In Forbes interview, Dinner Lab CEO discusses the New Orleans start-up’s demise, demand for customer data, the perils of late-night fine dining _lowres

Photo provided by Dinner Lab -- The New Orleans-based culinary event company Dinner Lab announced Thursday it was immediately halting business. The company got its start hosting one-off dinners led by up-and-coming chefs in nontraditional locations, such as this church, and grew to have locations in more than two dozen cities, including Baton Rouge.

Dinner Lab, a New Orleans-based membership-driven catering and events business that expanded to more than two dozen cities, including Baton Rouge, is immediately “suspending operations and halting events,” according to a letter posted Thursday on its website.

“Three-and-a half years ago a few of us came up with a novel idea; bring together random people, in an unconventional location, and give an up-and-coming chef a chance. The idea was meant to be pretty simple — give a newcomer, an underdog, someone that no one else believed in yet, a platform to showcase their culinary talent to the world,” the letter said. “We have always wanted to be an organization that rolled the dice on people and innovative concepts before the rest of the world took them seriously.”

The dinner club’s apparent popularity and rapid expansion made it a standout among a burgeoning entrepreneurial sector in New Orleans, one local leaders have nurtured in a decadelong push to diversify the city’s tourism-based economy.

“Dinner Lab was really one of the shining stars in the entrepreneurial community,” said Peter Ricchiuti, a finance professor at Tulane University who closely follows the local entrepreneurial scene. “When I go around the country and talk about the interesting things being done here, that would always be near the top of my list.”

In its announcement, however, Dinner Lab said it was unable “to turn the corner on creating a profitable enough enterprise to support our ambitions.”

The company built its brand in part by hosting pop-up style dinners in unconventional locations that showcased ideas from up-and-coming culinary talent, tapping sous chefs, cooks and others a few rungs below the executive chef level. Diners were, in turn, asked to give detailed feedback, creating data that Dinner Lab said it used to help chefs hone their concepts.

As it grew, Dinner Lab was tracked and lauded as much for its modern, data-driven business model as for its culinary achievements. The company was frequently showcased in national business and tech media. In February, the publication Fast Company named Dinner Lab to its list of “The Most Innovative Companies of 2016.”

In addition to adding markets in more cities, the company expanded the scope and diversity of the events it produced. From local pop-up style dinners, Dinner Lab took guest chefs on the road to cook for its members in other cities, held cocktail competitions with sponsor Bombay Sapphire gin and organized a national tour for acclaimed Norwegian chef Magnus Nilsson to promote his new cookbook. The company had a sideline in catering, reportedly fielding gigs as diverse as corporate events for Google and the 2014 wedding of pop star Solange Knowles in New Orleans.

“Dinner Lab and (founder and CEO) Brian (Bordainick) have been two of the more visible and inspiring elements of the early post-Katrina entrepreneurial scene,” said Michael Hecht, president and CEO of Greater New Orleans Inc., a regional economic development group.

That’s one reason Thursday’s announcement caught some observers by surprise. But Hecht said that while the apparently sudden departure of one of the city’s higher-profile tech startups was disappointing, it also was simply “part and parcel of an evolving entrepreneurial scene.”

Still, the news came following a string of announcements from Dinner Lab in recent months that seemed to augur more growth. In August, the company brought in $7 million in funding, including a $5.3 million investment from the venture capital firm James River Capital and $1.7 million from a crowd-funding campaign among its own members. In December, Dinner Lab bought Dishcrawl, a company based in San Jose, California, that organized roving, bar crawl-style culinary events in cities across the country.

Later that same month, however, Dinner Lab laid off 30 employees.

After attending a few of its dinners in recent years, Ricchiuti said he enjoyed each experience.

“I just loved going there because you’d meet all these inspiring people, particularly the ones that had just moved in from out of town,” he said. “Every time I left, I felt better about the city. It was fun not only to brag about but to do.”