Walk us through the Zagat voting process.
People are asked to vote on food, décor, service and cost for restaurants, and then to comment on the overall dining experience. After these votes are submitted, they are read by our editors (we have about 50 of them), who synopsize what all the people say. The comments are edited with the goal of being as fair a synopsis as possible. The numeric ratings you see are simply an average score based on all the collected responses.
Our goal at Zagat is not to create a paradigm of what a great restaurant or store or spa is. Many people want to tell you what they think is the best restaurant or hotel—to create their own paradigm—not what you need to know. Our goal is to help you intelligently decide what you want to do and where you want to go.
You need different things to satisfy your needs from day to day, from a quick late-night dinner nearby with your spouse to entertaining a sophisticated business client. The brand’s goal is to facilitate you making smart decisions to serve your best interests. If you go to a restaurant that’s a “28/28/28” in our book, however, you probably are going to a restaurant that gets three stars in the Michelin Guide.
Has the voting system ever been compromised? Any other challenges in maintaining brand integrity?
If we’re not accurate and fair, it’s pretty easy for people to figure it out. Our whole business and all our credibility depends on the quality of the reviews we write.
Read the reviews of restaurants that you frequent most. Ask yourself whether they’re accurate. If so, you conclude that the system—the brand—works. If not, you ought to throw the book out. Our New York City restaurant guide, though, has probably been the best-selling book of any kind in NYC for the last ten years, which I think says something about our reliability.
If there are large numbers of people going to a restaurant or hotel before you, it’s hard for us to make a mistake after we’ve read all the comments before we write a synopsis. That’s true even if people disagree. Let’s say a place is a real hot spot: a 20-year-old will say, “Lively and exciting”; his parents may say, “Crowded and noisy.” You get those results fairly often, but both viewpoints are useful.
So some of the restaurants have been upset about their ratings?
Relatively few. When someone has a factual issue, we’ll try to correct it as quickly as possible, because we’re covering 40,000 restaurants, and we want to make sure the guide is factually correct. If it’s a matter of opinion, however, we don’t make changes.
To be honest, most restaurateurs like what we do much more than they like one critic coming in. After all, a critic’s job is to be critical. The regular people who submit reviews to our guides generally are going out to have a good time, so, by and large, their reviews are more positive. If the guides have a fault, it may be they’re too nice.
Do you think the Zagat guides have helped consumers receive better service? After all, a restaurant must now treat every customer as if he or she is rating it.
Ruth Reichl, then the New York Times restaurant critic, visited Le Cirque two nights in a row: the first in disguise, the second as her recognizable self. She then contrasted the service she received those nights, concluding that the Dubuque tourist visiting a Manhattan restaurant won’t eat as well as the urbane regular.
Frankly, we believe (we hope) that we’re influencing the restaurants for the better, in that way and in one other way: we try to get the restaurants to understand they are getting a free market review from their customers. Every time a restaurant owner looks at a review, it’s his customers who are rating his restaurant and reviewing them. What if your restaurant gets a 23 for food and a 16 for service—what does that tell you? It tells you that the same people who raved about the food don’t think the service is as good. If the restaurant cares about what its customers think, it ought to be spending some time trying to work on its service.
We’ve also given the consumer a sense of empowerment they didn’t have 30 years ago. Back then, there were a few great “expert” restaurant critics, and the rest of us had to keep quiet.
Talk about your brand extensions. You started out with restaurant guides and then moved on to other ratings.
We do surveys for hotels, resorts, nightlife, movies and shopping, which we do in 25 cities. We even do two kinds of shopping in NY: one features gourmet food and entertaining, and the other focuses on retail. We do a nightlife survey in 25 cities—our older son had once told us that he felt his friends went out to drink more than they eat, so we figured that was a good direction to go in. Of course, I always hoped his metabolism would revert back to eating instead of drinking.
We haven’t done many brand partnerships, however. I’m old-fashioned: I think we should just do what we do as well as possible and not try to confuse the brand by getting involved in things that people don’t think is our natural territory.
How do you decide where to open a guide?
We have people who spend time thinking about those things—I have a tendency of wanting to try things, and if they work, they work, if they don’t, they don’t. So far we’ve had a good track record of them working!
We’ll have more focused guides to complement the main guide. For instance, we have a San Francisco guide, with a smaller guide for Napa and Sonoma. And here in New York, for example, we’re reaching out to support the city of Newark —they have a wonderful new mayor, and that’s part of why we’re doing it. We have a guide for Brooklyn and for Staten Island, even though they’re all technically part of New York City. We did a guide for lower Manhattan after 9/11 that was designed to bring back business to downtown.
Where do you see the Zagat brand moving in the next decade or so?
We just did three cities in China, and we’re talking to people in a number of foreign countries about expanding into those. China has about 50 or 60 cities with more than the population of Chicago, and we’re not going to be able to do it by ourselves, so we’re trying to get somebody to work with us in China under our supervision.
How are you and your wife, Nina, still involved in the day-to-day operations of the brand?
We’re fully involved. We do different things—I tend to work more on the creative, editorial side and [am] somewhat more media-oriented. She’s very articulate and smarter than I am in a lot of ways (we met in law school, so we’ve been at it for a long time). She’s more involved in the day-to-day running of the business. But if there’s a serious issue or big discussion, we’ll both get involved.
Sometimes we’ll argue about issues—but one of the best things about arguing with someone who’s a part of your family is that we have the same ultimate goal: we want the guide to be the best possible guide there is. There are no politics involved in disagreeing. If she says one thing, and I say another, at least we both know we’re trying to get to the same place. There are no separate agendas—it’s just a difference of opinion, which is sometimes very useful.
What’s it like sharing the brand name with your family name? Is it a little weird?
Not really, because I’m just so used to it. It seems perfectly natural. I didn’t even know what a brand was when we started—people started telling me 20 years ago that I was a brand, and I would say, “What’s a brand?”
How do you pronounce “Zagat,” anyway? Has the continual mispronunciation of the name affected the brand in any way?
It’s “Za-GAT like the cat in a hat, and that’s that!” It hasn’t really affected our success one way or the other. It’s an unusual name—no one else in the whole country has it. It happens to have a nice five letters—it’s a neat name for a brand. If our name was “Schnitzerbocker,” you’d have to turn the guide on its side to fit it all in.
So, since you’re based in Manhattan, what’s your favorite restaurant? Will we catch you at Gray’s Papaya, the New York City hotdog institution?
You will see me there, but you’ll also find me at a lot of other places. I like to go to different restaurants on different nights. I probably wouldn’t want to go to my favorite French restaurant every day—my liver would likely explode. Some nights I’m in the mood for Chinese, sometimes Italian.
But restaurants I like aren’t the point of the Zagat brand. Whose opinion would you rather base your decision on: 38,000 people’s, or Tim Zagat’s? We run the voting machine and the election system; we don’t believe you should have a candidate in the race run the election. You have to be objective, unbiased, neutral. Pushing restaurants we like on everyone else would be contrary to everything we stand for. When you do that, you’re saying that one person’s voice is better than any other’s.