What Price Michelin?

The economics behind the Michelin Guide's expansion into Florida

Photo by Rene Asmussen
Photo by Rene Asmussen via Pexels

As the familiar saying goes, there’s good news and bad news: The Michelin Guide is coming to Florida, but Palm Beach and Naples won’t be covered. The three target cities will be Miami, Orlando and Tampa.

However, it turns out there’s an interesting backstory to this significant culinary development. The Miami Herald reports that Visit Florida, the state’s tourism and marketing agency, struck a deal with Michelin to make it happen. The amount of money paid to Michelin hasn’t been disclosed, but the Herald states that organizations representing the three metro areas (Visit Orlando, Visit Tampa and the Greater Miami Convention and Visitor’s Bureau) chipped in to lure the Guide to the Sunshine State.

This type of arrangement is not new. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Visit California paid Michelin $600,000 in 2019 to expand beyond the Bay Area to the rest of the state. Thailand pays more than $880,000 to sponsor the Guide each year, and Michelin ventured into Korea after the Korean Tourism Board paid $1.8 million for a multi-year deal. While the details of the Florida contract are still unknown, the COO of the Greater Miami Convention and Visitor’s Bureau stated that “It is a significant investment for all parties.”

Photo by Taryn Elliott via Pexels
Photo by Taryn Elliott via Pexels

Michelin is a powerful brand in the international culinary world, and the impact on a restaurant of receiving a Michelin star can be enormous. The Guide debuted in 1900 and was initially distributed free to drivers by the tire company; it contained information on gas stations, mechanics and hotels throughout France. Michelin began reviewing restaurants in the 1920s, and the current star system was instituted in 1931. Top establishments are ranked as one star (“a very good restaurant in its category”), two (“excellent cooking, worth a detour”) and three (“exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey”).

This pay-to-play arrangement raises uncomfortable questions about the value of the Guide’s recommendations. After insisting for many years that their inspectors be scrupulously incorruptible, why is Michelin now accepting payoffs on their behalf? And having taken hundreds of thousands (or millions) or dollars from local tourism agencies, does anyone expect Michelin to decide there are no restaurants worthy of stars in a sponsoring city? Can anyone believe that a starred restaurant in a sponsored city is superior to restaurants in another city that refused to pony up cash for inclusion in the Guide? Can we assume that editions of the Guide that were discontinued, such as Las Vegas, disappeared because the flow of money was turned off?

There’s a further irony: restaurateurs frequently complain about the proliferation of online review platforms such as Yelp and TripAdvisor, which feature reviews by “unqualified” consumers who are not being paid (most of the time, anyway). In the midst of all the noise, Michelin was supposed to be objective and above influence. Everything changes.

 

Mark Spivak specializes in wine, spirits, food, restaurants and culinary travel. He is the author of several books on distilled spirits and the cocktail culture, as well as three novels. His first novel, Friend of the Devil, has been re-released on Amazon in print, e-book and audio book formats.

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