Mystery Diners is an American reality show that ran from 2012 to 2016 on Food Network. In the vein of fellow Food Network series Restaurant Stakeout, host Charles Stiles and his team of Mystery Diners are called upon by restaurant owners around the country who are concerned that employees at their restaurants are causing trouble or stealing things and want to find out who and why. Hidden cameras and the eponymous "Mystery Diners", actors who pose as diners or new employees at the establishment, are used to discover the bad employees as Charles and the owner(s) watch via CCTV from a nearby control room.
A typical episode follows the following steps:
The Consultation: Charles and his team meet up with the restaurant owner(s) who has asked for their help. The owner expresses his concerns about certain employees who he/she suspects are not taking their job seriously, are causing messes, stealing money or other things, etc. at the restaurant. It's at this point hidden cameras are set up around the establishment. This phase is invariably preceded by The Advert, in which this week's restaurant owners are allowed a minute or so of free prime airtime to showcase the food they do best, and present their House Special.
The Sting: Charles and the owner(s) sit in a nearby control room to watch and listen to the action via closed circuit television and audio wiring. The Mystery Diners step in either as customers or new trainees to get the lowdown on the suspected employees.
The Confrontation: When the owner(s) is allowed to do so or if they've had enough of the employee's trouble-making, they bring the suspected trouble-making employees to the control room to show them that the owner(s) have seen their behavior. Usually the bad employee or employees get fired, though sometimes they'll get a stern talking-to and keep their employment. Sometimes suspected employees that turned out to be good eggs after all are also brought to the control room, where the owner(s) congratulate them for their good behavior.
After this, a "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue detailing how the restaurant, owner(s), and employees (both former and current) are coming along since the Mystery Diners' visit.
"Do you usually let your tropers list examples like that?":
- Animal Wrongs Group:
- One seafood restaurant called in Mystery Diners to help with some discrepancies with their lobster. They found that one of their servers was an animal rights activist, discouraging customers from ordering lobster dishes (to the point of claiming outright that lobster wasn't available) and stealing a live lobster out of the tank to release it back into the wild.
- Another one had a Straw Vegan who claimed that "milk is murder" when a customer asked for cheese. The owner of the restaurant wasn't much better, referring to meat exclusively as "dead animal flesh" (while this is technically correct, it'd be like exclusively calling vegetables "rotting plant parts").
- Blatant Lies: A number of employees make excuses when caught, either denying wrongdoing or claiming their actions were for the good of the restaurant, while the video footage proves otherwise.
- Body Sushi: One episode took place at a restaurant specializing in this (although it unsurprisingly got cut from rotation).
- Buffet Buffoonery: Multiple episodes show various hijinks happening at buffets, usually involving unauthorized (or non-paying) people sneaking into the venue with the help of employees and then eating all the food before the actual paying customers can get to it. There was also an all-you-eat-steakhouse where the manager was selling off the meat to the kitchen staff at cheap prices, which he then pocketed, and using more food to host a barbecue at his house.
- Cluster Bleep-Bomb: Been known to happen during shouting matches between employees or with the restaurant owner. One of the more spectacular ones was when the owner of a kitchenware warehouse confronted his security guard over the guard using his equipment to run an underground bakery business alongside his fellow triplets.
- Couldn't Find a Lighter: On one episode, the hidden cameras catch the owner of the restaurant lighting a cigar off the gas burner of the stove in the kitchen. Charles points out to the shocked co-owner (who authorised the sting) that smoking in the kitchen is illegal.
- Deadpan Snarker: Basically, Charles Stiles himself outranks anyone in the show when it comes to this.
- Didn't Think This Through: Several culprits genuinely wanted to help out their restaurant, but came up with some unauthorized promotion or policy change that had a negative effect they weren't aware of and that the owner now has to deal with.
- The Dog Was the Mastermind: A seemingly good employee or one that was otherwise not suspected of being the source of a restaurant's troubles turning out to be the perp can, and has, happened.
- Eiffel Tower Effect: In one episode, the restaurant is located in Littleton, CO, yet the landscape shots are of downtown Denver.
- Enemy Mine: Two competing food truck owners hired Charles to investigate their employees due to their Friendly Rivalry becoming way too heated. They outright declared a truce before the sting.
- Enhance Button: Used repeatedly in the Anchor Bar (S10/10) episode. Surveillance footage taken at three in the morning in murky green light - which was blurry even at normal magnification and taken in the dark - is blown up to reveal the unidentified suspect has a large tattoo on his arm. This appears as a big undifferentiated dark smear. Charles orders the pixellation to be cleaned up. Miraculously, a detailed and identifiable tattoo of a dragon is revealed. This is used later to identify a suspect.
