One upshot from the demise of Dinner Lab is that we will have to wait a bit longer to experience the purely data-driven restaurant.
The New Orleans-based start-up went belly up, laying off its staff and ending operations in 30 cities around the country where people had bought memberships. The company was built around one-off dining events, often led by sous chefs and such interested in field-testing their own ideas. These were held in unconventional locations, from rooftops to former churches.
In this way, Dinner Lab was like an extended network of pop-ups. But the company also was built on data, or at least the promise of it.
During its events, diners completed detailed surveys, which could drill down to individual ingredients and pairings. The chefs who participated could then use this feedback to fine-tune dishes and guide possible future restaurant concepts.
Dinner Lab itself planned to open its own restaurant based on the trove of diner data it was building. The company’s founders discussed these plans in interviews regularly. For instance, in a 2014 interview with L.A. Weekly, Dinner Lab CEO Brian Bordainick explained the concept as a way to “reverse-engineer a restaurant.”
“We’re going to use our data to open the world’s first entirely open-sourced restaurant,” he’s quoted as saying. “A programmable restaurant, if you will.”
Since Dinner Lab pulled the plug in April, it’s been open season for criticism of its concept. But while it was growing and adding markets across the country, the idea of combining our era’s dining fixation with the supposed omnipotence of the right algorithm carried a strong allure. That helps explain why Dinner Lab was more often the subject of prominent business profiles than dining coverage.
Dinner Lab never got to open its “entirely open-sourced” restaurant, but we probably will get to something like it eventually as big data plays a larger role in the restaurant business. Examples of the beta version are all over the American landscape of chain eateries based on extensive market testing, focus group feedback and trend analysis. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but it does tend to make the same thing.
The restaurants that stay with us are different. Of course, wise restaurateurs listen to their customers and seek feedback. But the most distinctive restaurants are also personal expressions. They have their own personality and style.
It’s not easy to translate all this through the slim margins, elusive financing, staff turnover and market competition of the modern restaurant realm in New Orleans and many other cities. But the restaurants that do it well build bonds with their customers that you could never write into a business plan.
These are the places we come to identify with, the ones we grow to trust and the restaurants that inform our own tastes, more than the other way around.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.