Michelin Guides: Can the once-revered restaurant bible become relevant again?

Stories from the Financial Times. 
July 17 2011 8:25 AM

Rating the Michelin Guide

Can the once-revered restaurant bible become relevant again?

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And Michelin has been burnt in the past after it put out a favourable review of a Belgian restaurant even though it was shown later to have not yet opened. A tell-all book by a disgruntled inspector in 2004 alleged that his former colleagues, who work incognito, sometimes play favorites with chefs and do not always visit reviewed restaurants as often as they say. (Michelin inspectors, of whom there are 90 worldwide, visit each premises once every 18 months—more frequently if the quality of food is seen to be improving or worsening.)

Dorland-Clauzel, the Michelin executive, indicates that the possibility of offering services may be considered, though it is too early to say how this might work. But she insists that "the independence and autonomy of how we select restaurants is going to continue, it is key. We will not compromise this … People think we are honest and they trust that."

The big problem for Michelin, as for all publishing companies, is how to make money from the internet as younger people shun their heavy guide books and flock instead to online sites such as ­toptable.com with their constantly updated, user-generated reviews. While Michelin has developed an app for the iPhone, the guide itself has a limited online presence—found by trawling through ViaMichelin.com, a complicated travel itinerary service.

For Naret this failure to create a "beautiful" red book website is a source of great frustration. "The internet was one of my biggest battles over the last seven years," he says. "I remember before I left in December having the same conversation about it with the same people who were in charge seven years ago and they still didn't understand what the Michelin guide was all about. Obviously something is wrong there."

In response, Dorland-Clauzel acknowledges that "we have to move, for sure, but we have started to do that." Harden also defends his rival, admitting that "if you look at all of the brands that have authority offline, none of us has really discovered a brilliant online business model, because nothing really works with all that free stuff out there".

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Better news for devotees of the red book's star-system is found in a separate internal study carried out for those now running the company, who wanted to know just how much all that Guide Michelin publicity was worth to the bread and butter business of selling tyres. The study shows that the presence of Guide Michelin in a country means people are up to 3 per cent more likely to buy its tyres. With €5bn of tyre sales in the first three months of this year alone, these are figures to be taken seriously. Certainly, defenders of the faith are eager to stress the huge amount of "buzz" every time a guide is launched or Michelin starts covering a new city.

"When we launched in Tokyo, there were 150 people at the press conference, and 12 hours of prime-time TV and interviews," says Naret. "That was really very clever in front of Bridgestone [a big tyre-making rival] in their home town, and this is the basic idea behind the guide going back to when it was launched more than 100 years ago."

While the company has been forced to close the Guide Michelin in Austria, Los Angeles and Las Vegas, the belief remains that new books could help it crack crucial tyre markets such as China and Brazil.

One thing, however, is certain. Whatever changes are decided upon by Senard as he gradually takes control, he will want to make sure that the cherished red book does not become a rallying point for disgruntled Michelin family members.

Dorland-Clauzel claims that the family now owns only about 3 per cent of Michelin, though some industry analysts believe this is closer to 10 per cent and she declines to say how many of the voting rights they control. "A lot of people think it is a family-owned company, but it is not at all, not for a long time. It is in terms of values, which are very strong and important, but not in terms of ownership."

Nevertheless, given the Guide Michelin's heritage in France and the cultural and political clout it bestows on those bearing the name, it would be foolish to ignore their views entirely. For now the family is keeping its counsel, but the person who knows the company well says "everybody has heard that they are not happy [about the more financial approach] … I think they [the Michelins] still love the guide. What industrial company has such a powerful communications tool? I'm not sure such a thing exists."

This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.

James Boxell is the FT's Paris correspondent.