At my highest weight in 2011, I was eating fast food almost exclusively. Not only was I eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner at “Window #2,” I was often eating two meals at a time. Why, in my right mind, would I do that? Because I was being paid to do that. Furthermore, I was receiving phone calls from folks encouraging me to pick up a few more meals. Let me explain…
Before my English teacher friends send me marked-up copies of this piece scolding me for being vague and general at times, understand that I am bound by numerous non-disclosure agreements never to name the companies, products, or specific details about my experiences. This shouldn’t prevent me from sharing, in general, about my activities, however. Understand that my observations here are intended to remark on my eating behaviors and food choices and not to reflect on the businesses and practices referenced in my story.
As an educator, I’m always looking for creative ways to help make ends meet. From speaking engagements, summer camp work, and consulting opportunities to coupon clipping, I’m constantly on the lookout for a way to save or make a buck. I’m also known to be a haggler. Some folks even bring me with them to negotiate car deals on their behalf. It’s much less stressful when it’s not your money.
A few summers ago, I received an post card from an automobile dealership asking for my opinions about the work that had been performed on my car. I logged in, answered the brief survey, and saw a link on the concluding page advertising opportunities to be paid for having future vehicle service performed. Curious, I clicked through. The company that had been hired by the car manufacturer to conduct and analyze the customer satisfaction surveys also paid people to visit dealerships and collect data surreptitiously. Mystery shopping.
I had heard about mystery shopping, but most of what I knew was hearsay or legend. Lured by the chance to have my next oil change done for free, I looked further into it. Because this particular company was affiliated with a brand I trusted, I felt it was safe to do business with them.
Before “This Company” and “That Company” become too confusing, let me define some terms here. Again, this must be done as generally as possible to avoid breaking any non-disclosure agreements I’ve made.
- Big Company – This is a regional or national corporation interested in seeing how its policies and procedures are implemented at the site, store, or location level.
- Middle Man Company – This is a research firm that Big Company pays to conduct research on its behalf. If Big Company wants to know if its employees say, “Thanks for calling Big Company, where Widgets Rule!” each time they answer the phone, Big Company contracts with Middle Man Company to do the research and report back.
- Independent Contractor – This is a person, like you or me, who works with Middle Man Company to carry out its investigations. Independent Contractors are the ones who call up their local Big Company, document whether the specified greeting was issued, and reports this back to Middle Man Company.
Whether Big Company is in the business of car tires, mud flaps, flapjacks, or funeral arrangements, those are the players. I got in contact with my first Middle Man Company by responding to a survey that I received after a particular Big Company they do business with engaged them to do research. I later became an Independent Contractor with this Middle Man Company to carry out investigations on its behalf in a variety of fields.
Once I got my first paycheck, I was hooked! This was the life! I scoured the web for other Middle Man Companies to contract with, and I found that there was an entire ecosystem of them. Some were regional and offered contracts only in my area. Others were national and had projects all over. Some were selective, offering projects to Independent Contractors with considerable experience in this field, while others would send anyone with an email address and a pulse out into the field.
To get the really good contracts, Independent Contractors can engage with a certifying agency which assesses the skills and abilities of the Independent Contractors and deems them capable of taking on projects with greater levels of skill, attention to detail, discretion, experience, et cetera. I was able to get my certificate from this agency online within a day. With this certificate, doors opened.
I registered with Middle Man Companies far and wide. I was taking assignments investigating hotel chains, pizza places, fast food restaurants, upscale dining establishments, car dealerships, shipping services, copy shops, you name it. I made a game out of combining trips and projects. I took a 150+ mile journey one weekend that involved shopping for satellite television service, funeral arrangements, a new cell phone, and a motorcycle. This trip was punctuated by fast food meals and an overnight stay at a reasonably nice hotel. While on that trip, I also conducted some business of my own.
The tricky bit of all this is that it’s up to the Independent Contractor to read and understand all of the policies, procedures, and required information for each project and to collect and report everything back to the respective Middle Man Company in a timely fashion. Most of the time, expenses are fronted by the Independent Contractor. In my case, I was out several hundred dollars for my weekend trip, and I had a lot of paperwork to file each night. In return, I got reimbursement for everything, plus extra fees for my effort. That, and the swanky rooms and the free food.
I cannot say how much money I was paid to visit a hotel. I will not say how much money I was paid to eat a fast food meal. Like the price of a gallon of milk, it varies week to week and Big Company to Big Company. I will say that I’ve made as much as $500 in a single night going to two locations, spending about 15 minutes at each. I can also say that I’ve made over $100 per contract on projects that never required me to leave my home. There is serious money to be made when taking the right contracts.
The key to making money in this field for me was to form solid relationships with the people at the Middle Man Companies who assigned jobs to Independent Contractors. Sometimes, they have a hard time finding someone who’s willing to drive to the middle of nowhere to see if a particular Big Company’s signage is working at night. At other times, Big Companies require that individual Independent Contractors cannot visit the same site within a particular window of time unless a different Independent Contractor first visits. “We have Sue scheduled to go on Tuesday, but Big Company policy requires that someone else check on a location before Sue goes back because she was recently there. Can you do this little favor for me?”
As I said, I’m a haggler. “The last time you sent me out there, I did it as a favor because I was already going that direction for another Middle Man Company. I don’t have anything scheduled out there for them this week. Can you help me out with a mileage incentive?” There’s also the other side of the coin in which I proactively call in and say, “I know you had difficulties finding someone to hit Big Company in Small Town. I’m headed that way this weekend, and I’ll be happy to pick up anything you have in that area.”
A voicemail with some details silenced in which the caller offers me $55 to eat at two fast food restaurants.
For a couple of years, I made a lot of my food decisions based on monetary incentives and Middle Man Company needs. One particular Big Company has a policy that requires Independent Contractors to purchase food at the drive-thru and inside, essentially paying for two meals per trip. This company also requires that Independent Contractors conduct the visits alone. Do you think I threw that food away?
For months after starting my weight loss program, I was receiving calls from my “friends” and various Middle Man Companies begging me to take assignments. I explained that I was on a very strict diet¹, and that fast food was strictly forbidden. “We just need you to take a bite. As long as you can verify the freshness of the product, you don’t have to eat it all.” I was in a precarious position, and setting foot inside a fast food restaurant would be inching closer to the slippery (greasy?) slope that I knew I was, at that time, too weak to resist.
I encouraged my contacts at these companies to keep me on their lists for the non-food projects, and I kept working steadily for the extra cash for several months by evaluating financial institutions, telecommunications companies, and the like. Still, the emails, phone calls, and even post cards kept coming. I resolved that my health and sanity were more important than a few bucks and some free french fries.
I still can’t walk into a restaurant without mentally noting the name of the host/hostess, checking what channel the televisions are on, noting the cleanliness of the entryway, and timing how long it takes to be acknowledged. Maybe that’s why I rarely eat at restaurants 😉
What influences are there in your life begging you to make poor decisions about what, when, and how much to eat?
¹A note about the use of the word “Diet.” While I consider the changes in my eating habits permanent modifications to the way I live my life, it is often easier to use the word “diet” to communicate these permanent changes to folks who don’t have time for “the rest of the story.”