"Ask readers what they want, and they'll tell you vegetables. Watch them quietly, and they'll mostly eat candy."

That quote comes from Derek Thompson's Atlantic story about how audiences prefer celebrity gossip to "hard" news--yet pretend otherwise. You can also apply the quote to the perpetual entrepreneurial challenge of conducting customer surveys. Sure, you can ask potential customers what they'll pay for. And they'll give you answers. But are they answering honestly?

It's hard to tell. Which is why the deepest approaches to customer research (demonstrated marvelously by Intuit, P&G, and Ford) typically go beyond routine surveys. They involve ethnographic studies--that is, the art of observing people in their natural environments, and understanding their points of view.

Of course, hiring ethnographic researchers to study prospective customers is pricey. Here's the good news: You can conduct some superb research, on your own, if you follow two simple steps: (1) Find your customers in a natural environment; (2) create a comfortable dynamic, in which you can be certain they're giving you honest feedback.

Dave Vockell, founder and CEO of the software company Lyfechannel, recently used the power of pancakes to do just that. 

Finding Customers at IHOP

Lyfechannel recently won first place ($20,000) in the Code-a-Palooza Challenge at Health Datapalooza 2014. The story on their victory, reported on NPR.com, shared a fantastic detail: That Vockell researched the prizewinning idea by speaking to senior citizens at a local International House of Pancakes restaurant (aka IHOP).

It all began back in April, when Medicare released a database of how much it pays individual doctors. Vockell wondered how he could turn this data dump into something useful for senior citizens (who are, after all, the primary users of Medicare). It was around this time that he found himself at an IHOP with his young children, who were enjoying a "funny face pancake lunch" after school one day. 

Vockell noticed there were many senior citizens there. Better still, the seniors loved it when Vockell's kids, running all over the restaurant, approached their tables and sat down. "His three-year-old in a Batman suit proved a great ice breaker," writes Eric Whitney on NPR.com. Vockell realized he "could totally use [his] kids to source a whole bunch of interviews pretty fast."

And that's what he did. When he was done with his interviews, 43 seniors had told him that they were unlikely to comparison-shop for doctors based on price--but they wouldn't mind knowing the information, for the sake of negotiation. Here’s what else they told him:

"I know I have some procedures on the horizon, that I don't know exactly what they mean that I have to do or what they're going to cost me, I'd love to get some insight into that." Also: "Could you make the print really big?"

Honest Feedback, Through Food

There's a reason many researchers and executives believe the best negotiations take place over meals: You're out of the office. You're in a restaurant setting. That, alone, makes participants feel more leisurely. Instead of hurred discussions and get-to-the-point vibes, the mood often becomes one of bonding and storytelling. Words like "please" and "thank you" get used, which facilitate grace and gratitude.

In a setting like this, you're bound to get more detailed feedback than you would by just handing out a survey. With a survey, you get answers, but often you miss out on qualitative nuances. By contrast, in conversations conducted in decidedly non-business settings (featuring kids and funny-face pancakes), you're more likely to learn how someone really feels. 

In Vockell's case, at least, the feedback has paid off. He wound up developing "a website that helps seniors understand the procedures their doctors are recommending, and the costs, so they can start conversations with their doctors--and they can print the information out on paper, in really big type," writes Whitney. The web site led to the prizewinning app, called Smart Health Hero, which helps seniors talk to their doctors about medical care.

His startup story is a great example of how you don't need to spend a ton of money or go to great lengths to research the potential customer base for your high-tech idea.

You just need to find your target customers, and actually talk to them. What’s more, Vockell has done this sort of thing before. When Lyfechannel won $50,000 in another app contest back in 2013, its developers tested the app "by conducting an impromptu focus group in the parking lot of a dollar store in El Cerrito," reports Information Week.

But the lesson remains the same. Go where the customers are. And speak to them in person. Preferably, over a plate of steaming flapjacks.