Do Michelin stars still shine?

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The restaurant rating guide’s latest round of stars has been met with the usual criticism, so should it still be held as a benchmark for quality restaurant brands?

You can never please them all, as motoring brand and authority in fine dining Michelin has learnt in the last few years, as more and more people have begun to question the validity of Michelin stars, labelling them as irrelevant, staid, and a narrow view of what defines good food.

But it’s just one element of how the restaurant industry can track the performance and future potential of its brands, particularly with the increasing brand power of the celebrity chef phenomenon, among the likes of those who have earned the right to be discussed in casual office conversation using their first names only (Heston, Jamie, Gordon, etc.)

Like all brand trackers, it’s a form of market research, and a gauge of performance and standards. It may not be democratic enough to be classed as the YouGov or Nielsen of the restaurant world, but Michelin’s brand power is enough to increase or decrease the brand power of the associated restaurants and chefs.

Restaurants use their possession of a Michelin star as a marketing tool, in the same way many FMCG brands use a seal of approval to gain a USP ahead of their competitors. Michelin has also become a pricing benchmark, with prices rising or falling in line with the awarding/removal of stars. It caused Gordon Ramsay to revaluate both his brand and food strategy after the loss of a star last year.

Michelin stars may not be welcomed or agreed on by all, but there is no doubt that it is an authority; a brand in its own right, and an easily recognisable shortcut with a clearly understood identity and definition. And the way Michelin has developed this side of its brand by using anonymous judges adds to the intrigue and desirability of a star.

Like all brand rankings and awards systems, lists will have their shortcomings. Michelin comes up against AAA Diamonds, but restaurants pay to get involved in this scheme whereas Michelin foots the bill for its anonymous judges to visit restaurants for consideration for a star.

The trendy San Pellegrino Top 50 appears more democratic, with the final list the result of a poll of 837 global food experts, rating restaurants they have dined in the last 18 months, which is a less strict way of deciding who makes the list and who doesn’t. And, as it’s only been around since 2002, it has yet to establish the heritage and brand power of Michelin.

Michelin has faced critics but to its credit has evolved to include cuisine outside the French stereotype it has been panned for, proving that fine dining can be creative, and diverse – with this year’s star winners including a village pub in Somerset and a café in Richmond. The guide also includes “Bib Gourmand” awards, for those restaurants that are not starred, but are an indication of good food at a reasonable price.

As long as Michelin continues to evolve, and is upheld by the industry with chefs celebrating and mourning the gain and loss of stars, it will continue to defy its critics.

But in saying that, it must not rest on its laurels. The San Pellegrino listing has gained a fast and loyal following with many preferring its methodology over Michelin’s.

Certainly, its branding appears to be a more of a natural link to the food sector than a tyre company.

I will be interested to see how Michelin continues to maintain its place as the leading ranking system for restaurants and chefs, and stops its more youthful competitor from nudging ahead in popularity and respect.

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