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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Tim Zagat

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-03-30

Eugene Zagat Jr. wanted to be a politician but instead wound up as a strobe light named Tim Zagat.

Strobe light?

"Strobe light," the co-founder, co-chair and chief executive officer of Zagat Survey, said yesterday. "I'm constantly coming up with ideas. I'm constantly thinking of things that would be fun to do. I keep radiating ideas - that's just the way I am."

So if he sees himself as a burst of kinetic energy, what does that make his wife Nina?

"She's a laser beam," Mr. Zagat said. "She's the one who figures out the practicality of my ideas, and the best way to implement plans - and I love her very much."

Their collaboration on the survey, which began as a hobby in 1979, has resulted in the world's leading source of consumer survey-based dining, travel and leisure information. The distinctive pocket-sized Zagat surveys - whose architecture falls somewhere between a book and a brochure - now cover restaurants, hotels, nightlife, movies, golf, shopping and other forms of entertainment in 100 countries.

Millions of copies of those surveys are printed each year, a business that, Mr. Zagat said, enables the privately held company to generate sweet revenues and keep expanding.

For example, the New York City restaurant guide typically sells 650,000 copies annually. Millions more copies of 80 customized guides are bought by corporations for marketing campaigns. In 2004, Bank of America alone ordered 5 million copies of the Zagat movie survey. Surveys are now being made available for specific college communities, and residential facilities.

It is probably only a matter of time before some intrepid artist, following in the footsteps of Christo - whose "Gates" in Central Park last year opened up the possibilities of provocative mega-projects - decides to cover the 843-acre territory with a tapestry created from the burgundy-colored Zagat surveys.

That isn't an implausible scenario. The Zagats, metaphorically speaking, already have the earth's 197 million square miles well covered through their Web presence, and editions in English, French, Japanese and Korean.

"The scripts may be different, but restaurants all around the world enjoy a common language," Mr. Zagat said. "People everywhere come to the table to partake of food. That's the language everyone understands."

But what was it that Tim and Nina Zagat understood about people's eating aspirations that enabled them to make a success of their surveys? The conventional view of the Zagat story is that husband and wife spotted an opening in the consumer market and fired up on all cylinders, but he demurs.

"There was no specific plan," Mr. Zagat said, noting that he and his wife were both Yale-educated lawyers with prosperous practices when, one evening, he found himself at the meeting of the Downtown Wine-Tasting Association listening to a friend, Ivan Karp, the celebrated founder of SoHo's OK Harris Gallery.

"Ivan was, how to put it, nicely along in the evening's liquid entertainment, and was eviscerating the restaurant critic of a newspaper that's too powerful to be mentioned," Mr. Zagat recalled. "Ivan said that no critic should have the power to impose his judgment on vast numbers of readers."

With the benefit of his 10th glass of wine, perhaps, Mr. Zagat came up with the idea of starting a survey.

"I said to myself, 'Wouldn't it be far better to invite the opinions of many people instead of relying upon a solitary restaurant critic's views?'" Mr. Zagat said.

Not one to allow an idea to age, he acted with alacrity. He asked friends at his table to provide the names of 20 of their friends to be surveyed. Mr. Zagat was able to obtain responses from 200 respondents, who offered their assessment of 100 city restaurants.

The resulting Zagat survey was a hit from the get go.

"Everybody wanted copies," Mr. Zagat said. "We gave away 10,000."

That's when Nina Zagat morphed into a laser.

"Why don't we sell the survey?" she said to her husband, who'd been savoring his benevolence as a gift-giver until then.

Mr. Zagat paused in the telling of the story.

"You see, it's only on account of Nina's practicality that we're even having this conversation 27 years later," he said.

If his wife's practicality drove the enterprise, it's fair to say that the business sensibility of the surveys has drawn richly from Mr. Zagat's belief that the process of choice in consumer decisions should be open to as wide a cohort of participants as possible. More than 250,000 people now participate in the annual Zagat surveys, which cover 40,000 restaurants and other subjects.

"It's all about empowering people to make more informed decisions on the basis of shared experiences," Mr. Zagat said. "But instead of some omniscient voice handing out reviews, our idea always was to listen to people and then aggregate and synthesize what they have to say. Whenever people are avid about something, they talk about it - and we set out to capture their experiences. The wisdom of the many is often more valuable than the opinion of one."

And what about his own opinions of restaurants, and those of his wife?

"We never survey ourselves," Mr. Zagat said. 'We focus on making it easy for others to find what they want."

As he spoke, his hands kept rotating in an intriguing windmill-like manner.

That was because Mr. Zagat, one of America's best known personalities, was exchanging greetings with a parade of other A-List people who entered or exited the restaurant. There was Barry Diller, who waved warmly, as did his guest, the writer Ken Auletta. The press baron Mortimer Zuckerman stopped by Mr. Zagat's table, as did financier Donald Marron and real-estate tycoon Jack Rudin. The retail genius Marvin Traub and political chieftain Charles Gargano also stopped by.

Mr. Zagat not only had a wave for each of them, but an avuncular smile as well. He also handed out a customized version of his survey.

The reporter was struck by this display of retail politics, so he asked Mr. Zagat about the political ambitions that he'd harbored as one of two children of Eugene, a realtor, and Cornelia, a children's librarian. ("Tim" was a nickname that stuck only after two earlier ones, Nick and Hank, proved short-lived. Mr. Zagat's mother reportedly wanted to distinguish between her husband and son - who shared a first name - when she was annoyed at them. Tim and Nina have two sons, Edward, who's a top executive at the survey, and John, a pre-med student at Columbia University.)

"My sister Caddie and I were brought up to always think of others - about what we could do to make the world a better place," Mr. Zagat said. "After Harvard College, I did a stint in the Peace Corps. But politics? I concluded that I didn't want to suffer through taking constant body blows that politicians receive. Nor did I want to ask my friends for money all the time.

"But in empowering people through the surveys, and dealing with people all the time, in a funny way my political ambitions have been consummated in a form that is convivial to my personality," Mr. Zagat said.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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