The dinner takes place in a Studio City storefront, one that used to be a yoga studio but now feels as barren as any gutted storefront waiting for its next inhabitant. Tables are set up in long rows, a makeshift kitchen in back, a makeshift bar in the corner.
“The fact that octopus is a huge ingredient now
We're well into the meal, and only slightly past the social awkwardness that comes with dining alongside strangers, when the waitress deftly delivers our third course. A hush comes over the table as all 12 diners pick up tiny spoons and dig into what she's given us. Held in small glass pots, a warm, duck egg custard comes topped with a jellied, tart, black pepper jus, studded with halved red grapes. The grapes burst in our mouths, providing fresh contrast to the silken custard.
The diners around me spend a few noiseless minutes tasting, staring intently at their own hands and spoons and food as they eat. Then utensils drop, quickly replaced by pencils. We scribble furiously on the white comment card before us. It's at this point that we begin to hear some opinions, though they're slightly guarded; the outpouring of honesty is going on paper. You wouldn't want someone to steal your thoughts.
“The temperature just weirded me out,” one woman says to her companion.
“The texture is an issue,” another diner offers.
“This is one of the coolest things I've eaten in a long time,” I think, apparently alone in my opinion.
Welcome to Dinner Lab, the country's most sprawling series of pop-up dinners. Begun in 2012 and now in cities all over the country, Dinner Lab holds up to 19 events weekly, from L.A. to Atlanta to Chicago. It's much like any pop-up experience — odd spaces, prix fixe offerings, chefs trying out new ideas that perhaps wouldn't make it onto a restaurant menu … not quite yet, at least.
The difference with Dinner Lab, aside from the sheer scope of the operation, is the feedback component. Each guest is asked to fill out a comment card addressing almost everything about the meal: each course, the wine pairing with that course, the taste and creativity of each plate of food. And that's only what you're asked at an actual dinner. When you sign up for Dinner Lab, many more questions are part of the process, including your relationship status, your drink of preference and how you “rate yourself as a foodie.” (I choose “Early Adopter: I tell people where to eat” from five potential choices.)
This mountain of feedback and personal information from thousands of diners over hundreds of dinners adds up to what Brian Bordainick, Dinner Lab's founder and CEO, believes to be a gold mine. And he plans to use it to open the world's first data-driven restaurant.
“We're going to reverse-engineer a restaurant,” Bordainick explains. “We're going to use our data to open the world's first entirely open-sourced restaurant. A programmable restaurant, if you will.”
How does he plan to do this? Over the course of the summer, Dinner Lab has nine chefs traveling throughout the country. Each chef is cooking at least one dinner in 10 different cities — that's 90 dinners, minimum. At the end, Dinner Lab will gather the data collected, select a chef and pick a city, mainly based on customer feedback. Then they'll open a restaurant. The who, where and how of this, supposedly, will be based almost entirely on data.
All of this poses a number of questions, the most obvious of which — will it work? — is perhaps the least important. But the questions that spring from that initial “will it work?” conundrum are integral to the way we eat and the business of restaurants going forward.
Can you use data to determine trends that have yet to fully emerge? Can you use data to outsmart the restaurant gods and build a business that's less likely to fail?
Are the people who go to pop-ups inclined to have insight that leads to a successful brick-and-mortar restaurant? What's the difference between this and trying to build a restaurant based on an overview of Yelp reviews?
Do people even know what they want? And, in an era in which diners are increasingly opting for unique food events and pop-ups, isn't Dinner Lab's undertaking akin to using the information gathered from a successful personal-computer business to start a typewriter company?
Dinner Lab began as a New Orleans experiment, one driven by the fact that there isn't much to eat late at night in that city, apart from bad pizza sold out of the all-night daiquiri houses on Bourbon Street. While New Orleans is a food city, that food has been mainly limited to just a few genres. “New Orleans has a lot of Creole and Southern contemporary cuisine,” Bordainick says, “but there's a huge dearth of variety.” So in August 2012, he began setting up pop-up dinners with different chefs. The dinners started at midnight.
“It was a terrible idea,” Bordainick says. “People showed up already hammered. It was not a very good decision-making process on our behalf.” But the foundation had been laid for a pop-up business, with Bordainick's startup collaborating with different chefs for one-off events.
After figuring out that regular pop-ups were “a pain in the ass, and don't make very much money,” Bordainick came up with the model Dinner Lab has been using ever since: a subscription-based, membership format. Customers pay for an annual membership and then gain access to ticketed dinners, for which they also pay. Memberships cost between $100 and $200, depending on your city (in Los Angeles, it's $175). The price of dinners varies but is comparable to other dinner events — around $80 per person, including booze and service.
This model worked. It worked well enough that eventually Bordainick and Dinner Lab were able to expand from New Orleans to other cities. First Austin, Texas; then Nashville, Tennessee; then New York; and then, in September of last year, Los Angeles.
Dinner Lab now is in 19 cities and has about 50 employees.
Despite the membership fee, which effectively adds a big surcharge to the cost of dining out, people have signed up all over the country after hearing about it through word-of-mouth or local media. Most of the L.A. members I ask first heard of its launch through Daily Candy, the now-defunct lifestyle email newsletter.
Bordainick now spends most of his time on fundraising. He has raised $2.1 million to date, much of it from one of the original founders of Whole Foods, even as new investors are being brought on board all the time.
Bordainick himself is very much in the model of startup dudes. Young (28), tall (6 foot 3 inches), white, with a vocabulary that swerves easily into corporate-speak (he talks a lot about being “in that space” when discussing the directions the business might take), he relishes his role as an entrepreneur. When I first met him to discuss this story, he said he'd be wearing “a green hoodie and shorts — typical entrepreneur garb.” If he weren't into food, he could be a character on Silicon Valley.
A native of New York's Hudson Valley, Bordainick moved to New Orleans right after Hurricane Katrina to work for Teach for America. After that, he went to work in the mayor's office. Then he worked in education technology, where he was immersed in a culture that thought data could save the world.
Now he's trying to use data to save dinner.
Bordainick says the feedback component of Dinner Lab first was requested by the chefs working the pop-ups — often, they were trying out new ideas at Dinner Lab, dishes they thought were too experimental for the restaurants that employed them. A system was put in place, in which every dish at every dinner was rated. As the company expanded and the volume turned the feedback into data, Bordainick became aware of how valuable that much market research might be.
“It got to the point where we could predict trends before they happened. The fact that octopus is a huge ingredient now, that everyone's using it? We knew that way before it happened,” he says.
How? In part because octopus dishes score particularly high at Dinner Lab dinners but also because, when people sign up for a dinner, they're asked why they bought tickets to that particular event. “We saw people saying they came for the octopus, for instance.”
I find this hard to believe. People are choosing a night out, spending hundreds of dollars, based on one dish? But when I ask my fellow diners at the meal with the warm custard (which also has an octopus dish on the set menu) why they are at that particular meal, three different people say to me, “Because of the octopus.”
Restaurants typically are viewed as risk-filled business ventures. They have a reputation for high failure rates and low profitability, with ingredients for success that are never easy to predict. Studies show that restaurant failure rates aren't that different from other small businesses, but lenders still see them as much more precarious: It's practically impossible to get a bank loan to start a restaurant. Hence the need for individual investors.
And overnight success doesn't always mean a place lasts. While there's little definitive national data on restaurant failure rates, various local studies indicate the rate is somewhere between 23 and 60 percent as you go from the first to the fifth year of operation.
The most extensive research, done about 10 years ago by Ohio State University's Hospitality Management program, showed that about one in four restaurants closes or is sold within the first year of business. At three years in, three in five restaurants are closed or change hands.
It's this riddle that Bordainick hopes to solve with Dinner Lab — to create a restaurant that's guaranteed to succeed.
It's easy to dismiss the very concept of Dinner Lab and the tour as slick gimmickry, but once you drill down past the “data-driven” sales pitch, Bordainick starts to make a lot of sense. The “winning” chef from the tour will be chosen based on his score with diners, and also his ability to stick to a budget, keep food costs reasonable and work well with others. After each dinner, the support crew is asked to rate the chef on leadership, execution and how easy it was to work with him. “If someone is a dick, we don't want to work with them,” Bordainick says.
And so, at the end of the tour, that leaves a chef who has consistently cooked food that the public has enjoyed, who has had national exposure, and who also can manage a budget and be a good boss. That's a hard thing to find in any field.
The chefs are mostly sous chefs and chefs de cuisine from the country's best restaurants. When you look through their bios, names such as Eleven Madison Park, Momofuku and Per Se litter the blurbs. They're exactly the types who are on the verge of becoming executive chefs but don't have an easy path to get there.
The regular route to becoming an executive chef can take years of networking and/or fundraising. With culinary schools turning out more graduates every year, even having a pedigreed restaurant on your résumé doesn't guarantee a job running your own kitchen, and first-time executive chefs hardly ever get a gig where they're allowed to execute their own vision.
Dinner Lab is offering these chefs a way to bypass the hard route of applying for job after job, or finding their own angel investors. They just have to uproot their lives, take to the road, and then beat out eight other highly qualified applicants.
Aaron Grosskopf, the chef who made the duck egg custard, is a Napa-based private chef looking to find his way back into the restaurant world. He says he had to turn his life upside down to accommodate the logistics of the tour, but he has a job to come back to if needed.
For him, it's about road testing his ideas and getting back into the swing of restaurant life. Private cheffing is solitary. Grosskopf knows it would be silly to participate in Dinner Lab just in the hopes of winning.
