When you read tips about achieving FI or saving money in general, it’s usually the same tips. “Stop ordering takeout coffee”, “don’t eat out” etc. This is not bad advice, I do think these things (for me personally) do not represent good value for money, especially if you do it often. If you go out to a restaurant a few times a week, it becomes routine, definitely not exciting. It also costs A LOT of money to eat out. We all know that the best things in life are free so what would you say if I told you that you could eat out for free? Let me introduce you to the world of mystery dining.
Before I became a dad (in a pre COVID19 world), I used to do a lot of mystery dining. I will explain what it is later in this post, but the main news is- it’s back! The reason I’m excited to write this post today is the visits are back. I waited a long time for COVID19 to be over (I know it’s not over yet) for restaurants to reopen and for mystery dining to come back into my life. COVID19 is still here but at least mystery dining is back
*dancing a happy dance* (I totally dance like a stereotypical dad)
What is Mystery Dining?
Mystery dining is when you go out for a meal (usually) and then give feedback based on your experience. The reports I write go to the owner/manager of the business. The owner/manager then uses my report to improve the quality of service/food in the business, a worthy cause. Because I think it really is a worthy cause, I am very honest in my reports and am not afraid to report on negative experiences I have, that’s the only way it will improve. After all, this is literally what the owner/manager is paying me to do.
What do I get out of mystery dining?
Oh yeah, I forgot to mention, the food I eat… It’s free, that’s what I get for writing the report. Actually, that’s not entirely true. Each visit has a brief (what I have to do/order) and a budget, I will only be paid up to the budgeted amount.
For example, if the budget is £20 but I spend £17, I’ll get £17 back (so everything was free). However, if the budget is £20 and I spend £30, I will only get £20 back.
This will definitely help increase your savings rate.
I think that the businesses that work with mystery dining companies deserve a lot of respect. They pay an external company and give out free food (or nights etc.) just so they can become better at serving their customers.
Is it only food?
The straight answer is “no” but most of it is food. You do rarely get a cinema visit or even a night in a hotel (I had 3 of those so far, they were all awesome).
I even had 1 football match at Wembley, in a private box! It was the community shield final and I and 3 other mystery diners had the private box to ourselves. The purpose of the visit was to provide feedback on the food kiosks in the stadium. We had to visit 4 different kiosks. To be honest, the experience was cool but I did spend most of the time filling the report.
My own experience with Mystery Dining
How long have I been doing mystery dining?
My first visit was in December 2017 and I used to do it pretty regularly until roughly March 2020, when COVID19 hit the UK.
Which mystery dining website do I use?
I know there are several companies who do this but I use Mysterydining.net (I get nothing if you join, just sharing the knowledge). Lazy FI Mum thought it would suit me and recommended it to me. She was right. I have no idea if Mysterydining.net are better or worse than any other company out there, I just know I’m really happy with them.
How far did I take mystery dining?
You all know already I’m a numbers person. That means I have an Excel tracker that lists every single visit. That includes dates, amounts, visit types and the places. Let’s look at the data broken down (warning: I did A LOT of visits).
So far I completed 336 visits, 131 in 2018 and 159 in 2019, which means 290 in 2 years, that’s almost an average of 3 a week. As I joined at the end of 2017, there are only 3 in that year and 2020 is low due to COVID19. Basically, 2018 and 2019 are the only 2 full years I had.
As you can see, 327 (43+284) out of the 336 were food visits, which gives you a rough idea of how rare the non-food visits are.
Let’s talk money
I know that the number of visits doesn’t mean a lot to you. How much money did I actually get back so far?
So far, in my 336 visits, I was able to get back £8,778.62. Just over £7,454.73 out of that amount was earned in only 2 years (2018-2019), which were actually the only two full years I had so far.
Do I visit the same place twice?
First of all, once you visit a specific place (branch), you will not be able to visit the same branch for a few months. That doesn’t stop you from visiting other branches of the same chain. Let’s look at my 10 (11 because 10 and 11 were tied) most visited chains/places.
As you can see, Pret and Itsu take the top 2 spots. This is because they are very common, they have many branches and they are perfect for a lunch at work. However, the fact that I visited Honest Burgers 41 (!!!) times is amazing and goes to show how much I love that chain.
Who do I go with?
Despite what most of you might think, Lazy FI Mum doesn’t actually come with me to most of these mystery dines.
