The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Robert Krughoff, founder of Consumers’ Checkbook, dies at 80

Long before the creation of websites like Yelp, he founded a D.C. organization to steer area residents to good local businesses

Robert Krughoff in 2006, at an auto shop near his home on Capitol Hill in D.C. His experience with another auto shop, in Prince George's County, Md., helped motivate him to start the magazine Washington Consumers' Checkbook, which published its first issue in 1976. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
7 min

Not long after he pulled out of a Prince George’s County auto shop for the third time in two weeks, Robert Krughoff realized that his car was still not fixed. Soon, he knew, he’d have to go back a fourth time — or, better yet, find another shop.

“There ought to be a way to find who does good service work, not just what the good products are,” he later recalled thinking.

Mr. Krughoff, then a 29-year-old federal official, had always liked to find a deal. He was, he acknowledged, the kind of person who would get estimates from a half-dozen companies before buying lumber, installing carpeting or waterproofing the basement of his townhouse on Capitol Hill.

If Consumer Reports could test and review products nationwide, he figured, there was no reason a local publication couldn’t review area stores and services, helping readers avoid the kind of fiasco he had encountered while trying to get the engine of his Opel Kadett coupe fixed.

Four years later, in 1976, Mr. Krughoff brought his shopper’s guide to life, putting out the first issue of Washington Consumers’ Checkbook, an ad-free, semiannual magazine released through a nonprofit organization that he led on K Street NW.

Long before the creation of websites like Yelp and Angie’s List, the publication served as an indispensable resource for readers looking for recommendations on service providers ranging from plumbers to funeral homes to dentists.

Mr. Krughoff, who was 80 when he died Feb. 26 at his home in Washington, spent the next half-century building his organization into a force for readers across the country.

Checkbook, as it is known, now covers seven regions, from Boston to Seattle, and says it attracts more than 190,000 unique visitors a month to its website. The organization is still trying to keep customers from getting ripped off, an issue that Mr. Krughoff believed was “every bit as big a problem as it was” when he got started.

“Astoundingly, there’s very little relationship between quality and price,” he told The Washington Post in 2022, a few months after retiring as president of Checkbook’s parent organization, the Center for the Study of Services.

Before he started Checkbook, Mr. Krughoff had little experience in publishing, aside from helping to launch a student newspaper in the Bronx during a short stint as a junior high school teacher. Still, he knew something about evaluating services. At the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, he was the director of the newly formed Office of Research and Evaluation Planning, which studied the effectiveness of neighborhood health centers and childhood education programs, among other initiatives.

“I didn’t know fully what I was going into,” he told The Post in 1979, looking back on the transition from government work to a bare-bones, nonprofit operation in which he and his employees sometimes resorted to salvaging office furniture from the street. “It’s a bit of an adjustment going from having two secretaries waiting to take dictation from you to having to carry your own mailbags to the post office.”

Within a few years of its founding, Checkbook had 20,000 Washington-area subscribers and six full-time employees. Its guides were based on reader surveys as well as independent research, with staffers engaged in “undercover shopping,” as Mr. Krughoff put it, to compare prices charged by local businesses. The publication also talked to people in the know, interviewing members of the clergy for a guide to funeral homes and EMTs for a report on emergency-room care.

Some businesses complained about the results, questioning Mr. Krughoff’s vetting process or complaining that their ratings were too low. But subscribers remained loyal, and Checkbook eventually expanded to launch a car-buying service, CarBargains, and a guide to top doctors and other health-care providers.

Checkbook’s work was frequently cited by mainstream news outlets, and Mr. Krughoff was quoted by publications including The Post and New York Times, offering guidance intended to help readers choose a retirement account, health plan or long-distance phone line. Eager to share his findings, he was even willing to speak with people on the phone — about auto shops, perhaps, or exterminators or tailors — regardless of whether they subscribed to Checkbook.

“I would rather talk to them all day long,” he told The Post in 2006, “than have them not use this resource.”

The younger of two children, Robert Merrill Krughoff was born in Dallas on Oct. 11, 1942. He grew up in White Plains, N.Y., where his mother was a high school English teacher. His father worked for the Community Chest nonprofit charity network, now known as United Way.

Mr. Krughoff said he learned the importance of finding a good service provider as a teenager, when he went to the dentist and had what he later described as the worst consumer experience of his life. “There should have been a picture of my bottom teeth in the paper that said, ‘This is the work of Dr. …,’” he said.

In 1964, he received a bachelor’s degree from Amherst College in Massachusetts. He graduated from the University of Chicago Law School three years later but discovered that he was more interested in the theory of law than the practice and gave up his legal career to try teaching. In 1969, he joined HEW, now the Department of Health and Human Services.

Five years later, he formed the Center for the Study of Services, launching the organization with help from about $50,000 in grant money from the Cafritz Foundation, the U.S. Office of Consumer Affairs and the Consumers Union, which allowed him to survey its Washington-area subscribers through an ad in Consumer Reports magazine.

“That was a tremendous boost,” Mr. Krughoff said. “All we had to do was pay for the printing of the questionnaire itself, but the whole ride, in and out, was free.”

The first issue of Checkbook, devoted entirely to health care, ran 112 pages and sold at newsstands and bookstores for $4.95. The next few editions were also organized around a single subject: cars, home maintenance, finance. Checkbook expanded to the San Francisco area in 1981 and added five more regions in 2003.

By temperament alone, Mr. Krughoff was perhaps ideally suited to run the organization. Obsessed with research and intensely skeptical of “too good to be true” business claims, he was devoted to finding the best service or product, regardless of convenience. “He will drive to Philadelphia for a used car,” The Post reported. “His employees joke that he would travel five times farther than the average person to save $10.”

Checkbook made headlines after it sued the federal government in 2006, seeking access to Medicare claims data as part of an attempt to study physician performance nationwide. The group hoped the records would make it possible to identify medical providers with special expertise and to uncover fraud and abuse while analyzing which doctors ordered unnecessary tests or hospitalizations. Medical groups said the disclosures would violate physicians’ privacy and lead to an inaccurate picture of their work.

A lengthy legal tussle ensued. A federal judge in Washington sided with Checkbook, but his ruling was reversed by an appeals court in 2009. Five years later, Medicare officials announced that they were changing their data policy, and began releasing statistics that offered insight into physician billing practices.

Mr. Krughoff’s death was confirmed by his wife, the former Gayle Gehring, whom he married in 1966. She said his health had declined since late December, when he suffered a fall. In addition to his wife, of Washington, survivors include two children, Alex of Washington and Anna of San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua; a sister; and three grandchildren.

Before the fall, Mr. Krughoff was still playing tennis and working around the house and neighborhood. He set up a community pickleball court on Capitol Hill, according to his wife; poured his own concrete in the backyard; and did his own painting.

He preferred to do the work himself, he said, even if Checkbook recommended plenty of people he could hire.