Get to Know Charles Stiles, the Host of Mystery Diners
FN Dish – Food Network Blog
On Food Network’s Mystery Diners, Charles Stiles and his team of mystery diners go behind the scenes with hidden cameras to find out what restaurant employees are up to when the boss is not around. What they discover just goes to show how bad customer service can get when employees don’t put the success of the business first. What you might not know is that Charles’ company has been servicing businesses in need of help for the past 18 years. Business Evaluation Services uses undercover mystery shoppers and diners to get to the root of an establishment’s problems.
FN Dish recently chatted with Charles to find out more about his company and what it does for restaurants and retail shops around the nation. He talked about how his company came to be, how people can become mystery shoppers and how to prevent the failure of a business. Read the Q&A with Charles and watch the new season of Mystery Diners on Fridays at 10pm/9c.
What made you decide to get into the field of mystery diners/shoppers? What was the turning point in your career?
Charles Stiles: At the time I owned a retail store and had expanded to multiple locations. The mystery shopper business developed out of my own particular need for managing my employees: developing training programs and setting certain expectations for the service culture we were providing for our customer base. I wanted to make sure I was monitoring it all even when I wasn’t on location and that the policies and training that I had put into place were being followed. I incorporated my own shopper program to have customers evaluate the service and provide feedback. Soon thereafter, a number of restaurants and retailers began asking if I could do the same for their businesses. My new business grew from there. I started working for a lot of local restaurants and retail stores and expanded into a national presence. I decided at that point that it was the direction for my career. I sold off my retail shops as the leases expired and/or closed locations and got out of retail entirely. That was almost 18 years ago.
Who makes up your company Mystery Shopper Services? What’s your day-to-day job like?
CS: The company has a database of almost 400,000 mystery shoppers throughout the United States. We have a full staff in two different offices as well as a virtual staff of employees who work from home. There are about 30 different employees that we call schedulers, who schedule assignments or edit reports as they come in. On a day-to-day basis I manage full operations of our staff, write proposals and handle client support. I’m also on the board of directors for the Mystery Shoppers Providers Association. There are currently about 150 mystery shopper companies that make up the association. I’m also active on lobbying to keep the status of independent contractors, because about 98 percent of my employees are contractors.
How does someone become a mystery diner or shopper? What kind of experience does the position require?
CS: Our mystery shoppers are contractors, who are paid per assignment. We require a full evaluation on their demographics and they must sign a noncompete and nondisclosure agreement. Once registered, they get assignments from a postings board. For example, a mystery shopper in Dallas might see restaurants, hotels, banks and retailers in the area. They can then send in a request for those particular assignments. The mystery shoppers range from college students all the way to retired doctors because different assignments have different profile requirements. For example, high-end car shopping will require someone that has a higher income and higher education level.
On the show, in some episodes, you’ve used family members like your daughter as a mystery diner. Are members of your family involved in the business?
CS: My youngest daughter worked for me for about 2 years and was very active in our customer relations, shopper support and scheduling department. She recently decided to go to medical school. My older daughter does mystery shopping for us, appears on the show periodically and she’s also starting school for fashion design and merchandising. My wife works on accounts payable, accounts receivable and does some bookkeeping.
It seems that the bad employees on the show always get fired by their employers. Is that mostly the case or have you ever seen a boss forgive a bad employee, allowing them to stay on if they improved?
CS: There are times when the employers do forgive; we’ve had a few instances where that’s been the case. The biggest problem is that when the employee is caught, most will have an excuse as to why it’s not their fault. Typically their dishonesty makes the employer angrier, and in the moment, what could have been employee retention turns into employee dismissal due to their defensive demeanor. Occasionally there will be a breakdown with an employee who has a legitimate reason. Maybe they have a drinking problem, a gambling problem, are going through a divorce — whatever the reason, in some cases the issue will be worked out between the employee and employer.
Do you have any advice for a struggling business?
CS: It starts with upper management, proper leadership, creating accountability for your expectations, developing a service culture with nonnegotiable standards and some kind of measure to audit that, to make sure your staff is clearly following what you have set as a mandate for your service. That’s where the biggest disconnect is — when there are no policies put into place or no one is enforcing those policies. Owners will tend to overlook that and focus too much on the inside of their business and lose sight of the business as a whole. The key to success is to have the owner really work on the business, and put the key leadership on someone who can be trusted to pay attention to whether people are doing their jobs. Most successful companies grow because there are good people in place. This frees owners to focus on building the business instead of being in the day-to-day grind where it’s difficult to pay attention to what’s happening around you.
One-on-One With Guest Judge Alex Guarnaschelli
FN Dish – Food Network Blog
No one may know the pressures of reality cooking competitions better than Iron Chef Alex Guarnaschelli. She’s a force in Kitchen Stadium and arguably one of the most-straightforward Chopped judges at the table. Beyond competitions, she’s a chef who has been wowing patrons for years at her restaurants. Simply said: Alex knows her stuff and can probably describe it better than anyone else.
This past Sunday, Alex joined Alton and Bobby at the judges’ table for a special Chopped-themed episode of Star. Star Talk recently caught up with Alex and asked her about her time on the show, including her reaction on Danushka’s infamous “bored” comment.
Your face was priceless when Danushka revealed her “boredom” during the challenge. What was your initial reaction to hearing that? Was that a Chopped first for you?
AG: Standing on the middle of the subway at rush hour, waking up late for a final exam or frying an egg for the queen of England would be less stressful than that kitchen. I think boredom is a curious reaction. I also think if you know you’re bored, and cooking is such a demanding profession, it might not be a good fit.
