Unraveling The Mystery

November 17, 2002

Sophia Maestrales, <i>Hullabaloo</i> Contributing Writer

A diverse group of 10 members of the Tulane community were hired this fall to evaluate the University's dining services throughout the semester. The evaluation, dubbed the Mystery Shopper Program, was initiated last spring by the University, in conjunction with Sodexho Food Services, for the purpose of obtaining constant feedback on the different dining experiences offered on campus.

"We're constantly trying to upgrade and make changes to meet our customers' needs," Jeanne Charlebois, marketing manager for Sodexho campus services, said. "Our customer base changes every year, and part of our goal is to make sure we know what our students want this year, this semester, right now. The Mystery Shopper Program really puts us in the pulse of what our students and other customers need."

"We try, when we are selecting our students, to pick people who have had some kind of food service experience who have waited tables or something like that, so that they have some kind of idea of what goes on behind the counter instead of just in front of it, Lisa Norris, meal plan and vending services manager for Tulane," she said.

According to Norris, students with different backgrounds and preferences were interviewed and hired to participate in the program this fall. Every week shoppers receive two location assignments for the five dining areas to be evaluated that week. Because there are 10 dining options on campus, each option is evaluated by approximately four shoppers every two weeks.

After eating at one of these locations the mystery shoppers fill out a Dining Location Survey that allows them to score 10 aspects of their on-campus dining experiences on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the highest amount of satisfaction, and one being the least. The survey also allows the shoppers to make additional comments.

The percent scores for the latest round of mystery shopping, in order from highest to lowest, are as follows: Le Gourmet (93), Performance Buffet (92), UC Food Court (89), TU Deli (88), Bruff Commons Lunch (84), Reily Smoothie Bar (83), Drawing Board (78), BC Late Night (78), Der Rathskeller (75) and BC Dinner (74).

Each week, the scores for each of the five venues shopped that week are averaged and one score per venue is obtained. The group and its coordinators meet once a week to discuss the different dining locations, provide further comments and work as a group to come up with ways to make changes and improve the dining experience of the Tulane community.

Bruff Commons Late Night has improved the most over the course of the semester, with the overall customer satisfaction rate rising from 48.4 to 78 points, a 10-percent increase after each round of mystery shopping. The program is great, Jeanne Charlebois, marketing manager for Sodexho campus services, said, because the feedback is written, and it can be given in a presentation that's of higher caliber even than comment cards, as it is factual and derived from a group of responsible students who were interviewed, and who came out of their own goodwill.

It's the only way to really know the little things that are going on that are more apparent to the customers than to the managers and myself. According to Charlebois, the biggest challenge this semester has been handling the Rathskeller, which received many complaints early on due to many unstocked food items. Another problem with the late-night hangout is getting the proper personnel in the Rathskeller.

We're hoping, she said, that the solution to that problem would be to use student workers down there. Now, we just have to find students who are interested in working the late hours. There had also been some problems with the service at Late Night Bruff.

According to Charlebois, the food did not always last until closing time, cleaning began prior to 11 p.m. and not all of the stations were being manned. But, these issues have been addressed and corrected. The mystery shoppers and their coordinators also collaborate to improve the dining options available on campus. The school's two newest dining locations, Le Gourmet and the Performance Buffet, were both added as a result of the program.

Many changes have been made to Bruff Commons, such as the replacement of Sbarro with Sodexho's own pizza service, a traditional New Orleans-style dish every day, the International Bar and the Vegan Bar. The TU Deli now has a Deli Frequency Card, which allows students who have bought nine sandwiches to get one free, and the Drawing Board, located in Richardson Memorial, is now open until 6:30 p.m. Robert Hailey, the associate vice president for Auxiliary Services, also works to improve the dining experience offered at Tulane's food venues.

One of the issues he is currently dealing with is which venue to open for breakfast on Saturdays and Sundays Bruff Commons or the University Center. Right now, the University Center opens on the weekend at 8 a.m., whereas Bruff offers brunch at 10:30 a.m.

According to Hailey, this pleases some people, but is not liked by others. "We're trying to find a tradeoff," Hailey said. "This issue, along with that of what type of food service students want us to try to add on to the current venues, are the kinds of things that we are constantly faced with. The Mystery Shopper Program helps us to come up with solutions."

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000