Some of the luminaries in the food and lifestyle world recently challenged the status quo by snubbing establishment brands and influential personalities. As individual business owners begin to usurp corporate control and take matters into their own hands, is there a power shift going on? Or is it the dawn of anarchy?
The French culinary world just inhaled a collective gasp. For the first time in its history, the Michelin Guide allowed a restaurant to “return” its 3 Michelin star-rating and drop out of the listing. Sébastien Bras, the restaurant’s esteemed chef, may as well have abandoned the Catholic Church. Le Suquet held the highly coveted rating for 18 years before he chose to give it up, citing the enormous pressures of impressing inspectors in reevaluation visits and consistently delivering.
Bras isn’t the first or only one to attempt such a move. There’s a growing sense of discontent amongst top chefs that recognition by the Michelin Guide may be more of a bane than boon. In constant fear that the restaurant might lose its stature, chefs and managers have to juggle volatile ratings, bitter food critics, the costs of hiring extra-attentive staff and maintaining flawless décor. As top chefs start to undermine the Michelin brand and investigate whether the stars help or hinder their creativity, we’re watching to see if more follow suit.
In what can only be described as a modern retelling of The Emperor’s New Clothes à la Black Mirror, freelance writer Oobah Butler from South London created a fake restaurant called The Shed at Dulwich that shot up from 18,149th to first place on TripAdvisor in just six months. How’d he swing that? By making the restaurant “by appointment only”, dodging reservation requests and being generally vague about its location. Armed with just a burner phone and dozens of fake reviews, he conjured an entire restaurant out of thin air based on the simple insight that most people associate long waiting lists and a sassy attitude with high demand and exclusivity.
What a slap in the face for TripAdvisor, a restaurant website that prides itself on trusted, transparent reviews! While this secret, Punk’d-style operation is a great commentary on our blind faith in the internet, it’s also a dark reminder that ratings are not the be-all-end-all of culinary standards. The emphasis in any platform hosting user-generated content should be on the word “user.” Butler successfully called out TripAdvisor for its claim that its content “reflects the real experiences of real travelers,” thereby challenging its perceived authority in the food world.
A clash between two online personalities recently reached epic proportions when lifestyle blogger Elle Darby reached out via email to Charlesville Lodge Hotel owner Paul Stenson. She introduced herself and shared her social media credentials, after which she proposed a potential collaboration whereby she would feature the hotel on her Instagram account and Youtube channel in exchange for free accommodation over Valentine’s Day weekend.
Stenson, in keeping with his famously acid sense of humor, publicly responded to Darby on his hotel’s Facebook page and roasted her. Not only did he flatly decline her offer, he proceeded to list all the hotel’s staff members that her “exposure” wouldn’t pay for, and told his own social media following that he would never kiss ass for favors. Because of their “hissy fits” and “sense of entitlement,” the next day he announced that he would henceforth ban all bloggers from his hotel and café.
What just happened? I reckon it’s a paradigm shift in the way brands behave with prospects and customers. Instead of pandering to anyone and everyone willing to stay at Charlesville Lodge Hotel, Stenson’s hotel brand stuck to its loyal following. He rejected the influence exerted by someone like Darby on social media, fully aware that he antagonized an entire potential target market of bloggers that could have boosted his business.
Matthew Arnold wrote a collection of essays about 19th century England called Culture and Anarchy that lends itself wonderfully to the current landscape. He sorted English society into three categories: the Barbarians (the moneyed, high-minded aristocracy), the Philistines (the energized, upstanding middle class) and the Populace (the unskilled, unilluminated working class). As he foresaw the Philistines as eventually rising to their potential and influencing culture, he urged society to educate and empower them. Now that the Philistines have shed their Michelin stars, exposed foodie elitism and refused the clarion call from social media influencers, Arnold’s prophecy stands fulfilled.
It’s chilling but hardly surprising to hear the same message echoed in our Twitterer-in-Chief’s Presidential campaign and just-completed first year in office, which signaled that Beltway experts and people on the Hill should make way for the politically inexperienced and great unwashed.
Some are even joking that the “Tide Pod Challenge” – where teenagers are posting videos of themselves biting into detergent packets – is a collective online effort to rid brands like Tide of their ability to co-opt memes and make them uncool.
Premeditated or not, it could mark the beginning of the end for self-proclaimed experts – the establishment restaurant guides, ratings businesses and clout-touting gatekeepers of social media.