Were you less critical of the Star competitors because they didn’t necessarily sign up for a Chopped challenge, or were you harsher because they want to be the next Food Network Star and should be able to handle the competition?
AG: I feel empathy for anyone who finds themselves in the midst of a Chopped challenge, especially if they didn’t sign up for it. I felt the competitors did a great job. I was really impressed that all of them were so connected to the dishes and choices they made. I was also impressed with how well the two contestants judged their fellow competitors. I wouldn’t have been as bold or honest in their shoes — not the way to make friends.
Since you’ve competed on Chopped All-Stars and Chopped After Hours, did you find yourself more understanding of their missteps, given that you’ve dealt with similar stresses in the kitchen?
AG: I really do feel empathy and understand. I think any Chopped judge, who has lived these moments multiple times, knows how hard it can be!
You helped judge an episode of Star last season, too. The format of the show has changed. Which do you prefer?
AG: I like this format better. The teams from last year were fun because they revealed a surprisingly deep rivalry between Giada, Alton and Bobby. I just think, this way, the free form allows the contestants to benefit from each of the mentors and their individual strengths at different times. If I had to guess, that will lead to a more “rounded” training process and a well-informed victor.
Just three episodes into the season, do you see any frontrunners?
AG: I genuinely found all of the contestants likable for unique reasons. I really liked the development of flavor in Viet’s dish and the warmth of Russell’s presentation. But it’s too early to tell!
What are three things a Food Network star needs to embody?
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Danushka’s Not Impressed Video Mashup
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Photo Tour: Food Star Kitchen
AG: The best thing a Food Network star can have on their side is a genuine love of, and an ability to cook. I think the Food Network stars that resonate the most have a fearlessness with sharing some of who they really are. I have felt an almost seamless connection between what someone is cooking and the “story” they have to tell — like Julia Child! The O.G., Anne Burrell, comes to mind as another example. I think a star also has to be real and not afraid to take risks, make mistakes. Morimoto comes to mind. Did you see that sushi roll he made in his Iron Chef battle against Mike Symon? It looked like a stained-glass window in a church. Who could forget it? A Food Network star also has to convey (and feel!) excitement about their task. Whether making a soup or a Beef Wellington from scratch, or a wasabi banana peel sandwich, if they are excited about it, I’ll follow them anywhere.
Participate Tomorrow: National Dine Out Day
FN Dish – Food Network Blog
Take a break from cooking tomorrow night and dine out for a cause. National Dine Out Day, June 19, benefits the Hurricane Sandy New Jersey Relief Fund. A percentage of the revenue from more than 3,000 participating restaurants will be donated to the Relief Fund to assist in its mission to raise and distribute funds to organizations that provide long-term assistance to the people of New Jersey still struggling in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. Don’t live in New Jersey? Click here for a complete list of participating restaurants around the country.
For more information on National Dine Out Day, please visit NationalDineOutDay.com or join the conversation on Twitter. Dine out and make a difference!
Click here to view the embedded video.
Grate Your Garlic
FN Dish – Food Network Blog
Hot Tips From Food Network Kitchens’ Katherine Alford:
If you’re using raw garlic in a dish, grate the cloves on a fine grater. It’s much faster than mincing, and you’ll end up with a mix of garlic juice and tiny bits of the clove that distribute evenly in salsas, dressings and other uncooked dishes. Best of all, you won’t have to worry about biting into a big chunk.
(Photograph by Julia Cawley/Studio D)
Ask the Dietitian: What’s the Difference Between Added and Natural Sugar?
FN Dish – Food Network Blog
Q: What’s the deal with all the types of sugar out there? Are they all created equal?
A: Simply . . . no, all sugars are not created equal. But learning how to identify the different types is where it gets complicated.
Whether it’s run-of-the-mill granulated white sugar, high fructose corn syrup or something that sounds fancier, such as turbinado or raw sugar – these are all sweeteners. These ingredients are added to foods as they are processed or prepared. The distinct flavor and degree of sweetness will vary, but no matter which type you’re dealing with, these sweeteners are a pure source of carbohydrate and have about 15 calories per teaspoon. When hefty doses of these types of added sugars are eaten, it can lead to weight gain and poorly controlled blood sugar levels.
The most significant sources of added sugar in the American diet are baked goods, candy, ice cream, soft drinks, fruit drinks, sports drinks and energy drinks.
For a complete list of what qualifies as an added sugar on ingredient label, visit the MyPlate website.
Despite what food marketers might lead you to believe, there are only 2 forms of natural sugars – the kind found in milk (lactose) and the kind found in fruit (fructose). These types of sugar are also purely carbohydrates but from a nutritional standpoint, the food sources in which they are found have a lot more to offer. Milk and fruit provide other important nutrients like protein, vitamin D, calcium, vitamin A, vitamin C and fiber – you’ll be hard pressed to find any of these nutrients in candy, cookies and soft drinks. As an additional bonus, fiber and protein take longer to digest, causing a less dramatic spike in blood sugar. They also make you feel fuller for longer, providing a greater satiety value.
Food Label Confusion
One of the biggest conundrums surrounding the sugar debate is deciphering where sugar is coming from on a food label. The total grams of sugar listed in the nutrition facts doesn’t differentiate whether the sugars are coming from added or natural sources. The only thing a savvy consumer can do is read the ingredient list. Since ingredients are listed in descending order, folks can determine where the majority of the sugar in that food is coming from.
Bottom Line: Check ingredient labels – choose mostly foods where natural sugars outweigh the added ones.
Dana Angelo White, MS, RD, ATC, is a registered dietitian, certified athletic trainer and owner of Dana White Nutrition, Inc., which specializes in culinary and sports nutrition. See Dana’s full bio »