What is the Future of the World's Food and Drink Rating Systems?

By Erik Wolf Executive Director, World Food Travel Association | July 28, 2013

Three stars? 30 points? 5 diamonds? When it comes to rating food and drink experiences, how do we know which of these is best? Are 3 stars equivalent to 5 diamonds, for example? There are quite a number of rating systems around the world, and almost every industry seems to have its own type of rating system. It's no wonder that consumers and trade alike are confused. The time has come for a new global food and drink experience accreditation system for the food, drink, travel and hospitality industries.

There is plenty of room for improvement in current assessment systems for food and drink experiences. Consumer-oriented systems are confusing and/or incomplete, with stars, points, diamonds, forks, cups, dollar signs, and more. Trade systems are often arcane or relate to specific organizations or programs (like Oregon Tilth- or Marine Stewardship Council-certified). While many of these systems rate worthwhile criteria, the serious food lover is still left largely in the dark when it comes to assessing the suitability of a new restaurant, winery, cooking school, culinary tour operator and other food and drink experiences.

The Early Days

The act of hospitality rating is at a crossroads. Until recently food critics were quite influential in helping to influence consumer opinion about certain restaurants. A restaurant critic would have to conceal his or her identity when visiting certain new restaurants, often booking a table under a pseudonym, complete with a credit card in the fake name and a disguise or other costume designed to conceal their true identity. When all was said and done, the rating that the restaurant received was still the opinion of just one person, which hardly seems fair in the current era of the power of the people. During this same era, we witnessed the proliferation of restaurant reviews in newspapers and magazines.

The Michelin Guide was the first company to rate hotels and restaurants. The company maintained an elitist stance, and still does so today. An arcane 3-star rating system that applies to gourmet-oriented restaurants only further narrows its usefulness today. With the advent of mass air travel in the 1960s and 1970s, the guidebook business boomed. Publishers like Forbes, the American Automobile Association (AAA) and similar companies began using their own rating systems. Soon we had 5 diamonds, a rating system of 1 to 5 (is 5 best, or is 1?), and an entire litany of colorful, fun, and even confusing icons that included wine glasses, forks, spoons, knives, plates, feathers, figs, and of course the ever popular gold, silver and bronze. And much to the offence of non-Americans, the pervasive dollar sign ($) became a universal indicator (in the USA at least) of the cost of a restaurant. Why wouldn't the rest of the world want to use the same indicator, after all?

Zagat was the first publishing company that was really dedicated to the restaurant industry. The company even branched out into ratings for hotels, nightclubs and more. Many struggled with its 30 point rating system, but that didn't stop Google from buying Zagat in 2011. The 30 point system remains.

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