Dinner Lab goes national with its underground supper club service

By Erin Griffith , written on October 2, 2013

From The News Desk

Dinner Lab mixes the exclusivity and excitement of underground supper clubs (remember those?) with a snazzy tech platform. For $175 a year, the company offers members access to fancy meals from up-and-coming chefs in gritty locations, which are announced 24 hours before the event. The meals cost $75 on average for five courses and unlimited drinks. Typical venues include an abandoned food court in the South Street Seaport, a church, a motorcycle shop, and a vacant warehouse.

Get your hipster-directed eyerolls out of your system now. Done? Okay.

In reality, most Dinner Lab attendees aren't hipsters, they're professionals in their 30s and 40s. The concept has attracted enough interest that Dinner Lab has thousands of people on waiting lists to join in New Orleans, Austin, LA, Nashville and New York. It's so popular that even people who made it off the waiting list to buy memberships struggle to get reservations. The first dinner in New York sold out in around 180 seconds, says co-founder Zach Kupperman. (Demand gets more rational as each market matures, he adds.)

The big question for Dinner Lab, as it expands today to five more cities, is whether the concept has staying power. We all remember how hot underground supper clubs were in 2009, and that trend has largely waned (at least in New York). Foodies are fickle -- will the novelty of eating fancy food on disposable plates in a grimy warehouse wear off?

But people who come solely for the gritty aspects of Dinner Lab -- mystery locations, bare bones set-ups -- are apparently missing the point. "The reason we don't do table dressings and things like that is not because we're try to be super trendy," Kupperman says. "We are just trying to keep food at the forefront of the experience." Keeping things simple helps on costs, too. As the company grows, it may have to tangle with legality and liability issues of its unusual venues.

Dinner Lab today launched in San Francisco, Washington DC, Chicago, Miami and Atlanta. The company will be featured on Top Chef's premier episode tonight.

So why am I writing about Dinner Lab on a tech blog? The company hasn't raised venture capital, and at first glance, it's not really a candidate for a VC portfolio. The concept takes many humans to scale; you can't host a giant dinner party with software and algorithms alone. (Dinner Lab has 20 employees.)

No matter to investors -- they're putting money behind food-related startups, scalability questions be damned, at an alarming pace. See Blue Apron, Plated, KitchenSurfing, FarmersWeb, Abe's Market, and Good Eggs. (Sidenote: I'm working on a larger story about this phenomenon if anyone would like to discuss it further with me.)

Kupperman explained that Dinner Lab's bigger picture goes beyond throwing pop-up dinner parties. The company is collecting scores of data on things like ingredients (down to the number of mushrooms in a dish), costs, sales, and qualitative things like how well each chef was liked. Without being very specific, he says "There is a lot we can do with this data from the food service industry perspective."

Beyond that, Dinner Lab's aim is to surface up-and-coming chefs, helping them jump from the minor leagues to the major leagues. The service encourages chefs to tell a story with their meals, and will even fly the most popular chefs to other cities. "Ultimately we would love to help multiple chefs launch their own brand, or their own restaurants, sort of like a farm system," he says.

[Image courtesy Wikimedia]