Michelin at the Crossroads: Lawsuits, Downsizing and Bad Press.

As Michelin Travel Partner enters its 20th year since becoming a separate entity from the parent tire manufacturer Michelin SA, the breaking-off can be likened to a billionaire father who tells his college-graduate son that he is now on his own, but if he ever needs $50,000,000 to start a company, all he needs to do is to pick up the phone. How much longer Michelin SA will throw out lifelines is presently unknown, but as Michelin Travel Partner begins the new decade, it nonetheless is carrying much on its Michelin Plate. It is being sued in France and Korea; its various guides in Asia are viewed as suspect and tainted with scandal; in early December it sold Bookatable to TripAdvisor to salvage whatever it could from its unwise purchase (rumored to be around one hundred million euros) four years ago; and hardly a month goes by when the French press doesn’t write a negative story about these events and Michelin’s loss of relevance and influence among the other disseminators of ratings and rank-order lists that exist in the digital dining universe.

Front and center as chief spokesman is the 39-year-old International Director of Michelin Guides Gwendal Poullennec, one of whose jobs it is to put out the continuing brush fires. His problem is that he cloaks himself in self-importance with the result that he comes across as arrogant, humorless, stiff and unappealing. At every opportunity, he invokes his inspectors, who by every indication are a dying breed, perhaps even all but dead. Apparently he has expanded the definition of a Michelin inspector from a full-time cadre of mostly males who allegedly undergo a rigorous training regime in France to also include blogger types who, according to various French headwaiters, are so gaga about carrying out inspections for Michelin that they partially pay for meals and openly brag about the work they are doing. Poullennec makes one wonder if Michelin Travel Partner is too frugal to hire an effective public relations firm.

Nothing has exposed the lack of rigor in the Michelin inspection regime more than Marc Veyrat’s lawsuit. Not only has it received universal attention, but it also strikes at the heart of the competence of the inspectors. (I should add that the execution and the rigor of the inspections and to what extent they exist are highly questionable since the typical inspection is random, carried out by one person and comprised of a single meal—hardly substantial in judging restaurants, which can be variable from one service to the next.) By the time some of you have read this, the decision from the Tribunal of Nanterre will have already come down, but it might be secondary to what Veyrat has exposed. One point that no one seems to have made is what happened to the numerous inspections (including those by the guide director himself) that are supposed to have taken place when a restaurant is a prime candidate to gain or lose a third star. As I write this, two weeks before the decision on December 31, 2019, I see the possibility of a wishy-washy decision in which there is no clear winner. It is hard to imagine a judge trampling on Michelin’s freedom or right of expression by rendering a decision that would by extension be applicable to other guidebooks and newspapers, or wherever restaurant reviewing and rating takes place in France. (Whether the Tribunal awards Michelin the 30,000 euros they are asking for seems unlikely). Yet by calling out Michelin and the glaring mistakes Poullennec revealed during his meeting with Veyrat at Michelin’s headquarters, he (Veyrat) has already won a practical victory. Another wild card here is if the Tribunal grants chefs the right to opt-out of the guide and if it has anything to say about the rigor of Michelin’s anonymous inspections.

Gathering almost as much media play is Michelin’s relatively recent foray into Asia. While the Tokyo Guide hasn’t come under scrutiny, the Korea and Hong Kong ones have. You can read about them in some detail on this site, but since their appearance, the shaken-down woman restaurateur in Seoul has filed a lawsuit. Eater article. Also, Michelin has recently published its first guide to Beijing that is already controversial. Beijing Guide One rumor floating in the background is that Beijing paid Michelin $5,000,000, but so far no one outside of Michelin knows for how many annual editions. With only 100 restaurants listed (TripAdvisor lists of 6000 serving Chinese cuisine in Beijing) the project appears to have been hastily assembled.

Michelin’s sale of Bookatable to TripAdvisor is the most intriguing recent development. Bookatable sale. In return for being bailed out from a restaurant reservations platform that Michelin (perhaps vastly) overpaid for during its frenzy to create a varied on-line presence, Michelin gets to put its ratings besides each applicable restaurant’s name on the TripAdvisor website. Bookatable now becomes absorbed into TripAdvisor-owned La Fourchette. Its (La Fourchette’s) founder Bertrand Jelensperger who now is the head of TripAdvisor’s restaurant sector, claims that “We have not tried to save the Michelin Guides and we do not intend to buy it”. In a head-scratching utterance, Poullennec actually stated that TripAdvisor readers will need to choose between what amateur restaurant patrons write in the TripAdvisor review section of each restaurant and what the supposed Michelin inspectors decide, therefore diluting in one sentence their training and expertise and the awarding and prestige since 1931 of Michelin stars.

What will become of Michelin’s printed guides and websites is yet to be known. Besides the printed guides, there is viamichelin.com, which includes restaurants, hotels, tourist attractions, maps, route planning and weather and guide.michelin.com solely devoted to restaurant information and culinary articles. Regardless of how this plays out, Michelin reached its present state through near-colossal mismanagement, corrupt personnel in high places, and the lack of a vision or visionary leadership. Specifically, Michelin’s need to make the transition from all-print to mostly Internet resulted in costly stumbles from which they may never recover. It has also been overtaken by the sea change in the restaurant’s place in the popular culture that began in the latter part of the last century and comprises advances in technology; the role of both industrial additives and humble ingredients that have internationalized “fine dining” restaurants; restaurants becoming investment vehicles; chefs as conglomerateurs or empire builders with the inevitable dilution in quality; and the culinary media’s glorifying mediocrity that have diminished Michelin’s influence and sources of revenue. It finds itself going up against rating and list mania compared to its glory days when it had a deliberative near- monopoly in the conferring of judgments and ratings. We will have a better idea of whether or how Michelin continues when another shoe drops—if it will no longer exist or carries on in a diminished way. I have heard it said that only a few board members of the tire company; i.e.–Michelin family members who would change their minds if the guide business does  harm to the tire company– keep it from pulling the plug on Michelin Travel Partner. After all, a Michelin star is still very attention-getting and the most prestigious badge a restaurant can have, but to what extent and in what form Michelin Travel Partner can carry on remains for now up in the air.