The Value of a “Secret Shopper”

“The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach”. That’s what the old adage says. If that’s true, then my college aged son’s heart (as well as stomach) is full as he just landed a second semester job that would be the envy of any healthy, robust 20 year old male. He’s a “secret food shopper” for the university. Basically, he eats and gets paid for it.

A “secret food shopper” is a food critic, of sorts. The university — I’d love to tell you which, but I don’t want to blow his cover — gives him $25 a week to buy specific food from specific campus establishments and rate the quality, service, and general experience. Mike’s paid just above minimum wage for his trouble, and consumption of various foods in addition to his compensation is definitely a perk. This sounds to me like an ideal situation — extra food for a 6′ 1″ perpetually hungry kid who works out every day, steady money for extras at school, and the opportunity to offer an opinion. Wow.

So, Mike’s first assignment was yesterday. He apparently sauntered into the prescribed establishment, and nonchalantly ordered the pre-designated single pizza and salad. I tried to imagine him munching on it thoughtfully. I had always thought of him as more of a “quantity over quality” kind of guy when it comes to food, but he told me he is taking this job quite seriously and immediately filled out the necessary paperwork to report to University Quality Control. Mike will repeat this undercover mission, with various establishments and various entrees, five times this week.

After my first thought that this is the perfect job for Mike, came my second thought: I bet this really helps keep the various food establishments on their toes. If, at any moment, a critic may come in, undisclosed, and order food, the workers surely must be trying their best every minute of the day, never quite sure when they will be evaluated. I bet this improves the quality of both the food and service. Since food quality is one consideration for conscientious college shoppers, it makes sense for the university to hire a real student to do the evaluating… which brought me to my third thought.

Wouldn’t it be neat if we each had a spiritual “‘secret shopper” to keep us on our moral toes as well? Imagine a “plant” in our home or office, secretly tallying up our attitudes and actions. Monday’s evaluation card might read: “Unnecessary gruffness with child. C for overall attitude.” Ouch. Better work on patience and kindness. Or Tuesday’s evaluation might reveal, “Ignored spouse’s need for a listening ear.” Oh dear. Time to start paying attention! Try again! How happy we would be on Wednesday to read, “Unexpected patience with fussy child. A+ — Good work.” Or “Went out of the way for a co-worker when extremely busy. A.”  With an evaluation card coming in we’d be forced to look at our actions objectively and strive harder to keep that Christian attitude we know we need to have if we are to get to heaven.

The truth is, we do have that “secret shopper.” It’s called our conscience, and often it just needs a little prodding to awaken to fulfill its duty in our lives. A daily “secret shopper visit” or what’s more widely known as an “examination of conscience,” will go far to help us evaluate ourselves along our pathway in life.

A wise priest once suggested it is advisable to pray before rising so that every opportunity of the day may be seized and that all actions may be pleasing to God. This should happen even before our feet hit the ground from our warm beds. The same priest recommended a nightly examination of conscience, not only so we would be able to remember our sins for our monthly confession on Saturday, but also to make daily adjustments — “quality control” if you will — in our actions and attitudes.

I’m really happy about Mike’s new job. It suits him well. And it helps the university maintain high standards for its food and service. But mostly I’m glad that my conversation with my son about his new line of work made me realize there’s room for quality control in my own spiritual life. Thanks, Mike, for reminding me that we all need to be guardians of our souls, and watch ourselves. We all need to be our own “secret shoppers.”

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