Dinner Lab, a supper club and culinary events business that has expanded to 75,000 members across 31 states over the past three years, is today putting its recent infusion of new capital to use: the company is acquiring a competitor known as Dishcrawl, which had been operating a similar service, but one that was more like a “bar crawl for restaurants,” rather than longer, sit-down events. And yes, this deal means what you think – Dinner Lab will soon expand to include this type of culinary experience in the future, the company says.
Having launched out of New Orleans, Dinner Lab’s core value proposition is that it offers a way for up-and-coming chefs to gain exposure as well as receive feedback on dishes of their own creation. But unlike reality show cooking competitions like “Top Chef,” for example, Dinner Lab’s chefs are reviewed and rated by everyday diners and foodies, not culinary experts or fellow chefs.
That’s something of a radical idea in the culinary industry, where the mantra “the customer is always right” doesn’t really hold up like it does in retail. That is, when it comes to world of haute cuisine, restaurant-goers aren’t usually expected to give the chef tips on how a dish can be improved.
But Dinner Lab has historically been focused on finding the next great chefs, as opposed to those whose work is already perfected.
Chefs who plan and prepare meals for the company’s events tend to be sous chefs, line cooks, or even those without formal culinary training who are trying to break into the industry. The events allow the chefs to test their menus, and see what diners like. The participants’ ultimate goal is gaining exposure and making a name for themselves, and possibly getting a better job in the process.
The reward from the chefs’ participation is often concrete. Dozens have landed contracts, or full-time positions at restaurants as a result. And a trio of chefs with only basic culinary training (or none at all) even leveraged their Dinner Lab experience to get them positions at Michelin-starred restaurants in San Francisco and Chicago.
Another participant, Kwame Onwuachi, won a competition Dinner Lab held last summer which actually landed him a restaurant of his own – The Shaw Bijou, opening soon.
D.C. area Dinner Lab members put up a few million to back Onwuachi, whose cooking they loved. The win also scored him an invite to “Top Chef,” as it turned out.
Historically, Dinner Lab has been a members-only supper club where area foodies would pay anywhere from $125 to $175 per year, depending on their city’s size, to attend exclusive events where they get to dine on five-course meals, and enjoy unlimited beer, wine and cocktails.
More recently, however, Dinner Lab introduced another tier – a free membership that lets you pay per meal, at a cost of, on average, around $65.00 for your food and drinks. (Members still get early access, and popular events sell out fast, which gives the premium membership its value).
Of the 75,000 members, around a third are paying subscribers. The company also runs a corporate events business which allows for even more custom offerings, accounting for around 20% of Dinner Lab’s overall business.
With San Francisco-based Dishcrawl, founded by Tracy Lee, Dinner Lab will now introduce another product to its lineup: the bar crawl for foodies. Instead of longer meals, Dishcrawl’s diners pay $40-$50 to travel in between multiple restaurants in an evening, trying one or two small plates at each, while also getting a meet-and-greet with the chef.
Lee had scaled the service to 250 cities in 3 years, and grew its membership base to over 80,000 customers. But despite its $1.2 million in angel funding, the company struggled with operational costs and infrastructure issues. (Investors will make their money back and then some, but the company declined to say how much).
“It’s a perfect fit for us in terms of product, and what she’s offering is something that could be a new format and a perfect crossover with our target members,” says Dinner Lab co-founder Zach Kupperman. But even at this lower price point, he doesn’t think it will reach a new demographic. It will just give potential members a new type of culinary experience to pay for, thus increasing memberships in general, and then hopefully converting more members to subscribers.
Plus, Kupperman adds, Dinner Lab is in a position to solve Dishcrawl’s operational issues, which included the HR challenge of having to hire new contractors for each event. (Dinner Lab instead has full-time event planning teams and its own in-house chefs who help at its events.)
Following the deal’s close, Dishcrawl will shut down its site and service. Lee is joining Dinner Lab, bringing her expertise and relationships with her. However, Kupperman says the restaurant crawl events won’t kick off until Q2 2016.