Aaron Kennedy, president of Noodles & Co., in Boulder, Colo., can't check on each of the 20 noodle restaurants in his $14-million chain on any given day. To keep tabs on his employees, he relies on some outside help -- namely, the Performance Edge, a Pleasant Grove, Utah, company that uses "secret shoppers" who report on their experiences with retail stores and other businesses. In addition to gaining valuable information, Kennedy uses the program as a motivational tool. "We have it locked into a bonus program," he explains.

Here's how it works: Every two weeks, a mystery diner visits each noodle shop in the chain and files a report on the restaurant's service, food quality, and atmosphere. The report consists of a detailed evaluation form that includes such specific questions as "Did the cashier make you feel welcome through eye contact, a smile, gestures, or remarks?" and "Did the server arrive with your food within five minutes of completing your order?" Store managers can check the results over the Internet. When a mystery diner gives a location a perfect score for two consecutive surveys, each employee at that restaurant gets a $25 bonus. Kennedy says the program, which he's had in place since last year, has "achieved absolutely amazing results."

At $65 a review, the mystery-diner solution is no bargain, Kennedy concedes. But as he expands his business, he says, the program offers him invaluable quality assurance. "As a larger company with more locations, we need it all the more," he says.

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