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Florida restaurants can now earn Michelin stars. Here’s what that means for Miami

Miami Herald logo Miami Herald 11/2/2021 Carlos Frías, Miami Herald

Your favorite Florida restaurant might soon have a sparkling new side dish served next to its name: a Michelin star.

The state’s tourism-marketing agency, Visit Florida, has struck a deal to bring the Michelin Guide to Florida. One guide will highlight the state’s three major metropolitan areas as early as Spring 2022: Miami, Orlando and Tampa.

The Michelin Guide, founded in France in the late 1880s, is the world’s largest and best-known restaurant rating system, bringing international prestige to those establishments on which it confers its coveted stars. Renowned in Europe, the Guide is found in only four American metro areas: Chicago, New York, Washington, D.C., and just two years ago expanded from San Francisco’s Bay Area to all of California.

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Add Florida’s three major cities to the exclusive guide, which publishes online and as a printed booklet.

“Michelin is a very powerful brand, especially internationally,” said Rolando Aedo, chief operating officer of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitor’s Bureau, Miami-Dade county’s marketing agency.

Florida and the Michelin Guide have been circling one another for years. What finally brought them to the Sunshine State was a combination of Florida’s evolving culinary scene — and money.

The marketing organizations of the three metro areas, Visit Orlando, Visit Tampa and the GMCVB, partnered with Visit Florida to chip in to fund Michelin’s arrival.

“Michelin Guide inspectors look forward to discovering the world-class culinary landscape in Miami, Orlando and Tampa,” Gwendal Poullennec, international director of the Michelin Guides, wrote in a release.

The four organizations began talks with Michelin about eight to nine months ago, Aedo said. The length of the contract and the cost to the state and local marketing agencies, such as the GMCVB, was not made available, and Aedo declined to comment on the details. The Miami Herald has filed a public records request for the information.

“It is a significant investment for all parties,” Aedo said, adding that the expectation for Michelin’s stay in Florida “would be five years and beyond. And we’re hoping it’ll become institutional, like it is in New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and California.”

The goal was to make Florida a larger target for international travel. The GMCVB read research that showed a bump in international visitors in each of the cities where Michelin debuted, Aedo said — most recently in California. And with Florida looking to rebound from loss of tourism during the pandemic, Aedo called the investment in Michelin a calculated risk.

Promotion was at the heart of the Michelin guide from its inception.

The tire company, founded in the small French town of Clermont-Ferrand, printed its first free travel guide in 1889 as a way to boost car (and yes, tire) sales at time when there were fewer than 3,000 cars in the whole country, according to the website. Michelin started charging for the guide in the 1920s and assigning stars to fine-dining restaurants in 1926 to cater to wealthier travelers. Michelin rates restaurants from one to three stars based on the quality of ingredients, flavor, cooking techniques, value, consistency and how much of the chef’s personality shows up in the food. A restaurant may also be stamped with a Bib Gourmand for restaurants that serve good food at an affordable price or Plate, denoting restaurants that “simply serve good food,” according the Michelin website.

Now the guide, which has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide, rates more than 40,000 establishments across 24 territories and three continents.

“We view this as a marketing program,” Aedo said. “The business case is there. International travelers stay longer, they spend more, and Miami’s getting the lion’s share of the visitors that come to Florida.”

The Guide had existed in four American metro areas for years, without dollars from tourism agencies in those cities. Interest there was enough for the Guide to justify the cost of sending their inspectors to secretly rate and review restaurants in those areas and to print and sell their guides.

But in recent years, the Michelin Guide has been expanding its reach around the world, for the right price.

Visit California paid the Michelin Guide $600,000 to expand beyond the Bay Area to the rest of the state in 2019, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

Seoul landed on the Michelin Guide’s radar after the Korean Tourism Board paid about $1.8 million for a multi-year deal, according to Eater.com, and Thailand pays more than $880,000 a year to sponsor guides in its country.

Visit Florida, which runs on a state-funded $75 million budget (including $25 million this year from federal stimulus dollars), has never been squeamish about spending dollars to promote the state.

It paid the entertainer Pitbull $1 million to promote the state on his social media, music videos and in concert in 2016. And it paid $11.6 million to sponsor a television cooking show by New Orleans chef Emeril Lagasse. Sponsorships of more than $1 million went to a British soccer club and a race car team. Yet it took a suit from the State House of Representatives to make the Pitbull contract public.

Visit Florida claims every dollar it spends returns the state $3.27 in state tax revenue for the more than 79 million visitors that came to the state last year (down from 131 million in 2019 thanks to COVID), the agency wrote on its website. It claims the Pitbull deal amounted to a return of $9 for every dollar spent on his ability to excite with the word “dale.”

Of course, Miami’s restaurants had their part to play.

South Florida restaurants and chefs have been recognized for more than 20 years by organizations such as the James Beard Foundation for pushing the envelope of inventive cuisine. As South Florida continues to grow into a major international hub, local restaurant owners find fertile ground among locals and tourists.

Plus restaurateurs from those Michelin cities — from Paris and Modena to New York and San Francisco — have for years brought restaurants popular abroad to find the foundations laid in Miami.

And no doubt the flood of new moneyed transplants from the Bay Area and New York to the Miami area have stamped their feet loud enough for Florida’s tourism organizations to again broach the Michelin tastemakers. Offshoots of New York restaurants have opened in droves in South Florida in the last 18 months.

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