April 11, 2024

Getting That Bread: Cornell Dining’s Mystery Shopper Program

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For many students with meal plans, the Mystery Shopper Program has been a long-time subject of curiosity. Aiming to recognize outstanding eateries and improve the dining experience, this initiative is real and offers students the dream job: to eat meals at select cafes and dining halls on an hourly wage in addition to reimbursement for the meal. All that’s required is a brief online review preceded by subtle, discrete and unannounced visits to dining units. 

In late February, the opportunity was formally opened to students with a meal plan during Spring of 2024. Now, over a month later, there are 70 total mystery shoppers traveling to 29 different dining units. Started by former Assistant Director Of Staff Training & Development Therese O’Connor, the program has expanded dramatically over the years, helping Cornell maintain its reputation and high rankings, such as having the second “Best Campus Food” per the Princeton Review.

The program has a simple structure for collecting and implementing feedback. Students go to two locations each week, assessing their dining experience in an undercover “workshop.” The expense of their meal is covered or reimbursed for twelve dollars in bonus bucks, expendable at any dining establishment. Feedback is expected within 48 hours of each visit. Reviews are completed in an online survey, which assesses units on cleanliness, customer service and product quality. Shoppers are also able to leave suggestions based on what they would like to see altered or continued. 

Many improvements have been made since the slew of suggestions began. Reviews have given students more power over their diet, causing the return of old cafe favorites or bringing in new dining hall staples. Feedback can make meal plans more inclusive, as suggestions have contributed to a plethora of diet-specific accommodations. There has been an increase in vegan and vegetarian choices at dining halls. Additionally, plant-based milks and other allergy-conscious ingredients have been added to Cornell kitchens. 

The Mystery Shopper Program has created a positive connection between students and Cornell dining as a whole, as they are able to communicate about their options. It has been a source of innovation for eateries while encouraging students to diversify their palates. When asked how this project accomplished its goals, program director Matthew Johnson explained that it’s “one way we stay ahead of the curve and actively listen to our guests’ opinions and needs.” He was proud about how much has been accomplished with this system of feedback. 

Moving forward, dining has many prospective ideas on how to build the program as well. With Discovery Kitchen Now at Morrison Dining and a new year-round Test Kitchen, customer feedback is even more valuable to the dining staff members. Johnson and his co-workers also plan to partner with the Student Assembly Dining Committee so that Cornellians can provide direct feedback to chefs after enjoying a meal in the dining room. Mystery Shoppers play a significant role in selecting the “Nourishing The Future Award” winner, based on food waste management, training compliance and positive student reviews. 

Meanwhile, Goldie’s barista Jackie Rangel ‘26 was ecstatic about how mystery shoppers will influence the dining community she is part of. “I think it is essential for student employees who work as baristas to be able to provide anonymous feedback to fellow units so that we can foster a dining community that encourages learning from each other,” she stated. Rangel also credited the program for providing “worthwhile and considerate incentives for participation.” She represents a sense of student enthusiasm that is only growing as the program continues. 

Kira Walter is a second-year student in the College of Agricultural & Life Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].