Partly because it doesn’t excite her, but mainly it’s because she has food allergies that mean she has very limited options in most restaurants. When I do catch visits to Juicebaby or Planet Organic, for example, she will jump on it. The hotel visits, just in case it wasn’t clear, are always with her.
This actually allows me to meet friends in times that I might not have planned to meet them. I book a cool dine, text a friend “want to go out for a burger? it’s on me” and I usually end up having a really nice time. I have several friends who have joined me to mystery dines and they are always amazed by the fact the food is free.
One of them is Luke from “The progression playbook” blog. He actually wrote about this, you can see his post here.
My favourite visits
Not surprisingly, the hotels were probably the most fun visits.
A night in a hotel for free is definitely a treat. We had 3 of those so far:
1. George hotel in Cranbrook:
To be honest, we probably never would have gone to Cranbrook otherwise, because we never heard of Cranbrook before. It was a lovely place and we even got a private tour of the windmill (got nothing to do with mystery dining, we were there to review the hotel only). We are so happy we went.
2. Malmaison in Reading:
I will always remember this visit as the best dinner I ever had. The brief mentioned we had to eat dinner at the restaurant (there was a separate budget for that) and when I got there, it was all booked and they couldn’t find my reservation. I got a bit stressed because if I don’t adhere to the brief, I don’t get reimbursed. Anyway, Lazy FI Mum asked if we could eat before everyone else, an early dinner, they agreed.
We ended up being only the two of us in the restaurant, with 2 amazing, charismatic and very knowledgeable waiters that made our experience special. The food itself was out of this world, it was so good. As I said, it was by far the best dinner I’ve ever had.
Lazy FI Mum was actually more impressed with the breakfast. They have a Starbucks branch in the hotel so you can get a Starbucks coffee for breakfast.
It was a really great visit, it was just before our wedding and we actually bought her wedding shoes in Reading that evening.
3. Boundary hotel (Shoreditch, London):
This was when Lazy FI Mum was pregnant with our daughter. The weird thing about this visit is it’s not that far from our home so it felt kind of like a staycation. Lazy FI Mum and I went to work as usual (we packed, very lightly, the night before) and at the end of the day, instead of going home- we went to a hotel. The room was HUGE (almost the size of our flat) and dinner was great too. It was a perfectly timed treat as Lazy FI Mum definitely deserved this relaxing break.
Despite visiting Honest Burgers more than 40 times, I think it is still my favourite. For one, I never tried them before joining mystery dining. The first time I tasted their rosemary chips is something I’ll never forget, they were the best I’ve ever had. Their burgers are also amazing and so is the service.
The fact that the budget (£35) is generous and the questionnaire is pretty short doesn’t hurt. However, that’s not why I enjoy going there, it is one of the only places that I can easily say I would happily go to even without mystery dining.
If you want to find out more about them visit the Honest Burgers website.
Another two favourites of mine, which I also didn’t know before mystery dining are Megan’s Deli and Flat Iron:
Flat Iron is another place we went back to and paid with our own money because it was so good. The steaks are great and Lazy FI Mum loves the fact they serve popcorn while you wait. The budget usually doesn’t cover the cost of the food listed on the brief but I don’t mind. I see it as a discounted meal and the food is good enough to justify it.
If you want to find out more about them visit the Flat Iron website.
While Megan’s Deli is always a treat, I think the prices there stop us from going back there outside of mystery dining.
However, as the budget is very generous here too (£60 for 2 people for dinner), it is not an issue. I usually get the “Posh Lamb ‘Doner’ Open Kebab” (double the meat of course) and am never disappointed. All their restaurants seem to be romantic with flowers in the ceiling, which is a bit awkward because I usually don’t go there with Lazy FI Mum.
If you want to find out more about them visit the Megan’s Deli website. If you do, look up the picture of my favourite dish.
Another reason I mention these two (Flat Iron and Megan’s Deli) is because these are 2 of my 5 newly booked visits (woohoo).
I also went to more expensive restaurants through mystery dining but fine dining is not really my thing.
Other cool mystery visits include cinema visits and even a stand-up show. The Everyman cinema (here’s their website), is something we probably wouldn’t book for ourselves so it’s always a treat.
If you haven’t been to Everyman before, it’s like a very posh cinema, you sit in very comfortable sofas. In addition, the food you order is brought to your sofa so you can eat it while watching the movie.
I have one booked and I’ll go with Lazy FI Mum, looking forward to it.
