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Remember Zagat? The iconic burgundy guidebook that helped shape the modern consumer era is back

A 55-year oral history in seven parts.

Remember Zagat? The iconic burgundy guidebook that helped shape the modern consumer era is back
[Illustration: Wren McDonald]

It began as a mimeographed score sheet, compiling the opinions of about 200 avid restaurant-goers in New York City. A fun side project dreamed up by lawyers Tim and Nina Zagat in 1979, the guide evolved to feature pithy, compact 60-word reviews that showcased contributors’ honest and colorful remarks (”the rise and fall of Rome in a single evening”), plus numerical ratings of food, decor, and service, and the ballpark price of a meal. By the start of the aughts, more than 35 different pocket-size bibles were being printed, yielding annual revenues of more than $20 million. They made (and broke) restaurants and spawned (and killed) food trends. They boosted rising chefs and exposed the lethargy of established ones. They reshaped not only how and where people eat, but how the restaurant industry operates, channeling more power to consumers. There were even spin-off guides—for hotels, nightlife, golf courses, and movies.

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The Zagat guide was more than a cultural phenomenon, however. It represented the analog birth of a disruptive idea—user-generated content—that has transformed the business landscape and continues to power such juggernauts as Amazon, Facebook, and Twitter (not to mention upstarts like Glossier, Target’s kid-inspired Studio Connect, and health companies like WebMD and Iodine). But Zagat is also a symbol of resilience. It has weathered the transition from print to digital and then mobile, the dotcom bust of 2000, the rise of blog culture, and a $151 million acquisition by Google in 2011, followed by a purchase, for an undisclosed price last March, by The Infatuation, a restaurant-review site with its own snark and social-media-based recipe for success. Recently, The Infatuation announced a $30 million investment from WndrCo, a holding company founded by Jeffrey Katzenberg, Ann Daly, and Sujay Jaswa. As this new chapter begins, insiders reflect on the early challenges, happy accidents, and surprising endurance of the brand, along with a moment that former Google executive Marissa Mayer calls “one of my biggest heartaches.”

[Illustration: Wren McDonald]

The first guide: A surprise hit, 1963–1983

Tim Zagat and Nina Safronoff meet at Yale Law School, marry, and conceive of an entirely new kind of restaurant-reviewing system. Eaters would rate places with a 0, 1, 2, or 3 across three categories—food, decor, and service. The numbers were added up, averaged, and multiplied by 10 to get a final score between 0 and 30.

Tim: I think we started it in New York, and Nina thinks we started in Paris, but it doesn’t really matter. The end of the line was the same: We were trying to produce something that was useful, quick, and based on other people’s needs, not just our own.

Nina: We started practicing law in New York City. And Tim’s law firm had asked him to go to their Paris office.

Tim: They basically sent her [with me] because they couldn’t separate the family. Conservatism played well in that instance . . . We used to get together with friends in Paris, also young lawyers, and we had maybe a hundred restaurants on this sheet of paper, and we’d go around the table asking them to rate the restaurants, [and then] average those ratings. It was always done with four points—0, 1, 2, 3—because that’s more or less what everybody else was doing, [like] Michelin.

Nina: There were [also] columns for each of the major guides.

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Tim: So you could look at the numbers side by side and see what everybody was saying.

Mimi Sheraton, food critic, New York Times (1976–1984): I remember hearing about a sort of letter going [around] between them [and their] friends, when they were living in Paris.

Tim: We called it Les Guides des Guide . . . [Back in New York], we were in this food-and-wine group called the Downtown Wine Tasting Association, just a bunch of 20 friends who used to go out to dinner once a month. The head at the time was a guy named Ivan Karp. He started criticizing the critics of the New York Times. He was outspoken when he was sober, and this was at the end of a long meal with a lot of wine. He was especially outspoken.

Marilynn Gelfman Karp, art professor emeritus, New York University (and wife of Ivan): Ivan found and cultivated the careers of Warhol and Lichtenstein and Rosenquist and Goings, many artists. [Editor’s note: He died in 2012.] As a lark, Ivan suggested—because Tim was unhappy with the food and wine critics—that they start a questionnaire.

