Learn what a professional bar mystery shopping service looks for…

You might be familiar with retail mystery shopping or “secret shopping,” where a trained individual goes into a store pretending to shop, but actually covertly critiques the establishment’s service, salesforce, décor, cleanliness, and overall shopping experience. But, you might not know that these same mystery shopping exists for the bar industry.

Quin McCray is the founder and owner of Liquid Solutions, a company in Springfield, Massachusetts that provides a mystery shopping service which they dub Integrity Reports. We spoke to him to learn more about why a bar might be interested in bringing in a mystery shopper and common issues that bar mystery shoppers find.

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Why would a bar owner or manager choose to hire a Bar Mystery Shopper?

Many do it as a way to have a second set of eyes that can come in and give their establishment and employees and unbiased opinion,” says Quin. “Another one of the recurring reasons is that many bar owners have never worked their way through the ranks; most people would never think of opening a plumbing business if they’ve never worked as a plumber, but many open bars with no actual experience.”

Quin himself has tended bar professionally since 1993, and his employees who perform mystery shops all have at least 10 years experience in the bar industry. “As a result of our audits, we have helped bar owners to implement inventory controls, calculate liquor costs, and standardize procedures.”

Even if you’re more seasoned, mystery shopping can be valuable: “Often, the owner and/or manager lose attention to the small details because they are always there, and as a result, they become oblivious to certain things. For example: as time passes, the cleanliness of the bar starts to suffer, the level of service begins to decline, etc. While these are easily visible to new customers, they become transparent to the staff.”

What are the specific criteria a bar gets graded on by a mystery shopper?

When Quin or one of his employees performs a mystery shop, these are the things they are evaluating you on:

First impressions

The parking lot

  • Is it well-lit?
  • Is there garbage?
  • Are people going to want to go there if they’re not locals?

Signage

  • Is the establishment’s sign well-lit?
  • Can I see it from the road?

Decor and atmosphere

  • Are the lights too high or too low?
  • Is there music? Is it overpowering?
  • Is the bathroom clean and well-maintained/stocked?

Bartending technique

Hospitality / bar knowledge

  • Am I greeted and waited on in a timely manner?
  • Did the bartender seem knowledgeable and friendly?
  • Could the bartender field basic liquor-related questions? (e.g. recommending a nice bourbon)
  • Do they know about some of the less-known products on the bar?

Pour

  • Is it an ounce and a quarter pour, or an ounce and a half pour?

Ethics and professionalism

  • How is the staff handling the cash? Is it being done ethically?
  • Is the bartender making some sort of note about each drink being ordered?
  • Do I overhear shop talk between employees?

When testing a bartender’s drink knowledge, Quin will typically order a drink that a bartender should know. He won’t go as far as a Mint Julep, but he might ask for an Old Fashioned, or a Godmother or Godfather—even something as simple as a Scarlett O’Hara.

At the end of the shop, Quin writes up a four-page evaluation providing written evaluations for the various categories and providing a numerical score. Sometimes, bars will have him or one of his employees make a repeat visit to evaluated bartenders during their shifts as a way to keep them honest.

Why pour size so important?

If you use BevSpot’s products, you already know how important pour sizing is, but Quin cannot emphasize it enough.

Like all tipped employees, bartenders want to make their customers happy and, in turn, increase their gratuity. While most people would never think of giving away a steak or a television, bartenders tend to feel differently about spirits.”

To them, it’s just liquid in a bottle. To the bar owner, it’s their revenue source; how taxes get paid, lights stay on, and payroll is met. The most common problem I see is bar staff over-pouring drinks and/or giving away a large percentage of drinks. Often, they don’t equate over-pouring to theft; they attribute it to customer service.”

To put it in perspective, Quinn breaks down the math of a hypothetical example:

Chase works at a neighborhood bar 4 nights a week. In order to increase his tips, he over-pours drinks. Instead of using his company’s agreed upon 1.25 oz pour, he uses a 1.5 oz pour. Chase goes through 5 bottles a night. How much does this cost the bar?

Normal pour:

33.8 oz bottle (1 liter)/ 1.25 oz drink = ~27 drinks per bottle

Over pour:

33.8 oz bottle (1 liter)/ 1.5 oz drink = ~22 drinks per bottle

If the average cost per drink is $5.50, the bar loses ~$27.50 per bottle in revenue.

If Chase goes through 5 bottles per shift, the bar lost ~$137.50 per shift.

In a week, that’s ~$550 in lost revenue, and over the course of a year, it’s ~$28,600.

What types of steps can bar owners take to help resolve these problems?

I would start with creating checklists for the managers and bar staff,” Quin says. “The manager’s checklist should include items such as checking the lighting outside of the location, ensuring that trash and other debris is not visible to your clientele, periodically checking the restrooms and temperature of the coolers, ensuring routine maintenance is being conducted, and implementing inventory controls.”

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