“But what about your daughter?“
I wish she could come but she’s too young. Luckily, Lazy FI Mother In Law (I wonder if she will approve of this title, it amuses me nonetheless) will be here to look after her while she (our daughter) is sleeping.
My least favourite visits
I will spare you my worst visit as I don’t think the owner signed up for mystery dining to get some bad publicity. I will say it was a pizza place and it was so bad, me and my friend didn’t even finish our pizzas.
If you want to join, here are some details:
How does it actually work?
First, you’ll have to sign up on the website and write about a dining experience you’ve had. Once (/if) you get accepted, you will start as a Bronze status (status levels explained below) and will be able to book visits.
Booking your first visit
You can go and see a list of all the available visits, each visit has available dates. If one of the visits and dates suits you- book it. Make sure you read the brief (this will include your budget by the way) and the questionnaire before your visit. This will help you get less TTC (Things to consider, explained below) in your reports.
After your first visit, fill the questionnaire and wait for it to be reviewed.
Pro tip: WhatsApp yourself the main questions that you might not remember. Then, reply to those questions during the visit. I usually do that when I need to remember the cashier’s name or something like that.
What does my status mean and how do I improve it?
There are 4 status levels- Bronze, Silver, Gold and Platinum. Your status is based on the quality of your last 10 reports. Each report you fill out comes back with Highlights (good things) and TTCs (Things to consider, which is improvement points). The fewer TTCs you have, the better your report is. Theoretically, you can get to Platinum level after only 10 visits.
When new visits are released, they are first only available for platinum users. If no platinum user books the visit, it becomes available to gold members and so on. You can already understand that the “good stuff” becomes available once you reach platinum level.
One important note is that because your status is based on your last 10 visits, it is possible to go down a status level. That happened to me and I tried to book 10 visits as soon as possible to get back to platinum.
What do the points mean?
Before COVID19, each visit was worth 10 points and if the deadline was close and they really needed the visit fulfilled, you would get 50 points for the visit. Each time you got 1,000 points, you’d get a £100 voucher for Virgin Experience Days.
I actually have over 4,000. That means I got 4 of those vouchers. I used the first one to bungee jump off a crane just near the O2. I used the other 3 vouchers for 2 rooms, 2 nights each in New Forest for me, Lazy FI Mum, our daughter, and Lazy FI Mother In Law (still amuses me). We had a great time and that actually increases my hotel count through Mystery Dining to 4 but the last one had no report to fill.
Before you get excited about this part, nowadays most visits are only worth 1 point. This actually makes sense because most businesses are struggling and they can’t give out loads of vouchers like they used to. However, some visits still offer 30 or 50 points closer to the deadline. This isn’t advice to wait for the deadline as someone else might take it.
Do the reports take a long time to fill?
Some do but it’s worth it. For example, Pret visits have a £7 budget and take 20-30 minutes to fill. Is it worth the time? it depends on what alternatives you have for that time. I usually spent half of my lunchtime at work walking to Pret and having lunch. Then, I spent the second half of my lunchtime writing up the report.
Pret visits are very common and are therefore a great way to get 10 quick reports that would hopefully get you back to Platinum if your status is downgraded.
However, some reports are ridiculously long (hotels, worth it) and some are very short. One of the shortest reports I had to fill was the Honest Burger, it took me 10-15 minutes to fill and the budget was very generous (£35).
What I’m trying to say is the length of the reports vary and has nothing to do with how much money is in the budget.
How do you catch the good visits?
That’s actually the hard part.
First, the visits are booked on a first come first served basis.
Second, they are not released at set times. The only way to get there first is to refresh their website at the right time. Alternatively, have mystery diner friends that will update you when the good stuff is available (and vice versa), that’s what I do.
Lastly, as I mentioned- Platinum users get to see the good visits first so try and get to platinum ASAP.
What do I get from sharing this knowledge with you?
Nothing, absolutely nothing. However, if mysterydining.net want to start paying me referral fees, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
On a more serious note, as the best visits are hard to find, the more platinum diners out there, the harder it gets to catch them. That means sharing this knowledge with you is actually making my life harder.
However, mystery dining allowed me to eat out a lot more than I would have otherwise. Therefore, it would be pretty selfish of me to keep it to myself.
I do want to say that this isn’t for everyone. The reports take time, it’s not easy to find visits and writing the negative stuff isn’t for everyone. However, I love it and am super excited it’s back.