When explaining what Biztronomy is - the missing link between business and gastronomy - some have looked at me in amusement and others in bewilderment. But as would a stubborn messiah, I persist in the broader belief that Gastronomy can save the world and the functional belief that this lies in its deep rooted link to business. Case in point, the Michelin company, creator of both the renown tires as well as the Michelin guide, pinnacle of culinary guides and unofficial gate keeper of the temple of high cuisine.
Indeed, we don’t necessarily make the connection when buying sturdy, asphalt dedicated rubber or choosing a select starred venue for a high-end meal, but both this spiritual guide as well as the tires were born at the dawn of the 20th century.
As a side note, the Michelin guide would become the little red book, a true and lasting spiritual guide.
Of course travel guides aren’t all that new. If you think TripAdvisor was innovative, think again.
Remember Archestrate, that greek traveller who gave the opportunity to coin the word gastronomy? Traveling in the 4th century B.C., Archestrate indicated the best places around the mediterranean to eat different varieties of fish. Please note that his first preoccupation was food, not shelter.
There is also the case of Ortensio Lando from Milan, who published in 1548 Commentario delle più notabili e monstruose cose d'Italia (« Comment on the most notable and monstrous things of Italy and other places ».
Then you have the notable case of Grimod de la Reynière, our French aristocrat, who can be considered as one of the founders of gastronomy and first real culinary critique. His role was fundamental in that he brought about a balance of power, counterbalancing the weight of the chef in the overall equilibrium, thus allowing the holy triad to take form. The King of Chefs and Chef of kings, Antonin Carême, disliked Grimod. Understandably, the benefit of involving a critique into this dynamic was very new and innovative.
Thus we realize travel guides go back a long way and that digitalization allowed first and foremost the mass to express itself. Our dear Toqueville would shudder at the idea, remembering how from this mass can come the dictatorship of a minority.
Now, as often in innovation, the final outcome isn’t the initial intent. When Edouard Michelin, one of the two brothers to take the helm of the company in 1886, launches the Michelin guide in 1900, the seminal intent was to give indications as to where to find a garage with their tires. This may turn out to be an early case of growth hacking, being innovative to reach your market.
As a good table guest or marketing person knows, to attract attention, don’t talk about yourself but about others. And so, the guide gave indications as to restaurants and hotels, mentioning for instance which ones offered a candle for the night stay. Yes, some things change, marketing doesn’t.
This narrative here being in line with an enjoyable dinner conversation, we will not delve into the the details of how the synergy worked between the tires and the little guide. But we can certainly imagine the contemporary business questions the two brothers had to confront, notably when deciding in 1906 to get rid of any publicity, a source of revenue, or in 1920 when the little guide stopped being free. How should they finance it? Wouldn’t this be considered like an extravagance in the overall cost structure? But the brothers held on to their guide.
The three star system was implemented in 1931 and it would become the standard bearer of our contemporary gastronomical organization, even if there are other guides around the world. As well detailed in Rick Fantasia’s book, the Michelin guide may have its alter ego to thank, the Gault & Millau, rating which was created as a reform for the new cuisine of the early 70s. While as the Michelin guide maintains a conservative and secretive approach, refusing any publicity, using anonymous inspectors, the Gault & Millau does exactly the opposite, spreading publicity in its guide, frolicking with chefs in open daylight, squandering openly in joyous conflict of interest: the Gault & Millau likes its chefs and the chefs make publicity for their Gault & Millau. This simply reminds remind us of the interest of healthy coopetition and efficient segmentation.
Where the parallels can speak to business savvy managers is when we compare the secretive approach of both the Michelin guide and Michelin tires. The family owned company maintained even into the early 21st century a strong culture of secrecy, built around a suspicion that intellectual property protection could only go so far. The issue however is that innovation is at the root of the tire business and innovation in a scruffy cosy paternalistic environment isn’t really conducive to creativity. Michelin, with the invention of the radial tire is well positioned to know this, having gone from tenth position in the 50s to world leader today. A paper by one of Michelin’s former top executives explains how they managed to move toward open innovation, which is quite a feat when working with expert engineers and highly educated managers who’ve been told everything has been already invented. With his teams, they broke down the silos and modified the process at its roots. To my great regret, this deep code change was attainted using stage acting, which is unfortunate when they could have used cooking seminars!
Now all of this is fine and nice for tires, but does it apply to a guide such as Michelin? While as some fields need innovation because technology advances, with its discoveries and plateaux, others on the contrary find their strength in their roots, in a heritage.
But the chefs and the tires may have much in common. A culinary fanatic would say that the risk associated with innovating in tires carries as much risk as innovating as a three starred chef. Ironically, type the words Michelin and innovation in Google Scholar and you obtain as many results for the tires as for the chefs.
The question then is, can the holy red book itself stay the same and keep on maintaining its position as the sanctifier of haute cuisine without innovating? The Michelin guide is criticized for being secretive and basing itself on an excess of subjectivity. But wouldn’t an open and measurable system take away all the mystique?
Michelin tires invests hundreds of millions in innovation, improving processes, addressing such extraneous concepts as inflatable wind sails for cargo ships. But as the fate of humanity lies with gastronomy, I believe a relevant part of this effort should be brought upon their early progeny to ensure it lasts. Or maybe they already have that properly covered through their international expansion. Don’t forget, exporting is just another form of innovation and the Michelin guide is growing worldwide, as well as the fact that the red book is only a fraction of their « tourism » activity.
Speaking of progeny, the question also comes about as to whether strong disruptive innovation can come along without a true oedipal break away. The Michelin brothers took on a family business on the brink of bankruptcy, with new products, new markets and new marketing approaches, which means that in essence, they broke away from family tradition; bear in mind potential bankruptcy gave them a decent reason to do so.
The company storytelling promotes the story of this hapless gentleman who walked into their shop with a flat tire, one day of 1886, inspiring the brothers to develop a replaceable air chamber. This case of serendipity may be at the start of a $20B business. But even if you have a well structured innovation organization as Michelin does, that may not suffice, even if you have great patents as they did in 1896 on the air chamber. You also need a leader to make it happen.
This is also a reminder that an innovative organization should open opportunities, not down select them.
Just imagine how your innovation could grow to become a beacon of light, an awe inspiring innovation. Print probably isn’t the way forward, but digital certainly is. Of the many companies I’ve provided consulting to, many had started out as hardware providers and eventually became software companies. So maybe Michelin tires could become a software giant just as Airbus could become predominantly a cybersecurity firm.
For reminders, Michelin contributed strongly to the French aerospace industry in the early 20th century. Who knows, maybe we’ll see their inflatable sails in a horizontal version to be fitted onto aircraft soon. The benefits? No idea, but seeing where creativity can bring us, let’s just try.
All of this to say that somehow, Michelin could be used as a symbol of the proximity between business and gastronomy. Was the Michelin guide an actual case of growth hacking. Frankly dear reader, I don’t have a clue, but I certainly will look into it soon enough.
How Michelin opened up its innovation, Didier Miraton, Cairn (read)
French Gastronomy and the Magic of Americanism, Rick Fantasia, Seuil