Opening a restaurant is risky. It costs a lot of money. A lot of people want to do it. And the failure rates are legendary. The National Restaurant Association says 30% of new establishments fail in their first year and that another 30% fail within two years after that.
That’s one reason Brian Bordainick created the Dinner Lab social dining concept two years ago: to help chefs do market research before hanging a sign over the door. The New Orleans startup organizes pop-up evenings in unusual locations where chefs can try out new ideas. Dinner Lab is both a sort of focus group for proto-restaurants and a new experience for people tired of typical restaurants.
“It’s completely crazy to make a large capital expenditure when you have no idea whether it works or not,” reckons Bordainick, who says many restaurant-makers start out with more passion and instinct than market knowledge. Dinner Lab asks diners to produce feedback on what they’re eating, so chefs can tweak their cooking. “You can really make sense of what people find appealing from the data if you have enough of it,” he adds. “It’s been fun to be really big dorks when it comes to dinner.”
Bordainick left a nice job in the education tech industry to co-found Dinner Lab, and he seems to be doing well so far. The company has staged about 500 events and is now in 19 U.S. markets. It’s also raised more than $2 million in venture funding.
Unusual venues include old churches, motorcycle dealerships, and helipads (Bordainick’s favorite was a Cuban pig roast served from a deconsecrated altar). Diners typically pay $65 a night in larger markets like New York (which includes alcohol) or $55 in smaller cities, and there’s also a membership fee ($125 in New York, for instance). All payments are collected in advance, so chefs know how many people they’re preparing for.
Bordainick says the cooks typically work in the shadow of head chefs. They’re sous chefs and senior chefs with technical gifts but little autonomy to make their own creative choices. Dinner Lab likes people with strong background stories and distinct culinary ideas. That helps give evenings an identity and narrative.
The question is whether Dinner Lab can create something more than a glorified supper club. In time, it hopes to become an incubator for restaurants, helping chefs actually make their ideas whole. It’s also working on a way for individuals to invite chefs to their homes.
Bordainick thinks food is ripe for the same disruption that Airbnb brought to the hotel industry: People are hungry for new sorts of dining experiences, he argues. “People are starting to rethink the way they spend money on food. We’re playing a role in giving guests an opportunity to explore and have a unique experience,” he says. “Call me a fringe wacko but I do believe people are choosing to interact in different social contexts than they have in the past.”