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Does social media influence diners more than Michelin Stars?

Millennials and GenZ prefer to follow the lead of food content creators on TikTok and Instagram

Social media has been pivotal in influencing diners' restaurant decisions. (Photo: Roman Odinstov)
Social media has been pivotal in influencing diners' restaurant decisions. (Photo: Roman Odinstov)

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Over the summer, I traveled to Spain with my wife and son.

Between overflowing plates of Iberico ham and a few too many Aperol Spritzes, we made a point to visit the country’s food mecca of San Sebastian. Our sole purpose: to eat at Mugaritz, a two-star Michelin restaurant.

As my wife and I devoured spiny lobsters and sake handkerchiefs (don’t ask), we wondered whether our son would one day undertake his own Michelin-inspired journey, joining the throng of devotees who have made the Michelin Guide the gold standard for fine dining.

Or would the guide, with its review of more than 15,000 restaurants across 35 territories, have fallen prey by then to the disruption that has unseated so many pedigreed gatekeepers?

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 more than 1 billion users. In America, 100 million people scroll through TikTok’s incredibly effective recommendation algorithm and spend an average of 80 minutes a day on the app, “more than the time spent on Facebook and Instagram, combined” per the Washington Post.

Meanwhile, TikTok’s video-editing tools, quick 45-60 second dopamine hits and full-screen visuals are tailor-made for food.

“TikTok searches for food bring an experience that you can’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 food come out in real time.”

Kim was formerly an engineer but pivoted to food media after his blog on the DC food scene (Eat the Capital) took off. Over the past year, he’s repeatedly gone viral by making short chef challenges like “can you make a gourmet meal with McDonald’s chicken nuggets?”

In a phone chat, Kim tells me that those digital views turn into real foot traffic and that TikTok is the #1 converter for restaurants. The app is getting more people through the door than Instagram, which is very popular with food influencers.

The TikTok-to-restaurant trend is hardly anecdotal. In June, a Google exec said that “almost 40% of young people, when they’re looking for a place for lunch, they don’t go to Google Maps or Search…they go to TikTok or Instagram.”

And short-form videos are now ubiquitous, with TikTok clones everywhere from Instagram Reels to YouTube Shorts to Snap Spotlight (these apps would really take off in the event of a US ban of the Chinese-owned TikTok).

“I think Gen Z just prefers visual search,” says Turner Novak, a venture capitalist who’s 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 turns to TikTok for food recommendations, could Michelin become the culinary equivalent of the Oscars or Emmy awards: one-time arbiters of excellence that lose relevancy?

I put that question to Ben Liebmann, former chief operating officer of Noma, the 3-star Michelin restaurant founded by superstar Danish chef Rene Redzepi.

Liebmann enumerated the many threats to Michelin’s influence since the turn of the century:

  • The World’s 50 Best Restaurants: Launched in 2002 by UK media firm William Reed Ltd., the brand polls 1,000+ food experts and then ranks global restaurants 1-50.
  • Chef’s Table: The streaming show was launched on Netflix in 2015, catapulting the chefs it featured to star status and boosting restaurant traffic (a popularity bump typically reserved for recipients of new Michelin stars)
  • Instagram: The photo-sharing app was acquired by Facebook in 2012 and — with its glossy aesthetic — was the social media cannon for restaurants prior to TikTok (Liebmann says that Instagram remains Noma’s most important social channel by far)

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 the high bar according to Liebmann. 

“I don’t think Michelin is going anywhere,” says Liebmann, who now runs Understory, a media consulting and production company. “Does it need to redefine itself for a new generation? Or migrate its content and tell its stories across new platforms or mediums? There are absolutely opportunities there. If you put aside what one thinks of the guide and starred review, the brand still stands for something.”

How do TikTok natives feel about Michelin?

Kim (AKA @DannyGrubs) wants to know more about the process of assigning stars and feels that anonymous inspectors are diametrically opposed to an individual speaking directly to the camera. The latter puts authenticity front-and-center, which is very important for the Gen-Z audience. The Eat the Capital founder still gives Michelin its due, though.

“One thing about Michelin, you’ll usually have a good dining experience,” says Kim. “It’ll be safe and there’s a standard that’ll be kept for cleanliness and the chef will be top tier.”

As a nod to the star-rating system, a few of the @DannyGrubs challenges ask chefs to make a “Michelin-level” soup or dish with only $10 worth of ingredients.

Does Michelin even need a TikTok strategy?

Liebmann doesn’t think so. To stay relevant in the following decades, Michelin shouldn’t hop around new platforms but, rather, double down on its original mission: solving the question of where to travel to eat.

Of course, the original Michelin Guide was founded to get French motorists to go around the continent looking for 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, it only just got to Istanbul.

While Michelin obviously has an online presence now, the brand’s core products remain the physical guidebooks (over 30 million lifetime sales) and the live events to reveal star ratings.

In recent years, tourism boards have paid to have the platinum Michelin brand launch a Guide for their cities (to be clear, this is just to have inspectors show up). Per Eater, South Korea’s tourism board paid Michelin $1.8 million to launch a Seoul Guide in 2016 and Thailand’s government paid $4.4 million over five years, starting with Bangkok in 2017.

One Ernst & Young report suggests that such money is well spent: 71% of frequent travelers are willing to “increase spending if a Michelin Guide selection existed.”

As fate would have it, the newest to receive Michelin stars is much closer to me than Spain. In fact, it’s where I live: Vancouver (which also has a healthy supply of Aperol Spritzes). So keep your eyes peeled for a 30-second short-form video review describing my first hometown Michelin meal.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners. The column is by writer Trung Phan. 

Also read | Meet the chef who has won Trèsind Studio a Michelin star


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