Tim and Nina Zagat Discuss the Origins of the Zagat Survey

When Tim and Nina Zagat began asking friends for restaurant recommendations in 1979, they didn’t know they were laying the groundwork for a business that would change the way that people around the world think about dining out.

The Zagats, both 1966 graduates of Yale Law School, discussed creating the Zagat Survey with students at the Yale School of Management on March 27. “We had no idea we were going to be a business,” Tim Zagat said. “It was a hobby.” The Zagats spoke as part of Yale SOM’s Leaders Forum lecture series.

The Zagat Survey, which began as a guide to New York City restaurants, today rates restaurants and other travel and entertainment destinations worldwide. The survey, Nina Zagat said, brought user-generated content into the world of restaurant reviews, which had been the domain of experts like those who handed out the coveted Michelin stars.

The survey’s origins date to the 1970s, when the Zagats, then corporate attorneys, were preparing for a business stay in Paris and asked friends for restaurant recommendations. The couple ended up staying in Paris for two years, and their expanded restaurant list became a big hit with friends. After the couple returned to New York, they launched a homemade survey to cover New York eateries. Again, demand was high, and the couple approached publishers about creating a book.

But the big publishing houses turned down their concept. Publishers claimed that readers wanted expert reviews with national scope, Tim Zagat said—and they thought that the now-iconic slim profile of the Zagat Guide would make it too easy to lose.

So the couple began publishing the survey themselves, driving boxes of books to New York bookstores. After a cover story in New York magazine in 1986, sales took off, reaching 75,000 per month. Shortly thereafter, both Zagats went to work at the company full time. The survey went online in 1999. In 2011, Google purchased the company; Zagat’s ratings and reviews now appear on Google Maps as well as Zagat.com.

In many ways, the survey anticipated the digital world we live in today, Nina Zagat pointed out. From the outset, the founders wanted to focus the survey locally, include multiple and diverse voices, and keep the size portable. “They’re the exact reasons why Google wanted to own our company,” she said.

Online and in print, Zagat has maintained a user-centered focus, refusing to accept advertising or create content that supports advertisers. “We have always been looking after our users as the end customers,” Tim Zagat said. Brand, he reminded students, “is what other people think when they hear your name”; the Zagat brand was built on “trust and accuracy and ease of use.”

Tim Zagat encouraged students to choose careers that will inspire them and that they will enjoy. “Do something you really love,” he said. “We had the good fortune of finding something we love to do and turning that into something successful.”

But Nina Zagat said that young entrepreneurs today should spend time working for a company before striking out on their own. The Zagats’ own years in corporate law helped them immensely, she said. “Get out and get some real experience on somebody else’s dime. Learn how business is done.”

She added that the business world today is more forgiving of failed startups. When the Zagats started their company, failure was a “black mark” on your career, she said. “Failure at an entrepreneurial venture now is generally regarded as a step toward going into the next one.”

Watch the talk: