By giving voice to diners and showcasing a wider culinary landscape, Zagat transformed the food world. The nearly 40-year-old brand, which was started by lawyer couple Tim and Nina Zagat, pioneered the concept of user-generated content by surveying eaters and averaging their scores into different ratings for food, décor, and service.
As Fast Company shares in a new, exclusive oral history, the resulting burgundy guidebooks radically shifted both how people decided where to eat and their overall power at the table. (And do lots of other stuff; there were category spin-offs galore.) In 2011, Google acquired the company to try to take that magic online. Now a new chapter begins for the Zagat brand, having been acquired earlier this year by review site and social media darling The Infatuation.
Here, food-world insiders share what it was like to experience the dawn of crowdsourcing.
Tim Zagat: There was a kosher restaurant, and we didn’t mention it as being kosher. They sent us a nasty note and said it was creating havoc. All these people were coming in, and when they found out that it was kosher they got up and left. I got it straightened out in a subsequent printing. Then [the owner] got upset because he’d decided he [didn’t want to be] kosher anymore, he was getting so much business.
Allan Ripp, former Zagat PR director: At one point, we compared foot traffic and food ratings among some of the high-end and lower-end places. The restaurant run by the [chef who inspired] the Seinfeld Soup Nazi, its food ratings were higher than Le Cirque . . . [Zagat wasn’t merely] riding a wave of a culinary change in the country but also helping advance it.
Alice Waters, owner, Chez Panisse: I think [Zagat] did open up people’s minds about the world of food,
especially in big cities.
Kevin Suto, CEO, Zachary’s Chicago Pizza: In 2003, we were in the top 10 or something for most popular in the Bay Area, and that ruffled some feathers.
Danny Meyer, restaurateur; CEO, Union Square Hospitality Group: I was a junkie with all the statistics. I [created] what I called the value equation: It was basically adding up—for the top 50 restaurants—their food, decor, and service scores and dividing that number by the cost of buying a meal there: quality per dollar. I would then do a plus-and-minus chart, an arrow up, down, or sideways for every single one . . . [The guide] was an annual report card . . . I started to pay bonuses to our senior people at Union Square Cafe based on how we had done in those scores . . . I’ll never forget the year that Shake Shack [which Meyer founded] made the top 50. Who would have ever thought a hamburger place would do that?