Birth To Billions: Zagat Survey

All They Can Eat

The Zagats realized they were at the helm of something big. At the end of 1986, Tim quit his job and made a full-time commitment to the guidebook; Nina continued her law practice until 1990.

For the Zagats, 1986 was a strategic year. Tim hired their first full-time staffer (today, they have 30 full-time employees and more than 60 part-time guide editors in cities throughout the United States). The couple then built on their success by publishing guides for four new cities-Washington, DC; Los Angeles; San Francisco; and Chicago.

"We knew then we had the tiger by the tail," says Tim with a smile. "With robust sales, we didn't need outside financing to foot the cost of expansion. We could finance it ourselves from cash flow."

From then on, the Zagats began adding new cities each year. Their goal is to cover the entire United States with editions for every major city. At the moment, they're working on Las Vegas and considering cities in the Carolinas and Virginia.

By doing everything themselves in the beginning, the Zagats became masters at cost-cutting. They don't need an enormous staff; instead, they hire just two people in every location they cover-a prominent food writer and a public relations person or food expert. The writer handles the editorial side; the PR person recruits surveyors by tapping wine shops, gourmet food stores, and law, accounting and investment banking firms.

Getting surveyors, known as "Zagateers," to painstakingly fill out Zagat questionnaires was surprisingly easy. In virtually every new city, volunteers couldn't wait to share their opinions of local restaurants. Currently, the Zagats boast a volunteer army of 75,000.

The Zagats also expanded into other types of guidebooks, all based on the same survey concept. In 1988, they released guides covering hotels, resorts and spas nationwide; in 1990, they began surveying airlines and car rental companies; in 1992, they published a pair of national guides, America's 1,000 Top Restaurants and America's Best Value Restaurants. More are in the works: "We're working on filling in the gaps in the United States," says Nina.

Though they expanded their restaurant reviews to cover Canada in 1990 and are working on a London edition, the Zagats aren't yet ready to cover the rest of the world. Aside from logistical problems, Tim points out bookkeeping and cultural difficulties. "In Japan, for example, it is considered impolite to say negative things," he explains. "Americans don't think twice about dumping on restaurants they don't like. The Japanese just wouldn't do that."

No matter: For now, the Zagats have plenty to do. They've created an empire that grows bigger every year. They've also become a well-oiled team, with Tim overseeing sales, marketing and editing while Nina handles operational nuts and bolts.

With so many projects going on at once, Nina says, they've created their own checks-and-balances system to prevent errors and stay on track. After 30 years of marriage, they know how to capitalize on each other's strengths. "My tendency is to try to do too much," admits Tim. "Nina saves me from myself. I have a tendency to jump around; she keeps me focused. We respect each other's opinions."

Like all couples in business, the Zagats have their differences. Yet, perhaps due to their legal training, they've mastered the fine art of compromise and have always managed to find a happy middle ground. In the final analysis, it's as simple as this: They sincerely enjoy working together.

What about tapering off to enjoy the fruits of their hard work? That's not in the cards. The Zagats are having too much fun. Aside from the thrill of building a thriving business, there are other perks to savor. After all, how many of us can walk into America's finest restaurants and be wined and dined like dignitaries?

Nina and Tim Zagat

Birth Dates:Nina:August 12, 1942; Tim: May 13, 1940

Residence:New York City

Family:Two children: Ted, 20; John, 18

Business Philosophy:"Stay focused on your core business and love what you do, since it consumes most of your waking hours."

Bob Weinstein is the author of eight books and a frequent contributor to national magazines.

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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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