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Michelin Guide history: How did a tire company become an elite restaurant rating guide?

·5 mins

If you scored a Valentine’s Day reservation at a swanky Michelin-starred restaurant this year, you might wonder why an elite restaurant rating guide has the same name as a company that makes tires. All-weather radials and fine dining have little in common, after all. But, to chefs and restaurant owners, recognition from the century-old Michelin tire brand is a lifelong dream.

The roots of what evolved into an incredibly influential ranking system did not begin with the intent of leading diners to the highest quality restaurants. If anything, it was a sneaky publicity campaign now legendary for its success.

In the later years of the 19th century, brothers André and Édouard Michelin had a business, and a problem. They had founded their tire company, based in the rural town of Clermont-Ferrand, about four hours south of Paris. At that time, there were fewer than 3,000 cars in their home country of France. Driving anywhere was no simple feat — there wasn’t an extensive network of roads and gasoline was hard to come by. They needed to give people a reason to drive more.

Enter a pocket-sized red book known as the Michelin Guide.

In the preface of the 1900 first edition of the guide, André explained the purpose of it was to provide ‘a driver all the necessary information for traveling in France — where to fill his tank, repair his car, as well as where to find a place to sleep and to eat.’

If people drove more, it would eventually cause the tires to get worn and as a result, increase tire purchases, the brothers thought.

For a while, the guide was distributed for free but that changed after André saw a copy of one being used to prop up a bench in a garage, according to the company.

The decision to charge a fee instead of relying on advertising came ‘as cars became cheaper and performed better,’ according to a book about Michelin.

As a result, more French people had a desire to tour the country, making the Michelin Guide increasingly essential. To further aid drivers, Michelin opened offices where tourists could consult experts to craft trip itineraries and get road maps for journeys across Europe, a concept similar to AAA, which launched around the same time.

‘Most of this information came from the company’s traveling (tire) salesmen, who spent much of their time on the roads and were, therefore, highly reliable and informed sources,’ the book said.

There’s no evidence the guide increased tire sales. However, it provided a new revenue stream for the company and served as a publicity tool that increased public confidence in driving.

Today, Michelin is a publicly traded company valued at nearly $24 billion and produces close to 200 million tires a year. The Michelin Guide now covers over 30,000 restaurants across three continents and more than 30 million guides have been sold.

By the late 1920s, Michelin’s restaurant recommendations in the guidebooks had become so influential that it prompted the brothers to launch a new venture involving hiring undercover diners, now referred to as inspectors, to determine if a restaurant was a fine dining establishment.

The ranking system evolved, but, to this day, the ratings put in place in the 1930s stand— one star means the restaurant is ‘worth a stop,’ two means it’s ‘worth a detour’ and three means it’s ‘worth a special journey.’

Gaining even a single star can put a restaurant on the map.

How do the secret inspections work? People have speculated that a tell-tale sign of a Michelin inspector is someone who dines alone at a fine-dining restaurant. On TikTok, some users have documented themselves getting ‘better’ treatment at Michelin-starred and fine-dining restaurants if they’re seated alone and take notes at the table.

However, a real Michelin inspector would likely never bring a notebook since that would blow their cover. They take great lengths to conceal their identity to avoid receiving any preferential treatment.

Furthermore, any restaurant that’s under consideration will have served multiple different inspectors who decide to award a star as a team, he added. This also helps determine if the restaurant delivers a consistent experience — one of five key criteria inspectors assess restaurants on.

The other criteria are: ’the quality of products, mastery of flavor and cooking techniques, the personality of the chef represented in the dining experience and harmony of the flavors.’

Inspectors compile their initial lists of restaurants that warrant an visit through various means including ’local and national media, social media and word-of-mouth recommendations,’ the director of the Michelin Guides said.

Barring any unknown extenuating factors, a restaurant can lose the stars they previously earned. For instance, Carbone, one of New York City’s most well-known Italian restaurants, was stripped of its only star in 2022.

But Carbone may be an outlier in that regard. For chefs, not only is losing a star seen as the biggest possible slap in the face but it can also turn diners away.

Chef Kevin Thornton’s Dublin restaurant, Thornton’s, closed after losing two of its stars.

He told CNN the loss of the stars didn’t impact sales and wasn’t the only reason he chose to close the restaurant. However, a news outlet reported a sharp decline in the restaurant’s profits when it lost its stars.

Thornton now runs a private dining business with his partner, cooking for guests in their own homes and teaching masterclasses in his kitchen.

But since the suicides of two noted chefs who were at risk of losing their Michelin stars Michelin ‘has taken steps to notify chefs personally in advance of notable star demotions, allowing the restaurant team time to process the news in private,’ the director said.

He also added that Michelin Guide inspectors don’t give any negative reviews: ‘Our inspectors provide only positive comments – stating that the restaurant and its cuisine is good or very good. We never criticize, and our inspectors aren’t critics.’

That doesn’t make the job of keeping and earning stars any easier, though.