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

As far as weekday evenings in summer go, this Center City restaurant is busy. It’s a Tuesday night, and a large group of sundress-clad woo-hoo girls is gathered at the bar, clapping about something; hungry parties surround ample tables in the main dining room. Every inch of the soaring restaurant has been carefully considered — swirling ceiling fans, tropical ferns, painted tiles, bossa nova beats — to hammer home the south-of-the-border motif. The liveliness makes it hard to give much thought to the menu items the server is calling attention to; Marc Kravitz gives the waiter the half-attentive look of a typical customer, but it’s a poker face. He’s honed into what’s being said with a startling focus, remembering almost every word. He has to. As the owner and founder of i-SPY, a Philadelphia-based secret shopper service, Kravitz is being paid to pay attention.

“That was good,” Kravitz leans in to explain after the waiter leaves. “He was supposed to point out the new spring roll appetizer.” Kravitz mentally checks off an item on his list, then glances at his cell-phone clock — he’s timing how long it will take the waiter to return and take his order.

Tonight’s report actually started way before Kravitz sat down to eat. His secret dinners (Kravitz refers to them as “shops”) start with a reservation call, which is recorded and played back for the owner. (For this shop, the reservationist didn’t inform Kravitz about the after-9 p.m. dress code.) He arrived 30 minutes before his reservation to have a drink at the bar. This restaurant has been a regular client of his for years — he visits monthly — but he asked questions he already knows the answers to, like “What’s in a caipirinha?” He heard the right response: a Brazilian rum-like alcohol and lime. Check. The bartender couldn’t have known that Kravitz asked one of his co-workers the same question at this very bar just last month.

It was important that Kravitz finish his drink, because he would order another one at the table — it’s not just bartenders who need to know their booze. One of his freelance shoppers once didn’t finish her drink at the bar, but ordered another when seated for dinner, as instructed. A server noticed the odd behavior, and she was flagged as a spy. (Kravitz encourages restaurant owners to tell their staff they’ve engaged a secret shopping service, so workers don’t feel duped by his reports.)

Kravitz let the hostess know when he was ready to be seated, and in the short walk to his table, she was being tested: She used his name. She handed him both the regular and the summer menus. She said the server would be right over. Check, check and check. His report grew quickly.

And now the waiter — he has an overdone, singsong friendliness, like an out-of-work actor — is back to take Kravitz’s order within two minutes. Check. Overall, this shop is going well. In the six years he’s been working with this restaurant, Kravitz has seen serious improvement.

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.

Part of that success is based on blending in. Kravitz is white, tall and thin. He shaves his head and wears dark jeans with polo shirts. He rides a scooter and lives in Northern Liberties. He just turned 40 and has two kids. He spends his days at La Colombe, editing his freelancers’ reports or composing his own. Kravitz uses freelancers so he doesn’t become a regular anywhere, and so he doesn’t spend every night of his life in a restaurant.

Starr, who uses a national company in conjunction with i-SPY, trusts Kravitz for his local perspective. “His palate is similar to that of my customer. He has the same mind-set as my customer,” says the restaurateur. “Any owner who doesn’t [use a service] is crazy.”

Different clients tend to value Kravitz for slightly different things. The Rittenhouse Hotel relies on his opinions on service. (“I don’t give a whole lot of credence to his comments on food,” assistant GM Keith Wagner says. “The quality of the food is pretty obvious by guest feedback.”) Tria uses him to critique employees. (“He catches people doing more right than wrong,” explains owner Jon Myerow.) Kravitz only shops for Garces when one of his restaurants opens, to iron out any kinks before the critics roll in.

RESTAURANTS USED TO print their logos on matchbooks, in hopes that a cigarette break would turn into a recommendation. Smoking laws may have changed, but word of mouth is still a vital part of a restaurant’s business. And now the Internet has made everyone a critic. Food bloggers don’t just have their own sites and worshipers. The number of people who comment online about food in this town is staggering, and it’s viral: Bloggers report on fellow bloggers’ findings and spread the word to whole new audiences. Recently opened burger bar P.Y.T. in Northern Liberties even offered free burgers to bloggers to get them in the door. On forums like eGullet, user reviews and photos of dishes can easily be 30 postings deep. Bibou, a French restaurant in South Philly that opened this summer, had a 400-word review (complete with a link to a photo gallery) written about it the day after it opened, by someone who did it just for fun. And it’s more than blogs. Sites like Citysearch and Yelp employ user ratings to calculate rankings. When people search for, say, an Italian restaurant on Yelp, the highest rated restaurant comes up first, screaming, “Eat here! People like this place!”

There’s also more local competition than ever. Served an over-salted New York strip at a steakhouse? Don’t worry; there are seven others between Rittenhouse Square and Broad Street to choose from next time a beef craving strikes. The stakes are simply too high for restaurateurs not to do everything in their power to control diners’ experiences, so they won’t blab bad things to the world.

BEING A MYSTERY shopper is a job many of us wouldn’t mind having, but it’s not quite the case that Kravitz gets to rant and rave to restaurant owners. He largely sticks to his “objective” list, and he knows he’s often viewed as the (unseen) enemy. “The thing that too many restaurant employees don’t understand is that our job is not to get them,” Kravitz says. He does what he’s hired to do: lay out exactly what happens during a meal. The report he works from — a combination of each restaurant’s guidelines and his own set of standards — keeps him from straying toward opinion. For each staff position, each interaction, there are points to be awarded, for things as small as “Was I offered bottled water?” to as large as “Was my steak cooked right?”

 Kravitz spends a lot of time editing judgment and emotion out of his freelancers. “I had a report recently where the shopper wrote that the chips didn’t go well with the dip,” he says. “I took that out.” Where he needs to get subjective — mostly when it comes to food — he treads lightly. On the Center City Latin shop, his report read that the shrimp was “perceived to be rubbery and slightly fishy.” No matter how you sugarcoat it, it was poorly cooked shrimp. But as unbiased as his reports are “perceived” to be, it might not matter that the line between opinion and fact gets blurred. The restaurants use him for both truth (the bartender was stealing) and perspective (the shrimp sucked).

Both are what Kravitz — as a proxy for us —  gets to hand directly to Garces and Stephen Starr, hopefully making everyone’s dining experience better. It’s a brave new restaurant world.

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