In the early 1900s, when there were but 3500 cars in all of France, Andre and Edouard Michelin were the visionaries that understood that the success of the invention would require the journeys to be as risk free as possible.
This was quite a feat as roads at that time were not tarmac, nor were they marked and the vehicles in question frequently broke down. It fell upon the ‘hired help’ – as anyone wealthy enough to own a car, also employed a chauffeur – to navigate the safest route that would include accommodation, fuelling, servicing and tyre changing outlets.
And so the birth of the Michelin Guide.
By the mid 1920s there were over half a million cars in France, a growth which prompted Michelin to charge for the Guide for the very first time. This era also ushered the first Michelin Red Guide that we know and understand today – maps, recommended hotels, restaurant ranking with stars and so on. Nonetheless, Michelin remained parochially French for a further half a century before rapidly expanding around Europe.
The anonymous inspection system and closely guarded – some would say shrouded – secrecy of the ranking criteria remained. For whatever reason the star awards from the Michelin Guide became the key benchmark of success for chefs across France and Europe as well as a cultural phenomenon in France.
The Guide had moved unnoticed from a manual for the privileged motorist to a bible for the industry and tourist in equal measure. However, there has been no room for complacency, even the most conservative and established institutions must adapt to the times to survive and flourish.
The dawning of the 21st century has been a case in point and a turbulent ride for Michelin, with both internal and external challenges.
Internally, a former inspector, Pascal Remy, resigned and wrote a potentially explosive book called ‘An Inspector at the Table.’ Monsieur Remy alleged an array of less than noble practices, for example, that certain three star awards were retained by undeserving restaurants for mutual marketing purposes; that in one particular year there were only a handful of inspectors for the whole of France and most of them were occupied with filtering old data.
The response from Michelin was swift and strong with full page newspaper ads in France underlining their principals and practices. An exercise somewhat undermined by the gaffe of awarding stars to the Ostend Queen in a Benelux Guide prior to the opening of the restaurant.
External pressures have also come;noticeably from within the industry, with several prominent chefs speaking out at the cost, stress and unrelenting pressure of seeking and retaining the stars. A matter of particular prominence in the last ten years with chefs “giving up” their stars in protest.
Perhaps all of these happenings are more a reflection of the downside of success than an indicator of difficult times? It might appear that the guides have developed so much power they may set the trends rather than measure them; they may self serve rather than reader inform; they may pressurise rather than encourage.
Michelin consistently spell out that they are not consultants to the industry but designed to provide information to their readers. That said, there are no end of chefs seeking out the Holy Grail of the Michelin formula or prescription for recognition. This recognition extends far beyond the ego; the stars make money pure and simple.
However, the power of Michelin can only be maintained should they sustain the faith of the reader and while this may have been shaken by Remy and Industry events, the greater threat lies with technology. The reader today is faced with the near boundless opportunities provided by the internet. This can be a double edged sword for businesses – adapt and find a wider audience or die.
A little dramatic perhaps, but millions of restaurant visitors from around Europe and the World are writing their views and reviews online; a paperback guide is relevant as a benchmark at a point in time once a year, new internet reviews are available daily. Shouldn’t this change make guides such as Michelin obsolete? At the very least provide a stern test of the strength of the brand?
Michelin have been quick to go some way to embrace this potential threat as an opportunity with the development of the online www.viamichelin.com; a free to access version of all the European Guides. Over the last 18 months, the website has significantly improved its value and ease of use to the ‘surfer’ and must generate significant revenue for Michelin in its own right – a potential opportunity perhaps to invest in more frequent assessments and updates to the readers.
They have also demonstrated a proactive move to broaden the brand; the introduction of the first US edition (New York), scheduled for September 2005; the Guide to Pubs in Britain to reflect the rise of Gastro Pubs; the introduction of an in-car satellite navigation system guide; a new six tier rating system <<les espoirs>> in France.
Fashions in the industry will continue to come and go – today it is molecular gastronomy and less salubrious surroundings; Michelin reflect that change. As with their marking system everything is well considered and reflects a confidence and stamp of quality in decision making for their readers.
Add to this the dramatically improved transparency in measurement, management and practices (as demonstrated by the 2005 press pack and their first ever internet interview ) you find a Michelin Guide moving forward at pace, evolving as ever in the innovative spirit of Andre and Edouard Michelin: A Guide which no doubt is in safe hands for the 21st century, both as a leader to readers and industry members alike, in whatever guise or whichever market segment the reader dictates.