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Michelin Guide for restaurants closely connected to tires

11/25/2014 05:00 EST | Updated 01/24/2015 05:59 EST
We all know about Michelin tires, and have likely heard of a restaurant with Michelin stars. But it might be surprising just how closely tied those two faces of Michelin are.

Back in the late 19th century, around the time the French tire company developed technology to allow tires to be fitted to wheels without glue, it marked not only the birth of the car, but also the birth of the road trip.

And what did roadtrippers of the day need?

A guide to eating, sleeping and buying gasoline.

Tony Fouladpour, director of corporate communications for Michelin North America in South Carolina, said that back in 1900 there were only 2,200 automobiles in all of France.  

"These tire manufacturers, the Michelin brothers, had this idea that they had to compel people to travel further and more. One of the ideas they came up with, along with road maps and road signs, was to come up with the Michelin travel guide," he explained.

"And that gave people who drove their automobiles in the countryside ideas of where to stay and which hotels had the best food, and even where they could buy gasoline."

The restaurant 'star' system was devised for the guide in the 1920s. Thanks to its association with cars and driving, which was an activity for the wealthy, the Michelin guide gained cachet and became an authoritative voice on food.

Within a few decades the Michelin restaurant guide had become so influential that is was building and destroying culinary careers.

London-based Gordon Ramsay, who is now more a TV character than a chef, gained his early fame through the acquisition of Michelin stars in a handful of restaurants.

Meanwhile, one chef's suicide was even blamed on the loss of a Michelin star.

Through it all, the guide has only grown more influential and more diverse.

It now includes restaurants in cities around the world, from Japan to the United States. And those restaurants are often far from the formal, classical French restaurants of decades past. They range from a sushi restaurant in a Tokyo subway station, to a Brooklyn spot called Blanca that cranks Metallica records and has only 12 seats facing the open kitchen.  

It might all seem like a strange pursuit for a tire company, to employ hundreds of what it calls "inspectors" around the world to rate restaurants and publish an annual guide.

After all, providing advice for car drivers is no longer the intent. Instead, the guide lists restaurants that charge hundreds of dollars for a meal and have become destinations for global travellers.

Tony Fouladpour said it comes down to "image," and added the Michelin guide is no money-maker for the company. It has simply become as much a part of the brand as its recognizable mascot.

"Goodyear has the blimp," he said. "No one else has that. Michelin has this."

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