Stephen Pointe is chewing his mussels very slowly, deliberately, waiting for a sand granule to insult his tongue. Gary Beckert is scanning for spots on the starched white shirts of the staff posted at stations around the big dining hall. He already has noticed a waitress wearing non-regulation red nail polish.
"We have to keep our eyes moving," Beckert says. Before the end of the night's catered affair, the two will have racked up a list of infractions: The Champagne march, a wedding tradition at Russo's on the Bay in Howard Beach, N.Y., was out of step, the stuffed mushrooms were not centered on the tray, and, horrors, a napkin was found in a planter. "I will definitely mention that," Beckert says.
What's a restaurant without a few good complainers? Yet Pointe and Beckert are not just ordinary complainers--they are paid complainers, retained by restaurants and catering halls to spy on the help and critique the food.
"An owner, no matter how good he is, cannot have enough eyes," Pointe says.
Principals in SMP Associates, a restaurant-consulting company in Glen Head, N.Y., the two often work undercover as "secret shoppers," reporting back to owners on the speed and quality of the service. Spies are a growing element in the competitive hospitality business, where restaurant owners and national hotel chains have begun doing covert inspections of their own--as well as their competitors'--operations. SMP, a year-old company run out of Pointe's home, is among Long Island's first restaurant-spy services. Its accounts range from fast-food places to casual eateries to fine restaurants.
"I'll go in, order drinks and maybe something to eat," Beckert says. "Then I'll slip into the men's room, take out my pad and jot down some notes."
When out on assignment, the two time how long they wait, note how pleasantly they are greeted, how well the food is prepared and presented. They make sure the hot food is hot and the cold food is cold. They check for cobwebs, burned-out light bulbs, bent forks, crusty salt shakers, chipped plates, crumbs and nose-smudged mirrors. "It's the little details," Beckert says.
Of course, their inspections are hush-hush. "We won't meet the owner on the premises," Beckert said. "As a matter of fact, the owner will walk in and out of a restaurant and pretend he doesn't know us."
The two rely on their reputations and combined experience in the restaurant business to win accounts. Beckert, 33, started as a dishwasher and worked his way up to management. Pointe, 36, says he invested $20,000 and 20 years in the restaurant business to launch the company. While they claim their venture does not require hundreds of McDonald's accounts to turn a profit, "We do need more business," Pointe said.
Beckert and Pointe spend a lot of time undercover, but they say they trouble-shoot as well as spy.
"If the restaurant is falling apart," Beckert says, "we go in to find what's the problem. We don't just identify it, we try to correct it."
SMP retrains restaurant crews and runs orientations for new hires, teaching skills that range from the art of French service to suggestive selling, which means teaching the staff to say things like, "How many pieces of our sinfully delectable pistachio cheesecake would you like?" They also analyze food and liquor costs, develop inventory-control systems and redesign menus.
Beckert looks, for example, at a menu item that isn't selling and wonders, "Should we change the wording? Should we change the position? Should we add tomato sauce and call it something else?"
Frank Russo Jr., owner of Russo's on the Bay, a lavish wedding emporium, doubled the length of his contract with the company because SMP helped him get a handle on his inventory and costs.
"When you are concerned with running a business, there are only so many details you can get into," Russo said. "They really helped my organization."
Russo also said that SMP's services were an affordable substitute for a general manager, whose salary might run $75,000 a year.
Pointe and Beckert sometimes get paid to go drinking. That is because one of the biggest problems plaguing restaurant owners is stealing by bartenders, Pointe says.
"There are heavy dollars going over the bar and large sums are transacted very quickly," Pointe says. It is too easy for bartenders to grace their tip cups more often than the owner's cash drawer. On those jobs, he and Beckert always bring along a companion, a "dead man," who drinks up a storm, so the spies can stay sober and watch.
Perhaps because of all their eating and drinking, Pointe and Beckert say they face several occupational hazards. Pointe has an ulcer and Beckert has been battling the bulge.
"I was well over 200 pounds," said Beckert, who is still no beanpole. "Steve and I were spending all our time in restaurants, where people were constantly feeding us."