Restaurants: Dining Room Confidential

Bathroom’s a mess? Waiter forgot half the specials? These days, restaurant missteps show up online immediately, which is why Stephen Starr and others are using undercover diners to spy on their own places

Which is paramount. Because the hundreds of items on Kravitz’s list — everything from menu expertise to bathroom cleanliness — are exactly what we, the customers, experience. But something’s changed in the past few years: the speed and reach of customer opinions, largely due to the Internet and better-educated diners. The bigger restaurant scene in Philadelphia makes those opinions — good and bad — all the more crucial. One little slip-up — like a customer who’s invited to leave because he wasn’t informed about the dress code — might get fired off that night into the local blogosphere and do serious damage. Which has, in turn, provided Marc Kravitz with a mushrooming business and the ear of local restaurant owners — telling them exactly what we’d like to tell them before they make the same mistakes again.

PUTTING THE CUSTOMER first sounds so simple — but ensuring your staff is up to the task keeps restaurant owners up at night. (Literally. It’s why some of them never leave.) Kravitz was on a shop once when his dining mate sent a dish back to the kitchen because the fish tasted fishy. The manager returned to the table and relayed the chef’s sentiments: He’d tasted the fish, and he thought it was fine. Kravitz has seen so many bartenders give free drinks to their friends (and even steal money) that he refuses to shop stand-alone bars anymore. These aren’t isolated incidents. They’re exactly why restaurants need secret shoppers, to attempt to control the scores of things that could go wrong at any given moment.

Kravitz realized this almost a decade ago. A Northeast Philly native, he was working as a food writer. He had self-published four editions of a Zagat-like guide titled $18 and Under. He also wrote “Under the Table,” a restaurant gossip column for the City Paper. Back then, Michael Klein was his only competition; the column paid $150 a week. After more than a year of observing the ups and downs of the restaurant industry firsthand — and the downs of journalism — he realized he could provide a service restaurant owners desperately needed.

“I thought, Here are these restaurants spending millions of dollars to open,” Kravitz says, “and then thousands each month on public relations and advertising to bring people in. What are they doing to keep these people coming back?”

Kravitz started i-SPY in 2002, when there were only a few local secret shopping companies; now there are dozens. Through food-writing connections, he heard that Stephen Starr wasn’t happy with his secret shoppers. Kravitz couldn’t have asked for a better first taker, the trigger to a client list that reads like a Best of Philly issue: Starr Restaurant Organization, the Rittenhouse and Four Seasons hotels, Garces Restaurant Group, Tria. He says his business has grown 10 to 15 percent for eight years running. Kravitz had 110 shops scheduled from July through September, and he charges as much as $300 per outing; at that rate, despite farming a good portion of those shops to freelancers, he’s pocketing six figures annually.