Tim: It was probably the effect of all the wine I’d drunk, but I said, “Why don’t we do a survey? Everybody give me 10 names of people you think would like to do this and I’ll ask them to share their opinions.” We tried to decipher [the feedback] into as concise a little review as we could. I went to see [culinary icon] James Beard at somebody’s suggestion, and he said, “Don’t have cleanliness [as a category].” I said, “Why?” And he said, “Because the day that they sue you, the restaurant which you thought was dirty will suddenly be very clean.”

Kyle Zolner, Zagat VP of survey research (2000–2011); Google quantitative marketing manager (2011–2017): You want to force people to make the decision [with the 0 to 3 rating system]—is it excellent or very good?—because if you give everyone a bigger scale it’s going to pile up. The distribution would be much tighter.

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Dan Entin, Zagat product management (2004–2008); Zagat digital product director (2010–2011) and Zagat product lead at Google (2011–2015): [This] meant that you had to take a side. Did you like it, or did you not? Making people take a stand was a valuable differentiator to that process.

Nina: As people got interested, we started circulating [the survey] through our law firms, and then accounting firms and PR firms, places where [people] ate out a lot as part of their work.

Daniel Boulud, chef, restaurateur, and founder of the Dinex Group: In the ’80s, Tim would always have pockets full of either guides or review forms, to be done by hand and sent to him. I was [executive chef] at Le Cirque, and Tim would come in and pass [questionnaires] around to anyone he knew at the restaurant or who wanted to do the survey.

Tim: The first year we had 200 people. The next year we had 500. The third we had a thousand.

Nina: We had huge expenses because we had to make copies of all the questionnaires, send them out to [people], then send [the results to data processors]. When we started realizing how much this was costing, we decided that we ought to print it as a book and see if we could find a publisher.

Tim: It wasn’t until the fourth year [in late 1982] that we started selling it.

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Nina: Every single publisher we saw turned us down. They said people didn’t want to hear from other people like them; they wanted to hear from experts. Because it was social, local, and mobile, they didn’t want it. Which of course was the best thing that ever happened to us . . . We started printing these books ourselves, distributing them ourselves. We put boxes of books in the back of our station wagon and drove up Madison Avenue and down Lexington Avenue, stopping in bookstores and asking them if they would like to carry our guides . . .

Tim: We got it into Doubleday, which was a small book-shop chain at the time. It turned out we were one of the best sellers . . . As soon as the other stores saw [that], we didn’t have much trouble getting into bookstores.

[Illustration: Wren McDonald]

The Brand expands—and infiltrates the food world, 1983–1998

A custom printing division helps boost the company as it tackles more cities, and in 1988 Zagat launches a guide for hotels, resorts, and spas. In 1992, Tim helps organize New York City’s first annual Restaurant Week to coincide with the Democratic National Convention (multi­course lunches are offered for $19.92). By the end of the ’90s, Tim becomes chairman of the city’s tourism bureau, and Zagat is publishing editions in London, Paris, and Tokyo.

Tim: Pete Gogolak came to us from one of the financial printing companies. [He was an executive at Charles P. Young, and later at RR Donnelley.] He had scored more points for the New York Giants than any player in the history of the franchise . . . and pioneered kicking soccer style. And he said, “I like what you’re doing. Could I get deluxe customized copies?” He said, “I’d like to have a really nice cover, imprint in gold leaf [my] company’s name, have gilding around it, and have a ribbon in it.” Then he said how many copies he’d like—5,000. Bingo! The lights came on and we said, “Of course we will.”

Nina: He is an enormously charismatic guy, and he would go around to all of his best clients, getting these big companies to want to buy their own custom Zagat guide . . . The change in business model, [to focus on] these specialized books as opposed to the bookstores, was what really made the company so profitable.

Tom Sietsema, food critic for the Washington Post and former junior reporter: When readers called us about where to go for a romantic restaurant, or what’s a great room with a view, the guides were always within reach, right next to a dictionary.

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Alice Waters, chef, owner of Chez Panisse, and founder of the Edible Schoolyard project: I learned about it when it was still in New York and thought it was incredibly useful [from a consumer’s perspective] . . . It’s terribly important to us that we’re meeting [diners’] expectations as well as ours.