When I ask him how it would work if he won, we talk about the fact that the restaurant likely will be in the city where a chef's food scored highest. “So if I did best in Denver, that might be where the restaurant would be,” he says, “which would suck, because I don't want to move to Denver.”
But the chefs I speak to all say that the feedback component has helped them. Kwame Onwuachi, a New York chef who gave up his position at Eleven Madison Park to go on the tour, says the feedback is “very helpful,” though he does take it with a grain of salt. “One diner said my beef Bourguignon needed coconut in it, which is obviously outrageous. But some suggestions are really helpful.”
When pressed, Onwuachi acknowledges it can sometimes be tough. “I think food is objective. And it can be hard to get the feedback. It's like an artist making an elaborate painting and, when it's done, someone coming in and saying, 'I think it could use a little more green.' But in the end, we're in the hospitality industry, and what people have to say does matter.”
All the chefs on the tour are men, but when I asked Bordainick if he's worried about diversity, he thinks I mean diversity in the food. He also says this is only the first in what he hopes will become an endless series of tours, an ongoing platform to find and develop talent.
“We are constantly looking for chefs,” he says. “Next time we'll do better. Next time, hopefully, we'll have some women on tour. This is just the beginning.”
The one question that keeps nagging at me, though, was whether the public should really have that much of a say in how, and what, is cooked in a restaurant. Bordainick talks a lot about “bringing people into contact with new ideas in food,” but that food must have populist appeal, by definition, to make it in this system.
I'm also not convinced that the type of people who relish the idea of dining at a pop-up where they get to play critic are the same people who would support a regular restaurant night after night. In fact, many of the guests I speak to at Dinner Lab dinners admit that they aren't those customers — they are people who seek out one-off experiences, the very opposite of return customers. One couple has sworn off restaurant meals altogether in favor of pop-ups. These diners might love the trendiness of octopus, but are their tastes representative of what sustains a neighborhood restaurant?
Which brings us back to the computer/typewriter quandary. The way people are eating is changing. Special dinners can sell out in minutes, even at restaurants that usually are half empty. Food festivals are more and more popular. Noma and the Fat Duck, two of the world's most lauded restaurants, are taking their show on the road in the coming year, popping up for extended stays in countries outside their own. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see traveling food circuses within the next few years. But restaurants? They continue to thrive or fail at a fairly steady rate.
If Dinner Lab manages to open a successful restaurant that has longevity, it will be because the company found a very good chef who runs a tight ship. Just like anyone else.
The fact that Bordainick has feedback from hundreds of diners in 10 different cities is sure to help convince investors. But does that make it a data-driven restaurant, or just the most elaborate market-testing scheme ever?
And is that market feedback always a good thing? Bordainick says that, even after the Dinner Lab restaurant opens, the feedback component will remain, allowing chefs to tweak and adjust the food they're serving, just as they're doing now on the tour. “Feedback will always be a part of anything Dinner Lab does,” he says.
Sitting at Dinner Lab's dinners feels to me like sinking into Yelp soup, being surrounded by people picking every dish apart and gleefully scribbling criticism. It seems the opposite of what a meal out ought to be, the antithesis of the relaxing experience of being swept up in the joy of dining, of letting pleasure find you, of not thinking too hard about it.
As a full-time restaurant critic, I realize that distaste for enthusiastic dinnertime analysis might sound strange. But no matter what's going on in my head as I do my job, I try never to let the parsing and negativity seep into the experience itself. Perhaps, with Yelp and blogs and the constant flow of pop-ups, this is just the direction dining is taking in general. All food will be rated and parsed; all cooking will be a competition.
Dinner Lab may have hit on a formula that allows restaurants constant feedback, but what's lost is the ritual of uncomplicated hospitality.
I'm also not convinced that feedback always yields the greatest results. The greatest chefs show us something we didn't know we wanted in the first place, and make us question our preconceived notions of what is good and what isn't.
Aaron Grosskopf's duck egg custard, for instance, was close to brilliant when I ate it. The people around me disagreed, but, when pressed, their reasons seemed superficial. One woman, when questioned about her reasoning, admitted that, really, she just doesn't like grapes.
Grosskopf tells me the duck egg custard was one of the dishes where the feedback element has helped him the most. In fact, he has now tweaked the recipe, and its scores have risen considerably as a result.
But the way in which Grosskopf has achieved that success will not surprise anyone who has spent time deeply mired in the world of food trends, or hung out with epicures whose enthusiasm trumps their palate. “Now,” he says, “I put bacon on it.”
by Besha Rodell | Photography by Danny Liao
Brian Bordainick started Dinner Lab in New Orleans, as a way to get a decent dinner late at night.
Dinner Lab patrons in L.A. pay $175 to gain access to its ticketed dinners.
Some dishes served at recent Dinner Lab pop-ups — and assessed by its diners
Chefs Kwame Onwuachi, left, and Aaron Grosskopf both are vying in Dinner Lab's sweepstakes.