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What's (really) good on the menu? Start-up's diner feedback

A start-up supper club wants to bring opinions from test-diners onto a restaurant menu near you.

"We've made dinner very dorky," said Brian Bordainick, the CEO of Dinner Lab, a modern-day supper club that's driven by data. Up-and-coming chefs working on their craft are paired with 150-200 local members in pop-up locations for five-course meals that are analyzed, discussed and then graded by the diners.

The resulting data—scores for each dish on a scale of one to five, across categories that range from "taste" to "restaurant-worthiness"—is what the founders of the 2-year-old start-up hope will help them upend the traditional approach to building a successful restaurant.

"The industry right now is predicated on having a vision and then implementing it into a restaurant right off the bat," Bordainick says. "There's no real market testing or getting feedback from people. What we want to do is take the idea of: 'this is what's really creative' and 'this is what's viable in the market' and land somewhere right in the middle."

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As technology has enabled broader access to information across consumer industries, Bordainick thinks this data-driven approach will lead to opening "smarter" brick-and-mortar restaurants. Dinner Lab recently raised $2 million in its first round of independent funding. Bordainick said the company will continue the event planning and research collection in more dinners across 19 U.S. cities to build a culinary network of young chefs hungry for advice and diners willing to experiment.

At a Dinner Lab event in Brooklyn, 150 diners ate and critiqued a five-course, prix fixe dinner. Courses were judged on taste, creativity and restaurant-worthiness.
Katie Kramer | CNBC
At a Dinner Lab event in Brooklyn, 150 diners ate and critiqued a five-course, prix fixe dinner. Courses were judged on taste, creativity and restaurant-worthiness.

"We saw guys like Danny Meyer, who wrote the book on the service industry, close a restaurant in the last two years," says Bordainick about the successful New York restaurateur at the helm of Union Square Hospitality Group and the founder of Shake Shack.

He also cites celebrity chef Tom Collichio of Bravo's "Top Chef," who has also closed restaurants in several markets in recent years. "So how can we mitigate the risk factors and take a more sophisticated approach to this industry which really hasn't utilized data in this way before?"

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On a recent summer Friday evening in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, more than a hundred New Yorkers gathered in a photo and video studio for a prix fixe dinner cooked by Portland chef Chris Bailey. After introducing himself and telling his personal story, Bailey rushed from his pop-up kitchen on a photo stage to makeshift grill on the sidewalk. He was stopped repeatedly to talk and, mostly, listen to the thoughts and opinions of the strangers tasting his food. Dinner Lab members pay approximately $150 annually, plus fees for individual events.

"It's a national focus group, and you really get useful feedback, Bailey said. "The diners are curious, too. They're willing to take a leap and try something different. Kind of go beyond their comfort zone of what makes a restaurant a restaurant."

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—By CNBC's Katie Kramer