Zagat, Tim and Nina
Tim and Nina Zagat
Born Eugene H. Zagat Jr., c. 1940, in New York; son of Eugene Zagat, Sr.; married Nina Safronoff (an attorney), 1965; children: Ted, John. Education: Yale University Law School, J.D., 1966. Born Nina Safronoff, c. 1942, in New York; married Tim Zagat (an attorney), 1965; children: Ted, John. Education: Yale University Law School, J.D., 1966.
Office—Zagat Survey, L.L.C., 4 Columbus Circle, New York, NY 10019.
Tim Zagat worked as a corporate attorney in Paris, France, c. 1966–70, and in New York City until 1987; Nina Zagat was an attorney specializing in estate law in Paris, c. 1966–70, and in New York City until 1990; began eponymous New York City restaurant guide, 1979; established as Zagat Survey L.L.C., 1982; Tim Zagat served as chair of New York City's visitor's bureau in the late 1990s.
Husband–and–wife attorneys Tim and Nina Zagat created the influential restaurant guides that bear their name, and which inspire both fear and loathing among restaurateurs. The 25th edition of the Zagat New York City Restaurant Survey was published in 2004, and marked their company's growth from a two–page list of Manhattan eateries given away free to friends into an expansive travel–and–leisure empire that rates restaurants and hotels in numerous cities around the world. "The rever-berations of the Zagat enterprise are felt in every quarter of the restaurant world," wrote Steven A. Shaw in Commentary. "Even at the most elite levels, owners and chefs know that Zagat rankings are more important to success, not to say survival, than the reviews of all the city's newspapers combined."
Both Zagats (pronounced zuh–GAT) are New York–area natives. Tim, a corporate lawyer, grew up in the city, while estate–specialist Nina, née Safronoff, was a product of Long Island. They began dating during their first year at Yale University's School of Law in the early 1960s, and were married in 1965. Both landed jobs at the Paris offices of their respective law firms after graduating in 1966, and the budding gourmands eagerly delved into that city's fabled cuisine. "We thought we were going to be there for only six months, so we grabbed every opportunity to try different restaurants," Nina told FSB writer Carlye Adler. "We kept a list as a hobby during the two years we wound up living there."
Back in New York by the early 1970s, the Zagats organized monthly dinners for friends and colleagues who were fellow food–lovers. They called their group the Downtown Wine Tasting Association, and it grew in size over the decade. One evening in the late 1970s, "somebody with the benefit of his tenth glass of wine started criticizing the food critic of The New York Times, "Tim recalled in an interview with Newsweek International's Vibhuti Patel. "So I, also on my tenth glass of wine, said, hey, why not do a survey by our friends, who all eat out and travel extensively. Hundreds of real people sharing their experiences seemed a better way to rate a restaurant than one 'critic.'"
In some accounts of that apocryphal night, the fellow tablemate was Ivan Karp, the influential art dealer, but the end–product was the same: the Zagats came up with a survey questionnaire, and passed it around to a hundred friends and colleagues. They invited them to rate New York City's restaurants, from the inexpensive to the extravagant, and then tabulated the results. Each establishment was ranked on a numerical scale that rated its food, decor, service, and cost factor. Also included were brief blurbs from survey participants on various aspects of the restaurant, strung together in terse but informative prose. Two stalwarts of the era, a steakhouse called Luchow's and a candlelit tourist landmark called Sign of the Dove, both earned abysmal ratings. "Those restaurants were awful," agreed Fortune writer Mark Gimein in a 2004 profile of the Zagat empire. "How awful? In 1973 a New York businessman chose to be arrested rather than pay for the charred and 'pea–sized' Chateaubriand he was served at Sign of the Dove. The charges were dismissed when nobody from the restaurant showed up to defend the food. Zagat's is part of the reason that few places that bad are still in business."
The Zagats gave the first three editions of their guides away for free to their friends and colleagues, but word–of–mouth caused demand for copies of the rankings and survey forms to grow exponentially. "When Citibank called, my first thought was, am I over the limit?" Tim recalled in an interview with Restaurants & Institutions writer Laura Yee. "But what they wanted was 10,000 copies." By 1982, some 600 amateur restaurant critics were reviewing New York dining spots for them, and the Zagats were so inundated with data that they had to outsource the tabulation work. At that point, Nina—"the practical visionary," as her husband described her to Yee—decided that they might be able to sell a bound edition to at least recoup their expenses.
The two attorneys went to work on finding a publisher for their idea, but their proposal was met with rejection. "And we had very good contacts," Tim told FSB's Adler. "Our respective law firms had publishing houses that we were close to. But most national publishers don't like local books, and the track record of publishing restaurant guides up to that time had not been very good." Even a family member in the book business turned them down, and so they decided to print and sell it themselves. In their Toyota Corolla station wagon, they took boxes of the first official Zagat New York City Restaurant Survey, with its distinctive burgundy cover, to the small bookstores that once dominated Madison and Lexington avenues. They sold 7,500 copies the first year, and 18,000 the second.
A turning point came in 1985, when the Zagat Guide outsold the New York Times restaurant guide and was featured in a New York magazine cover story. From there, sales jumped from 40,000 annually to 75,000 a month, and Nina decided that expanding into other cities would alleviate the tax they would have to pay on their new business's healthy profit. They found contacts in Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles to review eating establishments there, and those editions proved equally successful. Tim quit his law firm in 1987 to manage the Zagat empire full–time, with Nina following three years later.
