Diners Decide Menu, Chef of ‘Programmable Restaurant’

What if opening night were less of a gamble for restaurants?

Accomplishing this is the inspiration behind Dinner Lab's new venture — what it's billing as a "programmable restaurant."

"There is so much guesswork that goes into a restaurant," said the New Orleans-based start-up's CEO, Brian Bordainick. "The process for opening restaurants hasn't changed since the first one opened."

Starting in mid-April, Dinner Lab will host hundreds of dinners in 10 cities during which 10 chefs will compete to become the upcoming restaurant's chef. As they do, they also will be testing out multicourse menus.

At these events, guests will submit feedback, judging courses on a variety of criteria, including taste, creativity and drink pairing. Chefs will access this data as well as data from previous events to tweak their offerings to cater to different cities' preferences.

After analyzing guest feedback, Dinner Lab will then pick the ideal location and narrow the list to two chefs, who will face off for a series of dinners to refine the concept and menu.

"I think it leaves less to chance," said Bordainick about the start-up's data emphasis. "Some of the brightest minds that I know recognize that they don't know. Anyone who thinks they have a handle on consumer behavior or taste in this space is either way smarter than me if they actually do or they're insane."

The restaurant marks the latest stage of growth for Dinner Lab, which has been hosting "pop-up dinners" since 2012 for members that occur in temporary locations and feature inventive menus for a limited number of people. Members pay upward of $200 per year for access to the dinners and up to $95 per ticket to attend one, which Bordainick said sell out quickly.

So far, the company has raised about $2 million in a seed round of financing, attracting investments from wealthy individuals, restaurant investors and Whole Foods Market Chairman John Elstrott. Dinner Lab is currently raising money for a restaurant group that will oversee the test restaurant.