Tim: The surveyors became our marketing team, because they were all saying, “I did this. See? They quoted me.” Let’s say a restaurant was crowded and noisy. A hundred people said it was crowded and noisy. They all thought they’d been quoted.

Drew Nieporent, founder, Myriad Restaurant Group: It was always funny—you’d get a few people [who came into a restaurant] who would say, “I’m a Zagat reviewer.” In the early days, they wanted you to know that. They wanted to be taken care of.

Nathan Myhrvold, former Microsoft director and VP (1986–1996) and CTO (1996–2000); investor, Zagat; founder, Modernist Cuisine: I met [Tim and Nina] when I was at Microsoft in the early 1990s. They named me the chief gastronomical officer of Zagat and gave me a business card. I have to say, it was the only useful business card I’ve ever had, because you could present [it at] a restaurant that wasn’t treating you well and suddenly everything would change.

Allan Ripp, Zagat public relations director (1986–2003): Tim was relentless about marching out books even if there was a small market. If he could find an editor in Kansas City or St. Louis, it was worth it to continue spreading the brand and creating national data.

Tim: I would usually go around with friends, sometimes people from the media. We’d go to 20 restaurants in a night, in and out in five minutes . . . Anytime I saw something that looked attractive, I’d say, “Stop,” and we’d go in.

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Eric Ripert, chef and co-owner, Le Bernardin: He came to the kitchen many times. It was not even like, “Can I go to the kitchen?” He would just get up from the table and go to the kitchen and say hello and even give some Zagats to the cooks. The cooks were, I think, very surprised and amused by the situation, that Tim Zagat was giving them Zagats. Believe me, they were taking them.

Danny Meyer, restaurateur; CEO, Union Square Hospitality Group: I remember the days when they would just walk in and out, they may not even eat, but they would just want to get a sense, a smell, a look, I think, to correlate the feedback they were getting from their reviewers.

Tim: We were very much aware of the possibility of cheating, and we had to deal with it. The way most people cheated is stupid. They would give it a highest possible rating, lowest possible cost. And then they would use the same words like, “best meal I ever ate” or “terrific, wonderful.” If you looked at them or had editors look at them, you would know which ones were out of whack and eliminate them. Later on, we had a variety of ways of checking by computer.

[Illustration: Wren McDonald]

Zagat moves to digital and takes on new investors, 1999–2002

As readers migrate online, Zagat launches a website, and in February 2000 secures $31 million (for a 25% ownership stake) from General Atlantic Partners, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Allen and Company, and others—just two months before the dotcom bubble bursts. The company, now valued at $125 million, reportedly employs 75 staffers, rolls out a nightlife guide helmed by one of the couple’s sons, Ted (who becomes president before leaving in 2007), invests in OpenTable and another now-defunct online reservation service called Foodline, and strikes deals with companies to display its content. Tim and Nina also hire the company’s first outside CEO, Amy McIntosh, a former senior manager at Verizon who leaves after less than a year and a half, putting the couple back in charge of the company.

Myhrvold: Unfortunately, one of the things the Zagats had going against them is that their company was based in this hick backwater town that didn’t understand technology called New York City. New York City has never been strong in tech.

Nina: We launched our first site in May of 1999. But prior to that, we had been leasing content to tons of companies [including American Express, AOL, CompuServe, Pathfinder, and Prodigy]. We decided that our business model should be consistent in that we were paid-for books, [so] we should charge for our content online.

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Tim: People were [initially] paying $3 a month or $25 a year [for a web subscription]. I think at one point it was close to half-a-million people. The ability to do voting online saved us something like $10 per surveyor.

Nina: People kept telling us that this was the most incredible time, that everybody wanted to invest in companies like ours, and [wondered] why we weren’t looking into [outside investment] at all.

Doug Mackenzie, partner emeritus, Kleiner Perkins; founder and partner, Radar Partners: They were the first that I’m aware of—or certainly one of the first—user-generated content companies. They had a strong following, obviously, with the consumers but also with the reviewers.

Tim: We just said we wanted to continue to do what we’re doing and expand.

