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Running Your Business:
Mystery Diners
By Miriam Silverberg

Awhile ago there was an article about mystery diners written from the viewpoint of actually hiring and paying them. Problem is, quite often when you need a mystery diner, you can't pay them--that's why you need them! This article details how you can get the benefits of mystery diners without paying them.

I think all restaurants need mystery diners. You may think you know how your restaurant functions and how your customers experience it, but you really don't. Too often your guests won't tell you if they're unhappy, they just won't come back.

As a publicist I act something like a mystery diner except the staff knows me, of course. But even then it's amazing how often mistakes crop up. Sitting at one table I can sometimes see something going wrong at another and tell the owner in time to rectify it.

Invite someone whose opinion and taste you trust to dine anonymously. You know he's there but your staff thinks he's just another diner. At the end of the meal sit down and listen to him. This is invaluable. You are actually finding out what an ordinary patron thinks.

Too often a restaurateur becomes enraged when a customer complains. Enraged is not too strong a word here since I've seen it happen (fortunately, not at one of my clients). Usually it's not the food that's at fault, but the service. Too often we think as long as the food is good, everything is fine. But it isn't, not at all. Service is a big part of the dining experience, especially when there isn't any!

You go into a restaurant, are seated, you anticipate a pleasant, relaxing experience and you wait, and you wait....

The waiters or waitresses are gossiping or having a fight with the bartender and you're in the middle. I once walked out of a restaurant because my predinner cocktail was sitting on the bar for 10 minutes while my waiter and the bartender fought. I believe Gael Greene in New York Magazine once referred to the staff at one restaurant as "sweetly confused." It's charming except when you're served duck when you ordered sole. Do you know about this? Your wait staff certainly won't tell you they mixed up an order and possibly neither will your kitchen staff. But your mystery diner will. He'll also tell you if the waiter was pushing drinks which sometimes pads the bill so much the customer never returns.

Have you ever noticed a server completely ignoring a table? It happened to me. Our waitress was having such a good time talking to the diners at another table that my escort had to get up, take her by the arm and lead her over to our table so she could take our order. If that had been the first time I'd eaten there, probably I wouldn't have returned. As it happened, it was probably the 100th time, and the next time I saw the owner, I told him what happened. I also told him that a couple had come in, sat down and waited maybe 20 minutes for service, finally just walking out.

If you've ever dined at the competition and seen this happen, you've probably dislocated your shoulder patting yourself on the back that this couldn't possibly happen at your restaurant. Well, probably it has and it is.

Miriam Silverberg is the owner and founder of Miriam Silverberg Associates, a small boutique publicity firm in New York City with long experience publicizing restaurants. She may be reached at

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