At first, Zagat's statement sounds a bit grandiose, bringing to mind Al Gore's infamous Internet claim or John Travolta's repeated assertion that he can act. But in a very real way, he is probably right. As his wife, Nina, notes, the pair "started doing something social, local and mobile before anyone saw any value in these things." She goes on to point out that the company's slim volumes were "as mobile as you could get in the 1980s: They fit in a coat pocket." For that matter, the survey also relied on the social interaction of its anonymous reviewers, who happily shared their local knowledge with other restaurant lovers.
But with mobile devices supplanting books and free restaurant reviews popping up across the Internet, how can the once-revolutionary Zagat survey hope to compete? One possibility is the company's newest innovation: a game-changing user interface that the company has dubbed "the Matrix."
Taking on the Old Guard
Long before smartphones and the world wide web, Zagat's signature innovation was a modest survey. In 1979, established food criticism was a hierarchical affair, played out in the pages of newspapers and magazines; non-professional foodies, on the other hand, didn't have a consistent way to share their opinions with strangers. One night, after listening to a friend criticize a famous food critic, Tim and Nina Zagat realized that ordinary restaurant-goers, the civilians in the dining wars, had worthwhile opinions.
To harvest these perspectives, Tim -- who had worked on political polls -- developed a survey that organized reviews into five categories: food, decor, service, cleanliness and cost, as well as a small section for comments. He and Nina distributed the questionnaire to 10 friends, then had them pass it along to their friends, and so on. When they received the responses, the pair averaged out the ratings, resulting in something very much like today's Zagat listings.
From the beginning, the Zagat survey was far more convenient and versatile than its competitors. While newspaper reviewers or other guides -- like Michelin -- offer a single perspective, the survey adapts to very specific needs. As Nina notes, "We help you find the restaurant you want on a particular night." For example, if you're dining with children, you might want "the places with the best food, but the worst decor. We can help you find that."
From Young Gunslinger to Entrenched Establishment
In 1979, Zagat's method was revolutionary; 32 years later, it has become the standard. With websites like CitySearch, Yelp and Urbanspoon offering crowdsourced reviews of thousands of eateries, some critics have asked if Zagat hasn't been overcome by the revolution that it started. Like the original Zagat books, these websites are local, social and exceedingly mobile. What's more, unlike Zagat's guides and premium site, they're free.
For that matter, these review sites tend to be fun, rollicking affairs, especially next to Zagat's comparatively tame reviews. Asked about this, Tim Zagat remembers that, in the beginning, the survey was far more freewheeling: "One of our early reviews was for a restaurant named One If by Land, Two If by Sea. The review read 'If this place doesn't get you laid, nothing will.'" He laughs: "Of the hundreds of angry letters we received -- many of which came from women's clubs -- the angriest came from a man who told us that the restaurant didn't live up to our description."
|Following friends' suggestions||1 (20.0%)|
|Reading newspaper and magazine reviews||1 (20.0%)|
|Reading restaurant review guides||1 (20.0%)|
|Scanning online review sites||1 (20.0%)|
|Visiting random places that you just happen to notice||1 (20.0%)|
Because of this and similar incidents, the Zagat survey adopted a strict editorial policy to ensure that its printed reviews were factually correct and relatively inoffensive. For example, today's survey describes "One If By Land" far more carefully: "'Love is busting out all over' at this 'sumptuous' Village 'classic' ... maybe the ambiance 'exceeds the menu,' but to most it's 'well worth' a 'splurge.'" A large part of the reason for this change is an attempt at fairness; as Tim notes, "There's a sense of responsibility when you may affect someone's business."
Even so, the Zagats cherish their more outspoken reviews, and have recorded many of what they call "outtakes." Asked about the best ones, Tim is quick to repeat some of his favorites: "One said 'I brought home a doggy bag, but the dog refused it,'" he laughs. "Another one asked 'How do you say 'roadkill' in Chinese?'" Recognizing the entertainment value of these unvarnished opinions, the survey has made them available on its website, where readers can read the curated Zagat review or can choose the harsher, funnier opinions of readers.
Not the Same Old Review
Opening up its raw reviews has enabled Zagat to compete with outspoken online adversaries like Yelp and Urbanspoon on their home turf, but it doesn't really take full advantage of the survey's strengths. After all, as Tim Zagat points out, "We have numbers and data that nobody else has, and we can slice and dice that content in ways that nobody else has." To make comparisons easier, the survey developed "stats," an option that lets users directly compare the ratings of dozens of restaurants. Yet even this innovation, while useful, didn't realize the full potential of Zagat's data.
To help readers maximize their interaction with its data, the Zagats created the Matrix, a completely new graphical interface. Plotting food ratings against cost, the Matrix reveals -- according to Zagat Communications Director Tiffany Herklots -- "the relative value of a restaurant, essentially the 'bang for the buck.'" Within that basic form, users can add in other considerations, including location, type of cuisine, special features, and several other factors. The Matrix, in turn, plots out up to 100 restaurants that fit the chosen criteria, measuring their cost against their quality ratings.
This is particularly useful if a user has distinct needs that strongly influence restaurant choice. As Nina Zagat notes, "The categories vary in importance, depending upon what you want." By adjusting price, service, decor and other factors, users can quickly narrow down hundreds of restaurants into a short list of one or two that are perfectly suited to their needs.
New Technology, Classic Strategy
Zagat's innovations -- and indeed, its entire history as a company -- have revolved around changing the way that people relate to information. In 1979, this took the form of a then-revolutionary survey that collected and organized the opinions of ordinary restaurant-goers. A few decades later, the company's distinction was that, unlike the dozens of other sites that posted the raw opinions of ordinary people, it also refereed the information that it gathered, ensuring clarity and factual correctness.
While the Matrix is a new tool, it follows in much the same vein as Zagat's earlier innovations. In addition to gathering data from consumers -- as it has always done -- the company is also changing how users can manipulate, organize and consume its findings. In terms of crowdsourcing, it's a revolutionary change, but for Zagat, it's the same old recipe -- albeit with a fresh twist.
Bruce Watson is a senior features writer for DailyFinance. You can reach him by e-mail at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.