Myhrvold: I actually spent a lot of time strategizing with them [about] who they would take money from, what they would do. Ultimately, they took the $31 million from a bunch of venture capitalists, and I put in some money.

Tim: We were lucky because we hit it at the top of the boom. We probably would never have gotten the same deal six months later.

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Myhrvold: I also do research on dinosaurs. [This] was a mass-extinction event for internet companies.

Nicholas Negroponte, cofounder, MIT Media Lab; investor, Zagat: Timing could not have been worse for investors, but excellent for Tim and Nina.

Web 2.0 Rises, Spawning Blogs, Yelp, and Plenty of Other Competitors, 2003–2010

As it generates new guides, for golf courses and movies, Zagat maintains its paywall, even as rivals offer reviews for free based on an ad-supported business model. Tim and Nina remain at the helm, and in 2008, with the company’s annual revenue at a reported $40 million, they ponder selling, something they decide against following the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers and the ensuing financial crisis. Controlling costs by issuing surveys online, but beset with competition, Zagat expands to cover more than 90 cities by the decade’s end.

Entin: We had numerous free competitors who presented a considerable challenge for consumer attention with the likes of Yelp and MenuPages. We built out our own, similar kind of menu-processing and data-entry system so that we could offer menus.

Zach Brooks, founder, Midtown Lunch blog: When I moved to New York in 2005, there was this blogging thing that started to happen. People were [bringing] cameras to their meals and taking photos. And obviously, being able to go online to see photos of that food became super compelling.

Entin: It was challenging. We had a strong brand. There was real revenue coming in from subscriptions and sponsorships. But at the same time, there’s all this competition. I don’t know if that led to some turnover.

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Myhrvold: It took a while to get a good technology base for people posting reviews. It’s not like the Yelp code in its early days was some miracle of computer science. But it was better than what the Zagats fielded in that era.

Ashley Hayes, sales manager, Yelp (2007); community manager, Google Places (2010–2012): [Yelp CEO] Jeremy Stoppleman built this index of all these local businesses thinking that it was the index itself that was going to be something that people wanted, but it transitioned when he started [learning] that people were actually writing reviews and enjoying it.

Michael Luca, business administration professor, Harvard: The fact about content generation on the internet is that the more things you make somebody do, [the steeper the] drop-off in [their] willingness to contribute. Having a simple 1 to 5 with [an open comment area] where people can do their own thing would get a lot more content than having people fill out separate boxes.

Tim: The last thing in the world I would have wanted to be was Yelp. The idea that you [had to scroll from] everybody who loved it down to everybody who hated it and figure out where you came out on the spectrum, I thought it was totally wasteful.

Michael Anderson, agriculture and resource economics professor, UC Berkeley: There may be a desire to make it easier for users to glance and say, “Hey, three-and-a-half versus four stars, that’s a pretty easy comparison.” But that’s going to have an impact on [some] restaurants.

Waters: It’s a fast, cheap, and easy world . . . Every time you make a decision about where you want to eat, you’re supporting a whole set of values.

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Entin: The company tried to sell itself around 2008, with Goldman Sachs doing the deal.

Ruth Reichl, restaurant critic and food editor for the L.A. Times and The New York Times (1984–1999); editor-in-chief, Gourmet (1999–2009): At Gourmet, we even talked to them at one point about acquiring it. They were too far behind in their understanding that the internet was going to make them obsolete. They hadn’t ramped up enough to make it worthwhile spending a fortune for.

Peter Georgescu, chairman emeritus, Young & Rubicam, and informal company adviser: They weren’t looking to cash out. They were looking to find a partnership. That’s why I think they didn’t rush into a financial relationship at that time.

Nina: We did talk about [being open to offers] but then the market changed and we just withdrew.

Entin: We proceeded to do a major website redesign that focused on trying to create the best restaurant search experience on the web.

[Illustration: Wren McDonald]

Google buys Zagat and makes it free, but there’s a twist, 2011–2012

Marissa Mayer, then Google’s VP of local, maps, and location services, leads a deal to acquire Zagat in September 2011, envisioning it as a template for Google’s user-generated personalized search recommendations. Tim and Nina agree to stay on as advisers, only to see Mayer take a job 10 months later as CEO of Yahoo.

