Online Extra: Tim Zagat: "I Thought It Was a Hobby"

The husband and wife behind the eponymous restaurant guide explain how a casual suggestion at a dinner party created an institution

Publishers Tim and Nina Zagat first met at Yale Law School, got married, moved to New York City, and became lawyers. Then, one night in 1979, a dinner party changed their lives. After several glasses of wine during a regular gathering of friends, Tim suggested that each of them get 10 of their friends to review restaurants around town. Tim and Nina volunteered to compile the information and then hand it out to friends for fun.

Unbeknownst to them then, a media empire had been spawned. Today, their network of reviewers has expanded beyond a small group, but the principle of a "consumer democracy" remains. However, the Zagats are hesitant to divulge the steps they take to ensure authenticity because they say it would jeopardize their system.

And they're protecting one powerful brand. Who hasn't heard someone say "Let me check the Zagats," or "Can I borrow your Zagats?" The husband-and-wife team has expanded beyond restaurant guides to more lifestyle areas such as travel, movies, and golf courses. Tie-ins with corporations account for half the business. They're regularly interviewed on TV and radio. Last summer, A&E Networks' show Biography featured a segment on the couple.

The Zagats, who say they aren't letting all the attention go to their heads, recently sat down with BusinessWeek reporter Tom Lowry to talk about their likes and dislikes, new business opportunities, and what the future holds for Zagat Survey LLC. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:

Q: First things first. In a typical week, how often do you eat in restaurants?


We might have eight restaurant meals a week, mostly together. Some lunches we will do separately. Most together though. Nina has me on a short leash these days.

Q: Do you know exactly what you want on a particular restaurant's menu before you sit down?


No. I usually say to the chef, "You feed me."

Q: Be honest. There have to be times when you are sick of eating out, and don't feel like cooking. Do you ever dial up for a Domino's pizza?


Sure. Not Domino's, but we have a favorite pizza place in our neighborhood. And we eat take-out Chinese.

Nina: When our kids were younger, we used to eat in McDonald's too.

Tim: We certainly don't have any snootiness about food. We like Kentucky Fried Chicken, Popeye's, McDonald's. A lot of these things taste good, but that food does have its faults. Actually, we're working on a guide to fast food in America.

Q: Your business is primarily based on people who submit their opinions to you. Who are your surveyors?


We've been able to select a network of people who are very passionate about certain things, like food or movies. With restaurants, for example, we have a network of about 200,000 people who submit their reviews to us through the computer. They could be food and wine society members, or people who eat out as a way of life, like executives.

Nina: And the surveyors range in age. Their sex depends on the category. In Japan, it's many more female reviewers [for food]. On our travel guides, more males than females, for example.

Q: How do you guarantee your surveyors aren't submitting a fake review?


Our head of surveys was once asked that, and he told the interviewer: "I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill you." I'm going to have to stick with that.

Nina: The power of our business is guaranteeing that the voting is authentic and reliable.

Q: You have run your operation pretty much as a family business. Are there any other Zagats coming along to take the helm some day?


Our son, Ted, who is getting his MBA at Harvard right now, still holds the title of vice-president for strategy. And our youngest, John, 25, works in marketing.

Q: Given what you've learned over the years, do you think you could be a successful restaurateur?


You need a series of demanding skills. First, you need to be a real estate expert to get a good location, a good designer to have a place that's comfortable to sit in, a good buyer to get the right produce at the right time, a good PR person, a good manager of people, a good server, a good cook, and you must be willing to work long days. On top of that, restaurants have the biggest failure rates among business in this country. That's why I admire successful restaurant people. To answer your question, no.

Q: Has a restaurant owner been so upset with a review that he or she sued you?


Once, but after we contacted the owner directly, the suit was dropped.

Q: When you imagine your company in five years, what does it look like?


Well, I haven't been very good over the past 20 years at predicting what will happen. I thought this was a hobby. I never thought it would get to this stage. But with our electronic voting and content-management systems in place now, I can see us really blowing out what we do. I can see us being several times larger than we are today, simply because of the technology. We will always want to allow people to share their experiences with us.

Q: Let's wrap up with perhaps the most important question of all. Everyone seems to have their own idea on how to pronounce your name. Set the record straight for us, please.


Zagat, like cat in the hat.

Tim: And that's that.

Edited by Patricia O'Connell

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.