Zagat altered the culinary landscape forever. Here’s how it felt from the inside.
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?
A version of this article appeared in the October 2018 issue of Fast Company magazine.
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.