- A sceptical or cynical viewer might also suspect the fingerprint recognition software note is far too good to be true - perfect prints every time, leading to clear unambiguous complete images on screen, downloaded and processed in a matter of seconds as an absolutely perfect match. Forget career policemen telling you it simply doesn't work like that, Charles and Patrick are pros.
- Epic Fail: One episode which was the first to use a drone had a very bulky one which required a van to transport. When the suspects were on the move, the drone was secretly brought over and deployed...and lost control and crashed. Lucky the suspects didn't hear it!
- Family Business: Some restaurants are run by families or employ family member support which has caused problems. One restaurant was expanding into new branches and desperately needed new employees but couldn't retain them for too long, because other members of the family were offended that the boss would betray them like that, and chased them away.
- Also, expect family members to do their shenanigans hoping to get away with them because they're family.
- Forbidden Fruit: During the filming of one episode, one of the co-owners (the target of the sting) had brought in foie gras and ordered his staff to get it served in the restaurant while foie gras was illegal in Californianote which was only repealed between the filming and airing of the episode.
- Formula-Breaking Episode:
- While most episodes take place in restaurants, one episode has taken place in a bowling alley where the employees (particularly those at the snack bar) were suspected to be allowing wild people being disruptive.
- Another one took place at an art gallery, the curator of which was concerned about the catering company they were working with.
- Another episode had a previous owner coming back and request a reconnaissance of a restaurant he wanted to make an investment. It turns out that it was a dump. Complete with a dead rat.
- Frame-Up: The main suspect of the episode "Cheese Burglar" was a rehabilitated convict now working in a diner. Since he started working, the owners noticed that money was going missing. Despite some anger issues, he was genuinely honest and even put a wallet a Mystery Diner left behind on purpose in the lost-and-found! Turns out it was another worker who was stealing from the till and was trying to pin the incidents on him; she even broke into the lost-and-found to steal said wallet.
- French Jerk: The wine waiter in Las Vegas, who implies his customers are complete ignoramuses who know nothing about wine.'Ave you ever been in a fine dining establishment before?
- Genre Savvy: On some occasions, employees begin to suspect that something is up before the sting operation is over. Also on at least one occasion, an employee recognized the control room when he was brought to it and quit on the spot. This has been acknowledged by the show itself, leading to the Mystery Diners crew to use different tactics in their sting operations.
- Good All Along:
- Sometimes, someone who was suspected of being the centre of the restaurant's troubles turns out to be a good egg after all, while another person turns out to be worse. See The Dog Was the Mastermind above.
- One notable example is when a group of employees were suspected of scamming customers out of donations to a supposed charity. The episode ended up with No Antagonist as they simply forgot to tell their boss about their legitimate charity donations and one employee was willing to shave his head for a ludicrous donation.
- Grey-and-Gray Morality:
- The basic assumption of the show is one of honest hard-working owners and managers who are invariably ripped off by lazy, incompetent or dishonest staff. But what happens when the management show themselves up as morally dubious or unreasonable? And in the episode where a Las Vegas diner, operating on the Hooters principle of attractive waitresses in tight tops acting as "hostesses". The owner goes into a fit of moral outrage that the woman managing his waitresses is clandestinely running them as, er, a business offering other services on a different bill of faire. He's running a business in Las Vegas predicated on using sex to sell services, albeit in a bland and vanilla way. If his employees choose to moonlight and take it to the next logical level - then what can he expect?note
- In another episode, concern is raised about a cook who is allegedly drinking on duty, concealing the possible alcohol in a soft-drinks mug. He is sent out of the kitchen on a pretext whilst the Stiles plant intercepts the cup and takes it to the control room where it is identified as nearly-neat gin. Much is made about drinking on duty being illegal and a felony that could result in action against the owner. Yet - incredibly - the planted waitress is told, with the business owner's nod of assent, to take the cup of gin back to the kitchen, and to replace it where she found it. Thus - now the owner is provenly aware of his cook Drinking on Duty - this makes the business owner into an accessory to his employee drinking on the job, and giving his implicit consent to his continuing to do so. A good employment lawyer could make a lot of this in court. Had Stiles thought to tip it away and replace it with a soft drink - they might have been in the clear.
- Heel–Face Turn: After being fired from her previous job in "All in the Family", Dee Dee appeared again on "Repeat Offender." Despite Charles's concerns, she had cleaned up her act and had nothing to do with the owner's main concerns for that episode (she did make a menu item from the other resturant, but that seemed to be a one time thing). She did get suspended, but only for not telling the owner she had been fired before, and in the epilogue its mentioned that she is continuing to make amends for her past actions.
- Idiot Ball: Most of the trouble employees have their dumb moments, but even the Mystery Diners crew has some. In one episode, the Mystery Diner takes a laser tag gun from the arcade and doesn't even try to hide it from other patrons.
