spy to dine at the joint.

The mystery customer's mission: Rate the place on everything from restroom cleanliness to the cheeriness of the service staff.

In the restaurant business, where everyone's looking for an edge, Marlena Holmes' new venture, Sneak-A-Peek, offers -- The Mystery Eater.

"We all have a mental check list of things we notice when we go to a restaurant. When we leave, we file away this report card in our head that determines if we'll come back or not," says Ms. Holmes, who lives in Columbia.

"Most of us are too busy to actually tell the restaurant what we liked or didn't like. What I'm offering are people who will take the time to do exactly that."

The result is a blueprint for improvement that can lead to customer loyalty, she says.

Ms. Holmes' concept is modeled on the mystery shopper, the retail industry's way of gauging employee service, overall ambience of stores and product quality.

In light of fierce competition in the food service industry and the growing view among consumers that service is a key element in any business transaction, Ms. Holmes thinks the time is ripe for Sneak-A-Peek.

"Customer service is the battlefield today in the restaurant business," she says. "The problem is a lot of restaurant managers are so busy with other responsibilities, they aren't keeping up with how well employees are dealing with customers."

Says Kitty Whittington, of the Maryland Restaurant Association: "A lot of our members would like to have his type of thing done, but the cost of it is a factor. With the recession and tough winter, a lot of restaurants are hurting and just don't want to spend money."

Having worked for Holiday Inns, which has a team of in-house mystery evaluators, Ms. Whittington believes the service can be very worthwhile if done thoroughly.

Neither Ms. Whittington nor the national restaurant association is certain how many other restaurant evaluation companies operate the densely populated Maryland-Washington-Virginia region, which is flush with eateries.

In Ms. Holmes' system, an operator signs up for the service and Sneak-A-Peek sends in a mystery eater. The owner isn't told who the evaluator is or when the visit might come. Meanwhile, employees aren't told they're about to be spied on.

Evaluators won't carry evaluation forms into the restaurant nor take written notes while dining. They also won't ask unusual questions that might tip off employees.

Their tools until they leave the facility are their eyes, ears and taste buds.

The written evaluations, which rate the operation on buildings, food, service and overall quality, are completed after the mystery eater has left. The evaluator sends the form to Sneak-A-Peek, which forwards it to the client.

Sneak-A-Peek charges $25 and up for a visit; the cost depends on how in-depth a review is requested.

Ms. Holmes has developed evaluation forms for fast-food, drive-through, home delivery and family-style restaurants, such as Pizza Hut and Sizzler. She plans to add evaluations for traditional, independent mid-price and fine dining operations.

She says she's based her forms on customer survey research conducted by the National Association of Restaurants, and on her own experience working in service and management of area restaurants for the past nine years.

While working in the industry Ms. Holmes, 26, began to consider starting a restaurant evaluation service.

"The gap between what management, the service staff and customers see as important is pretty big. Instead of complaining about what was needed, I decided to do something to address it," said Ms. Holmes.

Wendy Webster, a spokeswoman with the National Restaurant Association, said Ms. Holmes is right that a lot of restaurant managers juggle many responsibilities and can't keep close tabs on customer satisfaction.

Managers' biggest distractions from customer satisfaction: Keeping the business financially sound in the face of average industry profit margins of just 3 to 4 percent, and keeping up with regulations and their paperwork.

The restaurant association isn't certain how widespread the use of "mystery eater" services is in the industry, but several national operators do use them, including Au Bon Pain, the French bakery and bistro, and Burger King.

"The fact that these services exist and are used are barometers of the growing importance of customer service in the business," said Ms. Webster.

After researching her concept, competition in the area and the market potential for about a year, Ms. Holmes invested about $5,000 of her own money to launch the service in January. She has landed one client thus far, a fast-food chain specializing in chicken meals, and says she has considerable interest from other area operators.

"I had expected to work out of my home for two years to get this off the ground," she said, "but I've had so much interest that I'm already looking at office space."

She also is lining up evaluators. They'll be signed on as independent contractors, said Ms. Holmes.

"A lot of people have said to me, 'Hey, Marlena, you're young. Go dTC work for someone else.' My answer is, why should I line the pockets of someone else with my dream?"

Those dreams appear big. She plans to attend a national restaurant trade show in Chicago next month where Wendy's founder Dave Thomas is expected as a keynote speaker.

Says Ms. Holmes: "I have every intention of meeting him."

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