How industry awards are shaping the perception of hospitality

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plated steak and chips

Accolades are there in every business, for TV and film it’s the Oscars, the Baftas and Cannes, and for the hospitality business it’s no different. Awards commend outstanding service to the craft and aim to provide waiting onlookers with recognition of the best of the best. 

However, the effect that these awards can have on the progression of a restaurant, and on customers, is an interesting phenomenon. After all, these awards are given on recognition of brilliance, and their pull can be both overwhelmingly positive, and highly controversial.

How do awards affect those in the industry?

Chef working in kitchen

The effect of awards on those within the industry varies significantly. Some restaurants will strive to be regarded as the best of the best and will work to ensure that every level of their experience is of the highest standards. Some restaurants will not care about awards and will focus on nothing more than good food.

The perceived elitism apparent in large hospitality awards is something of a controversial topic. On one hand, it appears that only up-market restaurants with large ticket prices are commended for their service. On the other hand, these restaurants become up-market and justify their ticket prices with luxury cuisine often not found anywhere else in the world. This practice can determine the path a restaurant takes, all from hiring the best chefs to ensuring their front of house staff are trained with precision and are able to satisfy a customers every request.

If a restaurant does strive to be commended, they often have to put focus on growing and learning in a way that will be more favourable to the desired award. This can include every aspect of the environment, from front of house staff, sommeliers and even décor, to what is going on behind the scenes.

Recently, the World 50 Best Restaurant Awards took place and Jonathan Gold, a Pulitzer Prize winning food critic condemned the final list. With over half of the restaurants being European, Gold points out the bias that restaurants can see in these ceremonies. In fact, on the list Latin America and Asia had seven restaurants each, and only a single-entry for Australia and a single-entry Africa can be found.

Gold continued to call out this ‘elitism’ by calling out the awards for the lack of women-run restaurants on the list. Just three of the 50 restaurants were run by women. These traits were pointed out by others, Eater also acknowledged the issues with the restaurants on the list by criticising that they are “50 per cent European, shockingly expensive, inexcusably male, and with strong neo-colonialist overtones.”

These reactions show that even the most elite of awards can garner negative press from strong industry voices, and cause rifts in the hospitality business.

There are example of less up-market restaurants receiving Michelin stars and other high accolades. In 2016 in Singapore, two street food vendors made history by being the first to receive Michelin stars. Establishments like this are less considered when people think of Michelin star restaurants as they are still in the minority, but it goes it show that the ‘elitism’ is something starting to be tackled in the industry.

How do awards affect consumers?

people eating at large table

There is a big difference in the way these awards will affect consumers. They will be less interested in the why, and more interested in the who. An accolade, however big or small, can make someone’s head turn and can bring attention to any establishment. Something as small as ‘the best tacos in town’ can bring locals to explore, but larger awards, like the recent World 50 Best Restaurant Awards, can bring thousands of diners from over the world to experience the best of the best.

This year’s best was voted Osteria Francescana, a contemporary Italian restaurant in Modena, Italy, run under the wise command of Massimo Bottura. In fact, this is the second time Osteria Francescana has topped the list, with its energetic dishes and unique playful cuisine. The awards that have been garnered by the restaurant turn dining there from an experience into an event, and people will journey across the world to see what is behind the door.

Osteria Francescana itself already holds three Michelin stars. Another industry accolade that can see people flock to the doors of any restaurant graced with even one star. However, it must be said that ‘Michelin-star’ is a food style in itself and will only turn the heads of those looking for that experience.

In fact, last year Food & Wine wrote a compelling article discussing the effects of a Michelin star on a restaurant and found that sometimes a business can suffer in the aftermath of the award. They quoted Chef Joël Robuchon, who holds the title of being awarded the most Michelin stars in the world, on the positive effects of the award: “With one Michelin star, you get about 20 percent more business. Two stars, you do about 40 percent more business, and with three stars, you’ll do about 100 percent more business. So, from a business point ... you can see the influence of the Michelin guide.”

However, it does depend on the locality of your restaurant, and the community around it. A study published in Cornell Hospitality Quarterly found that nearly half of their sample group of 26 two and three Michelin-starred restaurants from across Europe were found to not be making a profit, regardless of their ranking.

We must also remember, a Michelin star is not a forever award, and can be taken away just as it was given. This detrimental effects of this on a business are dire. The Irish Independent looked at Thornton’s at the Fitzwilliam in Dublin, whose profits went down 76% after being docked their Michelin star, and soon after the restaurant closed.

These consequences can even see chefs consciously make the choice to not pursue Michelin stars. In an interview in May with the Caterer Raymond Blanc spoke about this:

“I never wanted them. I made that choice a long time ago. I didn’t want to take the risk when growing the place. Previously a restaurant with 10 rooms, servicing them at a high level of service and luxury, there was not enough revenue. We would have got three stars, but I decided not to take the risk.”

It just goes to show that these awards are more than just certificates and trophies, in some cases, they are currency. I for one will never stop being fascinated with the sway an award can have on consumers, and the ever-changing perception of the hospitality business as a result.