Birth To Billions: Zagat Survey

Food, Glorious Food

Going into business was the furthest thing from Tim's and Nina's minds back in Yale Law School. They met in 1963, married and, after graduation, were hired by prestigious Wall Street law firms. They spent two years in each firm's respective Paris office before being transferred back to New York in 1970.

Besides their jobs and the accompanying high-powered lifestyle, the Zagats had one powerful passion in common: They loved to eat. We're not talking Twinkies or Chee-tos here; you'd never catch the Zagats in a McDonald's or Burger King. No, their passion is gourmet food, exceptional wines and elegant ambience. They love preparing, consuming and talking about food; above all, they enjoy discovering new cuisine in great restaurants. In Paris, the Zagats whiled away entire evenings at the city's best eateries. They returned to the United States lifelong gourmets.

The Zagats never tire of explaining how their passion for food led them into entrepreneurship. A smile lights up Tim's face when he remembers the eating and drinking orgy during which the idea was born. "Back in New York practicing law, we helped organize a group of friends who met for dinner once a month," he begins. "The dinners took place either in someone's home or at a great restaurant. Wherever they were held, they were blowout events." That means they pulled out all the stops and forgot nasty words like calories and cholesterol. The eating extravaganzas featured incredible food and upwards of 10 different wines.

At one dinner, the conversation turned to one restaurant critic and how unreliable his restaurant selections were. There had to be a better way to rate restaurants, someone insisted. Tim put his two cents in and proposed the group rate restaurants by creating a questionnaire and surveying their friends.

Thus, the Zagat survey was born. The concept was simple, yet brilliant: "A group of people are more likely to be accurate about a restaurant than one person," Tim explains. With the help of friends, he and Nina put together a one-page survey, eliciting restaurant ratings and comments from friends, business associates and acquaintances who judged food, decor, service and cost. "Everyone who participated got a copy of the results," says Nina.

The first survey, which polled 100 friends, colleagues and clients, debuted in 1979. A photocopied list of 75 restaurants and brief comments about each-crammed on a single legal-sized sheet of paper-was mailed to everyone who had participated.

"We were just doing it for fun," Tim says. Little did they know they were laying the foundation for a moneymaking enterprise.

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This article was originally published in the August 1996 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Birth To Billions: Zagat Survey.

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