No, it’s not another case of millennial melodrama: the PR Food Fight is a real, ongoing conflict in the Food PR industry. The rise of social media in the last decade has been rapid, bringing a new set of both problems and solutions to modern society. This includes the rise of foodies (people obsessed with taking pictures of their food and going on food adventures), food porn (for those who like to peruse albums of well-taken, high quality pictures of food) and food reviews from everyday consumers on sites like Yelp. These developments, however, have become a threat to the classic star tier system set by the age-old Michelin Guide. With access to the internet and the shift in power from critics to the public and influencers, does the Michelin Guide still hold authority over restaurants and their potential publicity and reputations? Or is it finally getting 86ed from the menu?
Michelin Stars: The Decorated Veteran
If you thought the name sounded familiar, it’s because it is: the same makers of the Michelin tires, brothers Édouard and André Michelin, created the Michelin Guide in 1900. The Michelin Guide was a guidebook detailing the best places to eat, the best hotels to stay in, etc., in France. The Michelin brothers hoped that people would buy their guide and drive around so much that it would cause them to wear out their tires and buy more; while that actually may have happened for some, the Michelin Guide’s bigger outcome was its evolution from a review book to the holy grail of the culinary world.
The guide ranks restaurants from one to three stars. When a restaurant receives one star, it’s touted as being “a very good restaurant”; two stars makes the establishment “worth a detour,” and three stars makes it “worth a special journey.” Receiving even one star puts a restaurant on the map and gives them an elite status. Eateries never know when a reviewer is coming as Michelin reviewers dine without announcement and never reveal their identities. Michelin is so secretive about their reviewer pool that they don’t allow their reviewers to tell even friends or family that they have been hired as an official reviewer. Michelin only tends to pick restaurants that are traditional “fine dining establishments,” though it has picked against tradition in the past much to everyone’s surprise.
New York Magazine and Zagat are well known food reviewers, too, but Michelin towers over all reviewers when it comes to determining the best of fine dining. In the time before the internet and social media, consumers relied heavily on reviewers for the 4-1-1 on the best places to eat. Having a Michelin star subsequently increased revenue and popularity and brought in diners from all around the world. This also put incredible pressure on the chefs, as chefs were expected to both keep up with the new demand and maintain the perfection that brought them their star(s). If a Michelin reviewer returned and saw a drop in quality, the restaurant risked a loss of its star(s), which could be devastating for sales and prestige; the pressure was so bad for Chef Bernard Loiseau that he committed suicide in 2003 after an article went out predicting his restaurant would lose a Michelin star. For the record, Loiseau never actually lost a star.
The guide doesn’t cover every single restaurant in the world, but it does cover the major city areas of many different countries, like Japan, the U.S., and France. Michelin only made it to the US in 2004, but it’s taken a hold over the country regardless. This only goes to show that the impartiality of a food critic’s trained palette is absolutely necessary to set a standard for food and restaurant quality.
Or is it?
Yelp: The People’s Choice
Right around the time Michelin came to America, Yelp was created by Jeremy Stoppelman and Russell Simmons. In an almost protest-like manner to professional critics, the site allowed everyday consumers to write public, unsolicited reviews about businesses.
All any consumer needs to do is make an account, write a review about a place, and rate it out of five. The more stars and positive reviews a business has, the more well received it looks to the public. That, in turn, would lead to an increase in popularity and sales.
The rise of Yelp has led to the rise of public opinion’s influence in society. With a mobile device, tablet, or personal computer, anyone can review a restaurant and, if they wanted to, capture evidence to support their review in real time. No longer would people have to look to a single man or woman to dictate the public opinion on a food item or establishment; now, everyone could decide for themselves and recommend (or recommend against) a place with their own voice. Because Michelin only covers major areas, Yelp also sports an advantage in being able to cover every other place outside of Michelin’s radar, particularly places that aren’t considered purveyors of “fine dining.”
While many official critics have blasted the site for its lack of impartiality and possible abuses, Yelp and its users have taken a stronghold on the world, especially the culinary world. According to FiveThirtyEight, restaurants with high Yelp ratings show the same sale and popularity increases as Michelin star restaurants, and restaurant with a Michelin star rating also tend to have similarly high Yelp ratings. With this data, it seems possible that there might not be a need for the Michelin Guide if Yelp is able to achieve the same results and is more consumer friendly.
Instagram: The Unexpected Underdog
The food fight was originally only between Yelp and Michelin, but the rise of foodies and food porn on Instagram in recent years has led to the social platform becoming competition, particularly for Michelin because it allies well with Yelp.
Gen Z and millennials have an obsession with diets, they also have a similarly large obsession with capturing pictures of food and posting it online for all to see. Popularly shared photos of food from any one place can cause a restaurant’s sales and popularity to surge immensely because the over 800 million users are quick to trust and like what they see; the more unique or “cool” looking the dish is, the bigger the effect.
Similarly to Yelp, Instagram puts the power in the hands of the people and allows them to make popular the foods that they, not the critics, like; it also acts as a double-edged sword, however, as critics who’ve garnered enough followers will be able to have greater influence over an establishment. If the critic happens to be a social media influencer, the critic gets an even bigger voice in deciding whether or not a place is worth eating at.
So who’s the winner of this food fight? We wish we could say who, but it looks like the war is far from over. The rise of Yelp and Instagram should’ve predicted the fall of the Michelin Guide, as with Netflix and Blockbuster and Amazon and Toys ‘R Us, but it looks like the guide isn’t letting go of the reigns quite yet. Only time will tell who will win, if a collaboration can be agreed on, or if a new contender will take the food world by storm. So, for now, settle down and grab a bucket of popcorn: this cook-off is going to be a while.