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Nina: Marissa sent us an email and said that she thought there were lots of things that we could do together. Would we be willing to meet with her? I remember walking into Tim’s office with the email and saying, “Gee, Tim, do you think we have time to meet with Google?”

Marissa Mayer, former VP, local, maps, and location services, Google: We had tried numerous times to acquire Yelp. I made [the case] that we needed reviews. It wasn’t okay just to have a [phone-book style] list where every business in the world was on Google Maps. We actually needed a sense of, “Where should I go?” We wanted it to be more curated and thoughtful.

Nina: We ended up going out to lunch. It was at Jean-Georges, right across the street from our office.

Tim: They were always rated very high, but there was that one year when they dropped a point and they took it badly for a year.

Mayer: We had started to see the benefit of user-generated content with YouTube. We felt we could get greater participation and potentially greater coverage of the Zagat guides by offering that as part of Google Maps and Google Local.

Nina: [Tim and I] felt that Google would be a fabulous partner because it would mean that our technology would get 10 times stronger.

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Mayer: We ultimately paid more than $150 million for the company. Restaurant reviews in themselves aren’t worth that, but a reviews platform that can help people curate, pick the best businesses, and hear about other people’s experiences is worth that and much more. We wanted to take it and scale it.

Entin: “Wow, this is awesome. This is exciting.” I think that was kind of the general reaction.

Negroponte: When Google bought them, it was a total surprise, to me. I thought it was a fine exit for Tim and Nina, and probably not good for the company. I think I was right about both.

Dennis Crowley, cofounder and executive chairman, Foursquare: At that time, I might have looked at it like, Zagat [has] great content, but if a new place opens up in the Lower East Side there’ll be 20 Foursquare reviews there in two days and that’s all the content we need.

Entin: Internally, Google had this project called Hotpot. They had built this Netflix-y kind of [platform where users could] rate a bunch of places, like thumbs-up or thumbs-down, and it will give you some [local] recommendations. [The system used both stars and smiley faces.] Hotpot was looking for a different user flow to try to make [reviewing] more fun and engaging people to do it more.

Tim: Google asked us to stay. We didn’t know that it would last six years.

Entin: We knew that Google didn’t have the reviews coverage it wanted. At the time, [with] Google Maps or Google search, the coverage was thin on places [users might] be surprised about. The goal was pretty clear. They built out a Zagat-branded base in the [Google] headquarters in Chelsea. No [small] companies got that; they just get absorbed into the Borg.

Hayes: It was “Google Plus Local and Zagat,” which was clearly a mouthful to try to promote against the inherent advantage of just a one-word company—Yelp—that existed in the same town.

Entin: Marissa led the deal. She left not that long after [to become CEO of Yahoo]. She was a champion of the deal, and she was no longer there.

Mayer: I will say the Zagat brand, and where that integration was, was one of my biggest heartaches. Because I had so many strategic plans for how it would span out . . . I understood the architecture of Google and how to actually get things done there in a way that [Tim and Nina] were obviously less familiar with . . .

Hayes: I was hiring out a London team, interviewing some folks there, and I got a call at like 3 o’clock in the morning saying, “Marissa left. Come back. We need to reassess everything.” I actually quit pretty soon after because I could tell that without our big cheerleader it would change everything.

Mayer: I left the project [in the hands of] Bernardo Hernández, who did a fine job running it for some time, but then ultimately he followed me to Yahoo.

Myhrvold: If you wanted to write a case study of how to take branded content that meant something to a large set of people and just destroy it, that’s what Google did, with the best of intentions at every stage.

Google rethinks its strategy, 2013–2018

Google acquires rating-guide company Frommer’s for $22 million in August 2012 (with an eye toward bolstering travel reviews), shifts its data collection methodology, and reportedly begins letting editorial contract workers go. The last Zagat guide published was the New York survey in 2017.

