#WhenIGrowUp Wednesdays: The Zagat Survey

#WhenIGrowUp Wednesdays features stories of people who reinvented themselves, or who came to a crossroads and chose a different path, or who rediscovered, or returned to the pursuit of their youthful passion.

Today, we’ll look at a wildly successful husband and wife team who gave up their respective law careers, in their 40s, to pursue their passion.

Tim and Nina ZagatTim and Nina Zagat compiled their first collection of New York City restaurant reviews for friends in 1979. Within a couple of years, their restaurant guide had become so popular that, in an effort to defray printing costs, they sought a publisher. None would take the project on, so they published it themselves, and sold the bound copies to small bookstores from the back of their Toyota station wagon. What started as a hobby, turned into a successful business, and in 2011 the company was sold to Google for a reported $151 million.

* * *

Eugene Henry Zagat, Jr. and Nina Safronoff met at Yale Law School, married in 1965, and graduated in 1966. Each of them was hired to work in the Paris office of a different New York City law firm for approximately six months. While in Paris, their primary goal was to visit as many restaurants as possible, and sample as much French cuisine as they could in that short time. They kept a list of all the restaurants they visited, what they liked, didn’t like, etc.; six months turned into 2 years.

Zagat SurveyWhen they returned to New York, they began to host regular dinner parties for their friends, and other food-lovers. At one dinner, about 10 years after their return, and after much wine, the conversation turned to food critics. The consensus was that, often a critic’s dining experience was a much better one than the average person might have because critics were recognized, and courted, for five-star reviews. The solution, they decided, was to solicit the opinions of hundreds of average people, and then tabulate the results for a more accurate review.

Tim and Nina created a survey with questions about the entire restaurant experience, based on their time in Paris. This survey was distributed to their friends, who then distributed it to more friends and colleagues. Then, the ratings, and comments from all the surveys, which covered all sorts of restaurants were compiled annually. The published guides became very popular. In 1982, 7,500 copies were sold; 18,000 the second year; in 1985, sales jumped to 75,000 per month. Tim and Nina quit their respective law firms, and became full-time publishers of the Zagat Survey.

Tim Zagat’s advice to students:

Do something you really love. We had the good fortune of finding something we love to do and turning that into something successful.

Sources: Notable Biographies, Wikipedia, Yale School of Management, Zagat

~ Debbie MacLeod


The CREATIVE CHANGE-MAKING Conference has been organized to showcase local heroes, individuals from within our own communities, who are creating their own path, leading by example, and following their dreams through purposeful work.

Intrigued? Come listen to the stories. Ask questions. Be inspired to change your life!

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