Opening a new restaurant can be a huge gamble, as it can be close to impossible to predict what food concepts will catch on with consumers.
Dinner Lab, a startup that hosts dinner parties for an exclusive group of paying members, claims that it can reduce the restaurant business down to a science. Over the next several weeks, it will be taking data from a series of events across the U.S. to create what it says will be the very first crowdsourced restaurant.
"We believe we can normalize data from thousands of people across the U.S. and get a restaurant to maximize their meals in the market," Dinner Lab co-founder and CEO Brian Bordainick said to Business Insider.
Dinner Lab has been hosting pop-up food events for a year and a half. According to Bordainick, the idea surfaced when he and his co-founders were living in New Orleans and becoming frustrated at how difficult it was to get a quality dining experience after 9 p.m. Their original business plan was to host dinner parties that started at midnight, but that plan flopped when they realized their guests had become too inebriated by that time of the night.
Even though their initial concept failed, in the process they had became acquainted with many New Orleans-based chefs who were looking to do something beyond their usual routine.
"These chefs wanted to cook things they actually cared about, and they wanted feedback," Bordainick said. "That really became the backbone of our brand."
To join Dinner Lab, members pay annual dues between $100 and $175, depending on their home market. Members become eligible to purchase tickets for specific events, which range in price from $50 to $95 and include at least five courses and alcohol pairings.
Each event is different, with a different chef setting a menu each night. The location also constantly changes, with dinners taking place in some pretty unconventional spots: helipads, factories, and piers are among some of the more interesting locations.
After dinner, attendees fill out a comment card, where they're asked to rate the meal based on its creativity, taste, portion size, and temperature. They're also asked to comment on whether they think certain items belong on a restaurant menu.
"The data we're collecting is unlike anything else in the industry," Bordainick said. "We hit about 97% of our diners filling out the feedback card."
According to Bordainick, that direct feedback can be tailored many different ways to get some very specific — and very valuable — data.
"You can begin to pinpoint, for example, that 35-year-old males in New York are reacting to tuna tartare this way and in Nashville this way. Asian cuisine is a huge hole in Nashville, while in L.A. it's Indian. That way, the chef can be a little more informed on that market," he said. "If this system works, we can continue this process over and over again. It can become more of a marketplace where emerging talent can come to us, and we help them open up a concept that works."
Dinner Lab has already grown rapidly, expanding to 10 markets and bringing on 55 full-time employees in just over a year of business.
"A year ago we were in our first office, which was a ground-floor apartment in New Orleans where we were washing dishes in the bath tub," Bordainick said. "It's pretty serious growth in a short amount of time."
Starting in two weeks, the company will amplify its effort to crowdsource diners' desires. Dinner Lab will embark on a 10-week tour around the country, visiting all 10 of its markets — New York City, New Orleans, Austin, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Miami, Nashville, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and San Francisco — cycling its best chefs through each one, and collecting a ton of data.
The company hopes it can use its findings to create a restaurant that's perfect for a particular market.
"Some big-name chefs may say it can't be scientific, and we agree with them to a certain extent. It's so hard to predict consumer behavior," Bordainick said. "But it doesn't make sense to me that people wouldn't want to have as informed a decision as possible."
Those interested in participating in the trial process can purchase tickets on Dinner Lab's website starting this Wednesday.
Check out this video from the New Yorker to get a closer look at a typical Dinner Lab event.
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