How to eat at NYC restaurants for free (and even get paid)

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I'n no Ruth Reichl (pictured), but I know a soggy pizza crust when I see one.

Remember the 23-year-old New York City woman who couldn’t hack it on her $45K salary, and ended up grifting suitors on in order to score free meals every night? I found a way to score free restaurant meals all over NYC without moral compromise. 

After I was laid off a few months ago, I first started doing the usual paid focus groups and medical testing (I’m not too proud…). One day, I took a major scam-gamble and PayPal’d $4.95 to access a list called Shadow Shopper, which allowed me to apply to be a “Mystery Shopper” with individual firms.

Mystery Shopping is how many stores and restaurants (especially larger chains) rate their staff on how they do the job when the bosses aren’t looking. Usually it means performing a specific task (“Order an alcoholic drink at the bar”) and then answer a few questions on what happened (“Did the bartender ask for your ID? Did they thank you for your order?”).

Even though there are lots of Craigslist ads for mystery shoppers, I didn’t find my gig there. A friend had recommended trying it, so I searched something like “how to be a mystery shopper” until I found a site that looked legit.

My first “shop” was unglamorous: I was paid $7 and up to $5 in reimbursement for visiting a Party City in Brooklyn and assessing their customer service. At Party City, I had to ask for help (twice) and pretend I was interested in ordering birthday party invitations. I also had to check out the condition of the restroom, and record how many minutes elapsed before an employee offered me a shopping basket. All-in-all it took me 25 minutes, and I left with $4.68 worth of candy. The mystery shopping company sent me a check for $11.68.

Other assignments are more exciting: My next experience was a $12 visit to Pret-A-Manger. I had to order some specific food items, and my tab rang up to $11.69, so I didn’t make much money, but I did have lunch essentially for free. It was like taking myself on a date, without the danger of someone getting handsy.

After a few low-cost chain restaurant lunches, I got a chance to move up to the big leagues… $60 for a dinner for two at TGIFriday’s! They required two people to dine together, and my boyfriend was slightly horrified at having to eat at a TGIFriday’s in Manhattan, but he played along. He wore a blue polo tucked into his khakis and I put on my best dress. Truth is, I was authentically psyched to be getting paid to eat a full-size dinner, even if it was a TGIF.

The bill came out to a little more than the amount we would get paid, meaning it actually cost us $15 to do the assignment. I felt like a total chump, since I’m ultra-cheap, but my boyfriend pointed out that $15 was way less than he’d normally spend on dinner and drinks with his girlfriend.

We’ve dined at Heartland Brewery a few times, been to Buffalo Wild Wings too. We were reimbursed for two movie tickets, popcorn and soda at a movie theatre, where we had to earn our keep by counting the patrons, and writing down each and every movie preview before the film.

The more mystery shops you complete, the better your opportunities. A friend’s parents frequently mystery shop dinners in the $200 range (they live in Oregon), so it isn’t always casual dining restaurants. But it’s unlikely you’ll find yourself mystery shopping at Haberna Outpost or the Astoria Beer Garden.

Among my many investigations: does this pizza crust look crusty enough?

Mystery shopping is not without its risks: we botched a pizza delivery assignment by not properly taking the six required photos to assess crust goldenness. In the end, we had to “eat” the cost of that one, which left a bitter taste in my mouth.

Mystery shopping also requires an upfront investment; it takes time to get paid. Depending on the company, your payment might come in about a week, or technically as long as 60 days,  so it won’t work for you if you are verging on homelessness (sidebar: where would they mail the check?).

But if you are disciplined, your meals can at least be free and you might even net a small profit, along with the invaluable escape from dumpster-diving for dried ramen noodles near outside the LIU campus.

And they seem endless; my email inbox is flooded with mystery shopping opportunities each day. Some of them are in Manhattan, some in Brooklyn, the Bronx, or even New Jersey. With a little creativity and a flexible schedule (an unlimited MetroCard would really help, too) you could eat lunch and dinner each day of the week and occasionally find fun evening events — and be fully reimbursed. On the Brokelyn hiearchy of food acquisition shame, I rank mystery shopping two snaps and a twist above Groupon.


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  1. I tried that years ago and still get my inbox flooded with “opportunities” – that get scammier and more unintelligible the more I try to click through for the actual assignment.

    How do you find a good company and avoid the gross ones?

  2. Lol I used to get free dinners off of men from those ”call me now” dating lines that you leave a msg on, and people leave you msgs. I would go with my bff for safety reasons, and she did the same, so we both got free meals. Some months I had,free dinner/lunch every day! I know, I’m HORRIBLE. I did meet a few boyfriends from it….

  3. we had to “eat” the cost of that one, which left a bitter taste in my mouth., I rank mystery shopping two snaps and a twist above Groupon.popcorn and soda at a movie theatre, where we had to earn our keep by counting the patrons

  4. So… you go to random restaurants and criticize the staff in order to get a free meal. Now you are boasting about that “achievement”.

    Quite a noble task you set out for yourself.

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