Will TikTok eat lunch from the Michelin Guide?
Or would the guide, with its examination of more than 15,000 restaurants in 35 territories, then fall prey to the disruption that has toppled so many race keepers?
As with so many forms of modern culture – from music to books to film – the challenge could very well come from TikTok.
The short-form video app now has over a billion users. In America, 100 million people scroll through TikTok’s incredibly efficient recommendation algorithm and spend an average of 80 minutes a day on the app, “more than the time spent on Facebook and Instagram, combined” according to the Washington Post.
Meanwhile, TikTok’s video editing tools, quick 45-60 second dopamine hits, and full-screen visuals are tailor-made for the food.
“Searching for food on TikTok brings an experience you won’t find anywhere else on the internet,” says Danny Kim, a TikTok food influencer with 3.7 million followers on his handle @DannyGrubs. “Google and Yelp don’t show the full experience like walking into a restaurant and seeing the food come out in real time.”
Kim was previously an engineer, but turned to food media after her blog took off on the DC (Eat the Capital) food scene. Over the past year, he’s gone viral several times by issuing short chef challenges like “can you make a gourmet meal out of McDonald’s chicken nuggets?”
In a phone conversation, Kim tells me that these digital views turn into real foot traffic and that TikTok is the #1 converter for restaurants. The app attracts more people than Instagram, which is very popular with food influencers.
The TikTok-to-restaurant trend is hardly anecdotal. In June, a Google official said that “nearly 40% of young people, when they’re looking for a place to have lunch, they don’t go to Google Maps or search… they go to TikTok or Instagram.”
And short videos are now ubiquitous, with TikTok clones everywhere, from Instagram reels to YouTube shorts to Snap Spotlight (those apps would really take off if there were a US ban on Chinese-owned TikTok).
“I think Gen Z just prefers visual search,” says Turner Novak, a venture capitalist who is the founder of Banana Capital and writes The Split newsletter. “You see it in TikTok’s engagement, which has gotten to the point where Google is rolling out more visual search tools to mimic TikTok’s For You page.”
As the younger generation increasingly turn to TikTok for food recommendations, could Michelin become the culinary equivalent of the Oscars or Emmy Awards: one-off arbiters of excellence that lose relevance?
I posed this question to Ben Liebmann, former general manager of Noma, the 3-star Michelin restaurant founded by Danish chef superstar Rene Redzepi.
Liebmann listed the many threats to Michelin’s influence since the turn of the century:
• The World’s 50 Best Restaurants: Launched in 2002 by British media company William Reed Ltd., the brand surveys more than 1,000 food experts and then ranks the world’s restaurants from 1 to 50.
• “Chef’s Table”: The streaming show launched on Netflix in 2015, catapulting the chefs it featured to star status and increasing restaurant traffic (a popularity boost usually reserved for recipients of new Michelin stars)
• Instagram: The photo-sharing app was acquired by Facebook in 2012 and – with its glossy aesthetic – was social media canon for restaurants before TikTok (Liebmann says Instagram remains by far the most important social channel of Noma)
TikTok’s food recommendations are the latest upstart, but Michelin’s reputation — built around a system of anonymous inspectors and rigorous review guidelines — is still set high, according to Liebmann.
“I don’t think Michelin is going anywhere,” says Liebmann, who now runs Understory, a media consultancy and production company. “Does he need to redefine himself for a new generation? Or migrate its content and tell its stories on new platforms or new media? There are absolutely opportunities there. If you put aside what one thinks of the guide and the star-studded review, the brand still stands for something.
What do TikTok natives think of Michelin?
Kim (AKA @DannyGrubs) wants to know more about the star award process and feels that anonymous detectives are the polar opposite of an individual speaking directly to the camera. The latter puts authenticity first, which is very important to Gen-Z audiences. The founder of Eat the Capital nevertheless pays tribute to Michelin.
“One thing about Michelin, you’ll usually have a good dining experience,” says Kim. “It will be safe and there will be a standard that will be maintained for cleanliness and the chef will be on top.”
As a nod to the star-rating system, a few of @DannyGrubs’ challenges ask chefs to make a “Michelin-level” soup or dish with just $10 worth of ingredients.
Does Michelin even need a TikTok strategy?
Liebmann does not think so. To remain relevant in the decades to come, Michelin should not jump onto new platforms, but rather redouble its efforts on its original mission: to solve the question of where to go to eat.
Of course, the original Michelin Guide was founded to take French motorists around the continent in search of good food while driving on Michelin tires (the origin story has also become an incredible meme).
But in terms of global coverage, it’s still early days: the Guide didn’t even launch in America until 2005 before adding other major non-European economies in 2007 (Japan) and 2017 (China). And as my fellow columnist Bobby Ghosh recently noted, he’s only just arrived in Istanbul.
Although Michelin is now present online, the brand’s flagship products remain physical guides (over 30 million lifetime sales) and live events to reveal star ratings.
In recent years, tourist boards have paid for the platinum brand Michelin to launch a guide for their towns (to be clear, it’s just for the inspectors to show up). According to Eater, the South Korean tourism board paid Michelin $1.8 million to launch a guide to Seoul in 2016 and the Thai government paid $4.4 million over five years, starting with Bangkok in 2017.
A report by Ernst & Young suggests that this money is well spent: 71% of frequent flyers would “increase their spending if there was a Michelin Guide selection”.
As fate would have it, the newest to receive Michelin stars is much closer to me than Spain. In fact, that’s where I live: Vancouver (which also has a good supply of Aperol Spritzes). So keep your eyes peeled for a brief 30 second video describing my first Michelin meal in my hometown.
More from Bloomberg Opinion:
• The rise of an Indian restaurant mirrors that of Asheville: Bobby Ghosh
• Airbnb hosts who lose money have three options: Theresa Ghilarducci
• Burgerville is the future of fast food: Amanda Little
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Trung Phan is co-host of the Not Investment Advice podcast and writes the SatPost newsletter. He was previously the senior editor of Hustle, a tech newsletter.
More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion