In fact, its roots were far more humble: the little red guidebook was originally conceived simply to encourage more motorists to take to the road.
A grand vision
It all started in Clermont-Ferrand in central France in 1889, when brothers Andre and Edouard Michelin founded their eponymous tyre company, fuelled by a grand vision for the French automobile industry at a time when there were fewer than 3,000 cars in the country.
In order to help motorists develop their trips - thereby boosting car sales and in turn, tyre purchases - the Michelin brothers produced a small guide filled with handy information for travellers, such as maps, information on how to change a tyre, where to fill up on petrol, and wonderfully - for the traveller in search of respite from the adventures of the day - a listing of places to eat or take shelter for the night.
For two decades, all that information came at no cost. Until a fateful encounter that remains a favourite anecdote we repeat today, when Andre Michelin arrived at a tyre shop to see his beloved guides being used to prop up a workbench. Based on the principle that “man only truly respects what he pays for”, a brand new Michelin Guide was launched in 1920 and sold at seven francs.
A better way forward
For the first time, it included a list of hotels in Paris, lists of restaurants according to specific categories, as well as the abandonment of paid-for advertisements in the guide.
Acknowledging the growing influence of the guide’s restaurant section, the Michelin brothers also recruited a team of mystery diners - or restaurant inspectors, as we better know them today - to visit and review restaurants anonymously.
In 1926, the guide began to award stars for fine dining establishments, initially marking them only with a single star. Five years later, a hierarchy of zero, one, two, and three stars was introduced, and in 1936, the criteria for the starred rankings were published.
During the rest of 20th century, thanks to its serious and unique approach, the Michelin Guides became best-sellers without equals: the guide now rates over 40,000 establishments in over 24 territories across three continents, and more than 30 million Michelin Guides have been sold worldwide since.
Today, the remarkable foresight of the founding Michelin brothers has given the company a vocation that is as relevant in 2016 as it was in 1900 – namely, to make driving, tourism and the search for unforgettable experiences available to all.