How Did a Tire Company Become the Authority on Fine-Dining?

James Logie
Photo by Jametlene Reskp on Unsplash

What’s the best meal you’ve ever had? I’m sure it still sticks out to this day.

If you’ve had the opportunity to dine in a Michelin-starred restaurant, you know how special it is.

But what does a tire company have to do with food? Michelin is one of the biggest tire makers in the world and has also determined what the very best restaurants in existence are.

The Michelin Guide is the bible when it comes to fine dining, and a coveted 3-star award makes that restaurant part of a very select group.

How did a tire maker become the authority on where the best places to eat are? It all started with a way to get people to drive more.

What is the Michelin Guide?

The Michelin Guide first launched in France in 1889 — but didn’t start out as the definitive guide to fine dining.

It began as a simple road guide for places to get gas, eat, or stay. The guide also contained maps and showed how to change a tire.

Things changed in 1926 when they started awarding a star to the best places to eat.

This evolved into a three-star system in 1931. Three stars would be awarded to the very best restaurants.

In 1936, they laid out their guidelines for each star.

1 Star: A very good restaurant in its category
2 Stars: Excellent cooking, worth a detour
3 Stars: Exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey

As the guide grew, so did its influence. It was soon considered the only guide that counted.

Being featured in the Michelin Guide would now take your restaurant to a new level.

The guide then expanded beyond Paris and France and spread to other countries and cities.

The Michelin inspectors were anonymous, so restaurants never knew when they were coming.

This would keep locations on their toes, as you never knew when one might show up.

Here are some interesting facts regarding the Michelin Guide:

  • Currently, there are only 132 three-star restaurants in the world
  • As of 2021, there are 417 two-star restaurants and 2,290 with one star
  • The country with the most 3-star restaurants is a tie between France and Japan with 29
  • The city with the most 3-star restaurants is Tokyo with 11
  • The chef with the most Michelin stars to their name is Alain Ducasse with 20

So What Does a Tire Company Have to Do With All This?

Brothers Andre and Edouard Michelin started the Michelin Tire Company in 1889. At that time, the French automotive industry was in its infancy.

Many were dismissing the automobile as a fad, but the brothers saw that this was a world-altering advancement.

They wanted to be involved in this emerging industry but didn’t know in what capacity. When they started the company, there were fewer than 3,000 cars on the road.

The brothers realized that certain parts of the cars would not last forever — specifically the tires.

If the car industry grew, so would the need for replacement tires. But when they started the company, people rarely took long trips.

Most cars were used for brief trips, joy rides, and just the experience of traveling in a “motorized carriage.”

Tires were lasting a long time.

This is where the creation of the Michelin Guide became a brilliant piece of marketing.

The idea behind the guide was to get people to travel further than they intended.

If there was a new place to eat or stay that looked good — it was worth taking your new car on a longer journey.

This strategy created a double-pronged effect. The first — and their primary intention — was that it would cause car owners to drive further, leading to their tires wearing out quicker.

The next was a bit unintentional. The desire to go to these previously inaccessible destinations would lead to a boost in automobile sales and, in turn, tire sales.

We Only Truly Respect What We Pay For

This mindset took the Michelin Guide to the next level. The Michelin Guide started out as a free product.

It was one day around 1920 when Andre Michelin stopped at a tire shop that he realized their mistake.

There, in the shop, was a stack of his guides being used to prop up a workbench. Michelin realized that a free guide didn’t have any perceived value.

Paying for something instantly increases that value. And that’s what they needed to do with the Michelin Guide.

The Michelin brothers went by the premise that “a man only truly respects what he pays for,” and they started charging for their guide. In 1920, the Michelin Guide would now cost 7 francs.

But with the price change came even more value — and this is what’s important to note.

Changing the price of something just for the sake of it may often backfire, but if you increase the value beyond what was originally there — it becomes even more valuable.

The new guide would include hotel recommendations, specifically in Paris. It also included a list of restaurants according to specific categories.

Charging for the guide also allowed them to take out all the paid advertisements.

For any motorist, the Michelin Guide now became an automatic purchase. From there, the guide grew, and it became a major influence on where people would eat.

This is around the time the brothers realized how powerful the guide was becoming, and they started using anonymous mystery diners/restaurant inspectors to visit and provide reviews.

Final Thoughts

The simple idea to help sell and market their tires would change the culinary world.

The guide has reviewed over 30,000 restaurants over 3 continents. The guides have also sold over 30 million copies.

It was a simple — but very effective — idea. As always, it’s about providing the most value possible.

With their book, the brothers created the definitive guide to make driving and tourism more accessible for the masses.

And to lead to a lot more worn-out tires in the process…

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Personal trainer, podcaster, Amazon best-selling author. Writing about some health, a little marketing, and a whole lot of 1980s.


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