Entin: The idea was that Zagat was going to
power Google Plus Local. That product internally
was called Spicybowl, the successor to Hotpot.
But there was also Google Search, local content
in the knowledge panel [informational boxes],
and then you have Google Maps. Local is a complicated business. The tide turned in terms of
how prominent the Zagat brand should be and
how much people cared.
Mayer: We wanted to try [the 30-point rating
system] because we felt like getting more information [was important]. We wanted to be able
to drill some of those [experiential] issues apart
Nina: Then ultimately it became a five-point
scale. . . . I don’t want to talk about that.
Entin: The rating scale was absolutely a big political thing. There was a lot of drama around that.
Negroponte: To change that is like changing the
flag of a country.
Entin: I did user research and saw that a lot of
people didn’t get [the 30-point rating system]. It
was absolutely an inhibitor for a company like
Google, where there are a billion users of Google
Maps. I get it.
Zolner: It was a better system, but people weren’t
familiar with it. The world was run by stars.
Google now [goes] from 0.0 to 5.0. It is just as
granular, but instead of having the whole number it’s a decimal number [of stars].
Tim: There were changes. But Google was the
owner, and they did what they thought was right.
Zolner: I think there was an agreement to disagree.
Mayer: The notion of taking the user-generated
content and creating a human-edited and prioritized form ultimately didn’t materialize [at
Google], but there were a lot of other strengths
that were realized.
Meyer: The Zagat Survey [book] didn’t come out
last year, which crushed me. It kind of went out
with a whimper in an odd way.
Google sells Zagat on March 2 for an undisclosed sum to The Infatuation, a nine-year-old
editorial-driven review site founded by two former record company executives. The Infatuation,
which is known for popularizing the hashtag
#EEEEEATS on Instagram (along with a text-based recommendation service called Text Rex
and a Los Angeles food festival that’s expanding
to New York in October), now owns the rights to
the Zagat brand, site, app, and deep archive of
published content. Tim and Nina Zagat have no
formal role in the deal.
Chris Stang, former VP of marketing, Atlantic
Records; cofounder and CEO, The Infatuation:
We were in the music business, and the music
business is a nighttime sport. You end up in a
lot of restaurants. People would start asking us
questions, [but they] never started with, “Who’s
the best chef in town?” or “What’s the best restaurant in the city?” It always started with, “Hey,
I really need to go impress this girl I’m taking on
a first date,” or “Hey, my mom’s going to be in
town, I need a great place for brunch.”
Andrew Steinthal, former VP of public relations,
Warner Bros. Records; cofounder and CRO, The
Infatuation: We’re trying to add value to people’s
lives and create a brand that can infiltrate a person’s life in more ways than just reading something on the internet or inside an app.
Stang: We launched our website in 2009. The app
came out in 2011. Every review has a neighbor-
hood, a cuisine, a bunch of “perfect for” [recom-
mendations], which ends up being searchable
query information. It creates a database rather
than a bunch of articles that aren’t organized in
any way. . . . I was in London for a conference and
saw this email [from Google’s former corporate
development manager, Sarah Hughes] as I was
getting out of a taxi to jump into a restaurant.
They were like, “Look, we’re going to sell this
thing and we thought you guys might want to
be involved based on the space you’re in.” I never
really asked who else was in the mix. We just focused on making a compelling case for why we
were the right home.
Tim: [Stang and Steinthal] certainly seem to
understand the values we care about, and we
want to be helpful to them. What precisely they
are planning to do, we will learn in due course.
Stang: Rarely are restaurant opinions a zero-sum game. We’d like to see a world in which you
can see both the critic’s score from The Infatuation and a community score from Zagat in the
Myhrvold: We’ve not [yet] seen the perfect marriage of what technology can do and what a brand
can mean [in terms of content online]. Maybe
this last incarnation will do it.
Waters: I would like to think that there’s always
a place for a [printed] guide. It’s not like a computer, [which figures] out what it thinks you’re
going to like and only shows you that. Sometimes
you find things that you wouldn’t expect, and
that interest you.
Stang: The number-one reaction I get from people when I talk to them about [Zagat] is nostalgia,
and that’s a powerful thing. . . . We’re going to
print guides again. It’s something we have to figure out, but it’s something we are going to do.
Tim Zagat: There was a
kosher restaurant, and we
didn’t mention it as being
kosher. They sent us a nasty
note and said it was creating
havoc. All these people
were coming in, and when
they found out that it was
kosher they got up and le;.
I got it straightened out
in a subsequent printing.
Then [the owner] got upset
because he’d decided he
[didn’t want to be] kosher
anymore, he was getting so
Allan Ripp, former Zagat
PR director: At one point,
we compared foot traffic
and food ratings among
some of the high-end and
lower-end places. The
restaurant run by the
[chef who inspired] the
Seinfeld Soup Nazi, its food
ratings were higher than
Le Cirque. . . . [Zagat wasn’t
merely] riding a wave
of a culinary change in the
country but also helping
Alice Waters, owner, Chez
Panisse: I think [Zagat]
did open up people’s minds
about the world of food,
especially in big cities.
Kevin Suto, CEO,
Zachary’s Chicago Pizza:
In 2003, we were in the top
10 or something for most
popular in the Bay Area, and
that ruffled some feathers.
Danny Meyer, restaurateur; CEO, Union Square
Hospitality Group: I was a
junkie with all the statistics.
I [created] what I called the
value equation: It was basically adding up—for the top
50 restaurants—their food,
decor, and service scores
and dividing that number
by the cost of buying a meal
there: quality per dollar.
I would then do a plus-and-minus chart, an arrow up,
down, or sideways for every
single one. . . . [The guide]
was an annual report card.
. . . I started to pay bonuses
to our senior people at
Union Square Cafe based
on how we had done in those
scores. . . . I’ll never forget
the year that Shake Shack
[which Meyer founded]
made the top 50. Who
would have ever thought
a hamburger place would
do that? —BP
We Eat Now
By democratizing food,
Zagat altered the culinary
landscape forever. Here’s
how it felt from the inside.