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Dinner Lab Launches in Denver

Unveiled in New Orleans in 2011, Dinner Lab, a community-dining startup, kicked off on the Denver food scene Sept. 26 as one of 10 recent city expansions.

 Stripping away the standard schema, Dinner Lab hopes to minimize the financial risk and likelihood of failure by providing a pop-up market research platform with immediate consumer feedback from market to market.

Dinner Lab largely identifies as a tech startup, rather than simply a food and beverage business.

Dinner Lab launched in Denver's RiNo neighborhood at The Infinite Monkey Theorem in late September with Chicago chef Danny Espinoza's "New Age take on Mexican ingredients and flavors."

The Infinite Monkey Theorem selection occurred thanks to a morning walk from Macias' nearby Airbnb rental past the wine lab.

Dinner Lab will start scheduling about three dinners per month to observe how Denver foodies take to the concept.

Unveiled in New Orleans in 2011, Dinner Lab, a community-dining startup, jumped into the Denver food scene on Sept. 26 with a modern Mexican meal at Infinite Monkey Theorem.
It's no secret the restaurant business can be a volatile line of work. Lacking a singular recipe for success, the industry copes with both high costs and high turnover. 

Stripping away the standard schema, Dinner Lab hopes to minimize the financial risk and likelihood of failure by providing a pop-up market research platform with immediate consumer feedback from market to market.

Dinner Lab launched in Denver's RiNo neighborhood at The Infinite Monkey Theorem in late September with Chicago chef Danny Espinoza's "New Age take on Mexican ingredients and flavors." The 130 patrons were instructed to mix and mingle with strangers at any of the long tables that looked more potluck dinner than five-star eatery.

While the pop-up piece of the puzzle is nothing new to Denver or elsewhere, Dinner Lab largely identifies as a tech startup, rather than simply a food and beverage business. After each course, diners grade and comment on their dishes. The day following the dinner, the same group also receives an email questionnaire to evaluate the  experience. 

The data aggregation helps up-and-coming chefs test markets, curate appropriately adventurous culinary inventions, follow food trends and tweak meals to perfection. Ultimately, the process can help them open a fail-proof brick-and-mortar eatery in one of Dinner Lab's more than 20 markets around the country.

New marketsDinner Lab launched in Denver's RiNo neighborhood at The Infinite Monkey Theorem in late September with Chicago chef Danny Espinoza's "New Age take on Mexican ingredients and flavors."

Once a city is selected, Ken Macias, manager of new market development says his team uncovers the available resources within that community -- the chef's networks, staff members, purveyors, and kitchens to operate within. The Infinite Monkey Theorem selection occurred thanks to a morning walk from Macias' nearby Airbnb rental past the wine lab. "Even though it's closed on Mondays, I knocked anyway and Ben Parsons, the owner, came out and once I explained it, he was like, 'Let's make this happen.' It was that simple."

Typical Dinner Labs allows for member-only access -- an upfront annual cost of $125 in Denver that provides the capital necessary to rent commissary kitchens, pay employees, etc. -- to a calendar of meals offered in their home city. Each meal then costs $65, including tax and tip. 

Menus are prepared by one of a rotating group of kitchen whizzes from top-rated restaurants, who too often miss the opportunity to pursue the preparations they're most passionate about. Dinner Lab collects its talent pool from within each of its markets; roughly half are local and the other half, including Espinoza, are touring chefs with high scores from previous events.

Members -- limited to roughly 1,000 to 2,000 food lovers per city -- are able to purchase tickets three weeks ahead of each event and are notified of the meal's location the day prior. Non-traditional settings have included an abandoned church, a museum and the Gibson guitar factory in Nashville, Tenn.

A natural fitDinner Lab largely identifies as a tech startup, rather than simply a food and beverage business.

Beyond a hiccup with the liquor license that was resolved in improvisational, tech-startup fashion, Macias says the launch in Denver was "seamless from beginning to end." He says that chaos is an inherent part of Dinner Lab's business model as a "young, fly-by-the-seat-of-our pants company."

It's an especially good fit for Colorado. "Denver is an up-and-coming food city," adds Macias. "It is filled with people willing to embrace new ideas, which is what Dinner Lab is all about; so it's a natural fit for us." 

According to Macias, the Denver expansion also brings with it a "core team of investors," such as Whole Foods Chairman John Elstrott, who was present at The Infinite Monkey Theorem.

Dinner Lab will start scheduling about three dinners per month to observe how Denver foodies take to the concept. "Some cities react well and others take more time and momentum," Macias admits, noting that "the reaction in Denver was great. In Denver itself, this progressive style of dining can be something important to culinary scene in the future." 

Next up: On Nov. 1, San Francisco chef Aaron Grosskopf will prepare a multi-course meal at an undisclosed location in the Art District on Santa Fe. The menu includes daahl lentil soup, smoked chicken, bacalao fritters, pork tenderloin and vanilla-marinated pineapple for dessert.

Go ahead, Denver -- eat your hearts out.

Photos by KatieBird Photography.

Read more articles by Gigi Sukin.

Gigi Sukin is a Denver-based writer-editor. She currently works as an editor at ColoradoBiz and previously worked as an editorial intern at 5280.
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