Entin: The idea was that Zagat was going to power Google Plus Local. That product internally was called Spicybowl, the successor to Hotpot. But there was also Google Search, local content in the knowledge panel [informational boxes], and then you have Google Maps. Local is a complicated business. The tide turned in terms of how prominent the Zagat brand should be and how much people cared.

Mayer: We wanted to try [the 30-point rating system] because we felt like getting more information [was important]. We wanted to be able to drill some of those [experiential] issues apart for people.

Nina: Then ultimately it became a five-point scale . . . I don’t want to talk about that.

Entin: The rating scale was absolutely a big political thing. There was a lot of drama around that.

Negroponte: To change that is like changing the flag of a country.

Entin: I did user research and saw that a lot of people didn’t get [the 30-point rating system]. It was absolutely an inhibitor for a company like Google, where there are a billion users of Google Maps. I get it.

Zolner: It was a better system, but people weren’t familiar with it. The world was run by stars. Google now [goes] from 1.0 to 5.0. It is just as granular, but instead of having the whole number it’s a decimal number [of stars].

Tim: There were changes. But Google was the owner, and they did what they thought was right.

Zolner: I think there was an agreement to disagree.

Mayer: The notion of taking the user-generated content and creating a human-edited and prioritized form ultimately didn’t materialize [at Google], but there were a lot of other strengths that were realized.

Meyer: The Zagat Survey [book] didn’t come out last year, which crushed me. It kind of went out with a whimper in an odd way.

The Infatuation Swoops In, March 2018

Google sells Zagat on March 2 for an undisclosed sum to The Infatuation, a nine-year-old editorial-driven review site founded by two former record company executives. The Infatuation, which is known for popularizing the hashtag #EEEEEATS on Instagram (along with a text-based recommendation service called Text Rex and a Los Angeles food festival that’s expanding to New York in October), now owns the rights to the Zagat brand, site, app, and deep archive of published content. Tim and Nina Zagat have no formal role in the deal.

Chris Stang, former VP of marketing, Atlantic Records; cofounder and CEO, The Infatuation: We were in the music business, and the music business is a nighttime sport. You end up in a lot of restaurants. People would start asking us questions, [but they] never started with, “Who’s the best chef in town?” or “What’s the best restaurant in the city?” It always started with, “Hey, I really need to go impress this girl I’m taking on a first date,” or “Hey, my mom’s going to be in town, I need a great place for brunch.”

Andrew Steinthal, former VP of public relations, Warner Bros. Records; cofounder and CRO, The Infatuation: We’re trying to add value to people’s lives and create a brand that can infiltrate a person’s life in more ways than just reading something on the internet or inside an app.

Stang: We launched our website in 2009. The app came out in 2011. Every review has a neighborhood, a cuisine, a bunch of “perfect for” [recommendations], which ends up being searchable query information. It create . . . database rather than a bunch of articles that aren’t organized in any way . . . I was in London for a conference and saw this email [from Google’s former corporate development manager, Sarah Hughes] as I was getting out of a taxi to jump into a restaurant. They were like, “Look, we’re going to sell this thing and we thought you guys might want to be involved based on the space you’re in.” I never really asked who else was in the mix. We just focused on making a compelling case for why we were the right home.

Tim: [Stang and Steinthal] certainly seem to understand the values we care about, and we want to be helpful to them. What precisely they are planning to do, we will learn in due course.

Stang: Rarely are restaurant opinions a zero-sum game. We’d like to see a world in which you can see both the critic’s score from The Infatuation and a community score from Zagat in the same place.

Myhrvold: We’ve not [yet] seen the perfect marriage of what technology can do and what a brand can mean [in terms of content online]. Maybe this last incarnation will do it.

Waters: I would like to think that there’s always a place for a [printed] guide. It’s not like a computer, [which figures] out what it thinks you’re going to like and only shows you that. Sometimes you find things that you wouldn’t expect, and that interest you.

Stang: The number-one reaction I get from people when I talk to them about [Zagat] is nostalgia, and that’s a powerful thing . . . We’re going to print guides again. It’s something we have to figure out, but it’s something we are going to do.

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About the author

Ben Paynter is a senior writer at Fast Company covering social impact, the future of philanthropy, and innovative food companies. His work has appeared in Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the New York Times, among other places.

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