EiSJ Interview with…Tim Zagat

There is a small list of people in the restaurant industry whom we know right away from their last name – and one of them (well, two of them, actually) would certainly be Tim and Nina Zagat, the husband-and-wife team that started their well-known restaurant survey over 30 years ago. Those of us who enjoy eating out can recognize right away those burgundy and white Zagat placards proudly displayed by eateries all over the country as well as internationally. And whether we pronounce their last name correctly or not (it’s za-GAT, like ‘cat’), we certainly are familiar with their guides which help navigate us through the plethora of dining establishments. So we are very honored that Tim Zagat took a some time to answer our questions.

EiSJ: What was the tipping point that made you decide to make your “hobby-out-of-control” into a business?

Tim: Nina and I began the Survey in 1979 after a dinner with our food and wine group gave us the inspiration to survey our friends about the restaurants they dined at. The first survey covered 100 restaurants that were rated by about 200 people. Each of our respondents – we called them surveyors – received a free copy of the survey results as a “thank you.” However, we soon found ourselves giving away an additional ten thousand copies. Also, the bill for collating the survey ratings and reviews was getting expensive. Therefore, we decided to sell copies so as to offset our costs and make our hobby tax deductible. After being rejected by every major publisher, we decided to publish the guide ourselves, and we spent a few years distributing the guides out of the back of our station wagon. However, in 1985, New York Magazine did a big feature on us called “Food Spooks” – the cover is still hanging in our office – and that was when things took off for us. We went from selling 40,000 copies a year to about 75,000 a month, and pretty soon our hobby became more profitable than our careers as lawyers. I joined the business full time in 1987 and Nina followed in 1990.

EiSJ: You have mentioned that your editors “make sure the content is accurate” regarding the comments made in your surveys. How do you accomplish this? Do you have people visiting each restaurant?

Tim: We have over 375,000 diners worldwide who eat out in restaurants throughout the year and submit their ratings and reviews on ZAGAT.com. In addition to our editorial team who curates these comments into easy-to-read reviews, we have about 100 local editors – mostly food writers and other local personalities – who act as our “eyes on the scene” to ensure that our survey reports are accurate.

EiSJ: In today’s foodie culture, how much do people really care about the decor rating?

Tim: People dine out looking for different things on different occasions; that’s why we separately rate food, decor, and service and estimate the cost of restaurant. While the quality of a restaurant’s food is usually the key factor in most peoples’ choice, decor is certainly part of the equation. For example, if you are taking your wife or would-be wife out for a romantic dinner, you’re probably seriously interested in the ambiance. On the other hand, if you are taking young children out you will want a place where they can be noisy and spill their soda without much concern, so it may even help to have a lower decor score. Whether there are great views is often a factor in taking a first-time, out of town visitor to dinner.

EiSJ: Would you ever consider eliminating chain restaurants in your ratings? Why, or why not?

Tim: Chain restaurants are popular among diners for a lot of reasons. We will continue to include them in our surveys as long as they continue to be popular.

EiSJ: What cities or towns (in the US or abroad) do you think are great for food that may not be as well known as, say, New York, Tokyo or Paris?

Tim: In answering this question, it’s necessary to realize that most visitors are going to spend only a few days in a particular town. Therefore, it’s more important that they know the special strength of the city’s food culture. For example, Austin and Kansas City are great barbecue towns, while Boston and New Orleans are known for their distinct cuisines involving seafood. We like to eat in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago partly because they have broad choices of quality restaurants.

EiSJ: What changes have you seen in the South Jersey dining scene over the past 5-10 years?

Tim: One significant change in this year’s New Jersey Restaurants Survey was the drop in average meal cost, which has not happened in 15 years. The decline in cost has occurred in numerous other markets this year. Another trend we’re seeing in New Jersey and around the country over the past few years is the rise in popularity of “green” eating – locally sourced, organic and sustainably raised food items. This year, 59% of New Jersey surveyors say they find these items to be important, and 43% say they would even pay more for them.

EiSJ: What are some of the restaurants in South Jersey that you have personally enjoyed?

Tim: Nina and I never share our favorites – we believe that if you are running the election, you shouldn’t have a candidate in the race.

EiSJ: What are some of your restaurant pet peeves?

Tim: In our surveys, Service is always the main complaint of our respondents. This year, 69% of New Jersey surveyors named it their top complaint. The next response, Noise, only received 13% of the vote.

EiSJ: Name one food trend that you would love to see more, and one that you would love to see go away.

Tim: One food trend I would like to see more of is the growth of inexpensive and diverse ethnic restaurants, which happily seems to be a long term trend. One trend I’d like to see go away is the purchasing of expensive bottles of wine to show off.

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