Dinner Lab called itself “a place to discover what's possible,” according to its Twitter profile. Turns out, that’s an improbable business model.
The New Orleans-based pop-up dinner party startup has just announced that it is closing down.
It wasn’t able to make enough money, according to a goodbye letter posted on its homepage. “We put every ounce of our energy into developing a product that you wanted to engage with regularly, but we weren't able to turn the corner on creating a profitable enough enterprise to support our ambitions,” the letter reads.
Founded in 2011 in a Big Easy basement, Dinner Lab started as a solution to the lack of late night eating options for Brian Bordainick, the founder and CEO, and his buddies. The off-beat, quirky, experience-driven and Instagram-bragged-about events were enthusiastically celebrated by the New Orleans scene, and Dinner Lab grew quickly.
“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 goodbye letter says. “We wanted to up the ante, and bet hard on experimentation, iteration, data, and the fact that there should be an open dialogue between diner and chef. We tried to blur the lines, push the envelope, and propel an industry that we loved forward.”
As its team pushed, Dinner Lab got bigger. The membership-based dining experience, which would host events in underutilized spaces prepared by up-and-coming second-fiddle chefs looking to experiment and break out, peppered the country. Last fall, it was hosting between 25 and 30 dinner parties a week and Bordainick had said that by the end of 2016, he wanted to triple that.
Dinner Lab eventually dropped its membership paywall in an aggressive push to get more guests at its dinner tables. Members were paying “between $125 and $175 to join the community, depending on geographic location, and anywhere between $55 and $95 per meal, including tax, tip and gratuity.
Along the way, Dinner Lab crowdfunded $2 million from its members and then raised another $5 plus million in venture funding. It pushed into corporate catering, and attracted some pretty elite clientele, most notably catering the New Orleans wedding of Beyonce’s sister, Solange Knowles.
“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,” says Dinner Lab in the team’s closure notice.
Perhaps a simple idea, definitely beautiful, but a hard business to grow, scale and make a profit with.