In the early 1990s, the Zagats were intrigued by the new possibilities of online information sources, and signed content–licensing deals with America Online, Prodigy, and other service providers, before eventually establishing their own fee–based website. They ventured into global territory as well, and were publishing information on restaurants and hotels for some 45 cities around the world by 2000. At that point, intrigued by possibilities of wireless technology, they invited in investors—among them prestigious venture–capital firms—and began raising capital for a well–executed expansion. They even hired a marketing person whose resume included executive stints at Verizon and American Express to serve as the company's first–ever chief executive officer.
Some 200,000 people submit recommendations to Zagat Survey, L.L.C., a number that reached such epic proportions with the introduction of online submission forms. But the Zagats also work hard at balancing those numbers by surveying the data with the help of an advisory staff that includes members of food and wine clubs and corporate executives who dine out frequently at some of the best restaurants on the planet. The Zagat Guide does have its share of critics in the highly competitive restaurant world of New York City. "Zagateers," as the survey respondents are known, are not required to document whether or not they have actually dined at the restaurant in question. Detractors claim that its data–gathering process is flawed, and that the highest ratings are heavily skewed to those places tourists seem to prefer, such as Union Square Café, which has stellar cuisine but also rather atypically unpretentious service for a pricey Manhattan eatery. "Nor is there anything," noted Shaw in the Commentary article, "to prevent determined people from voting multiple times for their friends' restaurants, evaluating restaurants visited long ago or ranked according to the opinions of others, or engaging in conduct calculated to teach a restaurant a lesson—or make it number one."
The Zagat New York City Restaurant Survey is usually dismissed by establishment food critics in the highly competitive restaurant scene in that city, but diners there swear allegiance to it, and it sells some 650,000 copies annually. The 2004 Survey, celebrating its 25th year, caused somewhat of an uproar when its rankings became public in late 2003: a small bistro in Brooklyn wound up ranking as high as Le Bernardin, Daniel, and Jean Georges, three of the city's internationally renowned restaurants. The newest Zagat gave Grocery, a small 30–seat eatery in the Carroll Gardens section of the borough, a 28 out of a possible score of 30. That result even made the front page of the New York Times, whose food critic William Grimes went back for a visit and adjusted his previous opinion, granting that there had been marked improvement since his first visit three years before. But as Grimes concluded that ranking Grocery on par with a place with that offers one of North America's most sumptuous dining experiences was not assessing the situation fairly. "For what it is, the Grocery is about as good as it can be," Grimes wrote. "So in one sense, the Zagat voters are correct. The Grocery deserves a nearly perfect score. But perfection at one culinary level does not compare with perfection at a higher level.… [T]he perfect three–minute pop song cannot grip the imagination and hold it the way a three–minute polonaise by Chopin can."
The Zagats assert that the eponymous guides are for the paying customer, not the food–world insider. Their system, Tim asserted in an interview with Restaurants & Institutions writer Nancy Ross Ryan, "is inherently more accurate than any critic. A critic can only have a limited number of experiences in a limited number of restaurants during certain times of the year." He also noted that New York's top restaurant critics are not exactly members of a secret cabal. "It's a joke to say that the major critics are anonymous," Tim told Ryan. "They're not. They get the best seat and the best service. The critics will retort that the chef can't learn to cook just for them. True. But imagine the guy from Dubuque sitting next to a major New York critic.… One is going to get yesterday's salmon and the other is going to be offered the specially prepared, just–in fresh sea trout."
Such egalitarian, honest opinions give their rankings a far truer character, the Zagats claim, and Shaw, writing in Commentary, declared that such was the conundrum presented by the success of the Zagat guide. "It is the vision of great chefs that ultimately creates educated consumers and hence the demand for better and better cuisine," Shaw declared. "Under the sway of a Zagat–style survey, however, a restaurant that wants to survive and flourish will find itself pandering to average tastes.…"
The Zagats live on Central Park West and dine out often, but still do not participate in their restaurant surveys. Though company revenues are unknown, they are estimated to hover around $20 million annually. They publish Zagat Guides for some 70 cities around the world, with sister publications rating hotels, spas, airlines, and rental–car companies. In 2003, they launched a survey of movies, music, and theater. One of their two sons, Ted, also works for the company and published the first Zagat Guide to New York City nightclubs and bars. As Yee noted in her Restaurants & Institutions article, the Zagats' vision found a perfect audience in the 1990s. "Since the guide debuted," she noted, "dining out, a $360 billion industry, has become a national pastime, a form of entertainment. American food has grown up, garnered respect, and spawned a generation of celebrity chefs."
Tim Zagat dismissed the idea that their empire was anything but preconceived. "I wouldn't say we were smart," he told Yee in Restaurants & Institutions. "I would say we worked hard." What began as a hobby remains one for him and his wife, he told a journalist for Entrepreneur, Bob Weinstein. While he agreed that the right product and a sound business sense were vital to the success of any enterprise, what was "more important is doing something you love. That's the only thing that kept us going. That's why we worked so hard at improving the books. When you're not quite sure where it will all wind up, what keeps you going is the pleasure of doing something you enjoy. And the real kicker is when you turn profitable and look at the bottom line, and it's all yours."
BusinessWeek, November 20, 2000, p. 146; December 9, 2002, p. 44.
Commentary, November 2000, p. 47.
Entrepreneur, August 1996, p. 120.
Fortune, January 12, 2004, p. 46.
FSB, December 1, 1999, p. 56.
Newsweek International, June 4, 2001, p. 64.
New York Times, November 11, 1998; October 20, 2003, p. A1, p. B9.
People, September 6, 1999, p. 117.
Restaurants & Institutions, September 1, 1993, p. 22; May 1, 2000, p. 29.