- Irony: One episode was about the investigation on why a secret recipe of barbecue sauce wound up at a burger van. When the employee selling the recipe was caught out and fired, the owner got an idea and started selling his sauce legally.
- Mean Boss: There was one episode that there was a sting operation performed on the owner by his employees (among them his ex-wife) for his abrasive and abusive behaviour.
- Mega Meal Challenge: A restaurant owner hired Charles to find up out why the number of winners of his mega meal challenged had skyrocketed, and why most of the new winners were petite woman (as opposed to the large guys who had made up the bulk of previous winners). It turned out one of the waiters was helping pretty girls to win by allowing them to share the sandwich with their friends, and sometimes throwing some of the food out for them.
- My Greatest Second Chance: After one mark was fired for alcoholism from his old job, Charles sent him to rehab and hired him as a Mystery Diner. He fell off the wagon on a stakeout and screwed up another heist by falling asleep.
- Never Trusta Title: "Repeat Offender" where problem employee Dee Dee makes a second appearance. Despite what the title and her past actions might make you believe, she has nothing to do with the problems of the episode and has turned over a new leaf.
- Open Heart Dentistry: There is an episodenote where the employees are exploiting the fact their building is allegedly haunted, in order to run unofficial and profitable after-hours ghost tours (and also to take advantage of their employer being superstitious and believing it. He's too terrified to investigate properly, which allows them even more scope for taking the piss.). Inevitably, a TV show which investigates fraud and dishonesty among restaurant staff turns up more "hard evidence" for the building being haunted, than an entire series run of those haunted house shows shot in murky green light.note They even have a far more plausible and telegenic medium on MD's own staff, which is convenient.
- And in the show where a prospective investor wants Stiles to investigate all aspects of a struggling business into which he may place $150,000. So much is laid bare as to what is going wrong with the place - ill-trained staff, no credit from suppliers, a filthy kitchen crawling with cockroaches and mice, and horribly bad food being served - that the show becomes, for an evening, Charles Stiles' Kitchen Nightmares. Stiles even gives advice as to how the owner can improve his act - although he is far more restrained than Gordon Ramsay.
- Private Detective: The Mystery Diners themselves are PIs hired to investigate employees in restaurants, but later seasons also have the standard practice of tailing employees out of work and background searches which, in one case, caught a few investors as fake Russians.
- Product Placement: When talking about their businesses, owners will go into detail about their signature dish. Which puts to question if they're milking for publicity from being on the show.
- Properly Paranoid: Hiring PIs to investigate your employees would seem excessive, but the owners have very good reasons to do so.
- Real Footage Re-creation: after watching several episodes, the suspicion begins to grow that some of the footage has been reconstructed after the event using not very good actors. It rings too false to be completely for real.
- Revenge Is a Dish Best Served: A waitress with an attitude problem is affronted by a customer who tells her his order isn't right. Enraged that she has to get a fresh burger set up, back in the kitchen this fat sweaty waitress deliberately puts the burger bun inside her top, rubbing it against her breast and armpit before returning it to the plate - and serving the hapless customer.
- Secret Test of Character: Charles Stiles will often ask his Mystery Diners to do, say, or ask something that will reveal the culprit's true character. Sometimes the culprits will pass the test, while others wouldn't.
- Small Name, Big Ego: One bowling alley's problem was someone trying to become internet famous by doing stunts in the alley, driving the other customers out. It was not helping that two employees were helping him.
- Special Guest: Former Pop singer Tiffany Darwish (famous for voicing Judy Jetson in Jetsons: The Movie) went undercover to investigate whether a songwriting contest was rigged.
- Another episode featured Robbie Rist (best known for playing Cousin Oliver on The Brady Bunch), who was used as a musician Mystery Diner (he is also in a band in real-life).
- Stealing from the Till: Stealing money or supplies is often the exact problem that Charles is called in to solve.
- Strictly Formula: See the steps listed above.
- Surprisingly Realistic Outcome:
- Expect Charles to spell out the precise legal repercussions to the business, the boss and the employees alike for whatever misbehaving employees do.
- Because one restaurant's owner was a hands-off owner, Charles couldn't get the cameras set up without raising suspicion, so they did the entire episode with the cameramen inside the restaurant and disguised the owner, who had never met any of the staff except the general manager, the target of the episode.
- Those stunts you see in Jackass, including when Bam went down the bowling alley lane on a skateboard? Business owners do not appreciate those kinds of antics (it's an insurance nightmare) and you'll be banned for doing so.
- What the Hell, Hero?: What happens at the end during the confrontation.
- "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: Most episodes end with an announcer detailing what has happened with the restaurant, the owner(s), and the employees since the Mystery Diners came in.
- Your Other Left: In one episode, Charles sends one of his undercover operatives to search the VIP room for a hidden duffel bag. Guiding her via the hidden cameras, he tells her "It's behind the couch to your right... Your other right".