This exploration session is one of the reasons I get excited about what I do, and I have yet to even meet LeeJay. A month or so ago I did an exploration of a Bay Area foodie who was kind enough to publically thank me, but that was the extent of it for the time being. I was a little disappointed because I kind of hope that in doing these features for my Northern California themed online community, that I can at least get some people to meet me in the middle for some onsite conversation.
Note: Click images to open links, content, and resources related to this exploration.
Maybe I should be a bit more explicit in that aim. A lot of businesses hope for some exposure through bloggers, but see it more as a virtual high five and that’s the end of it. In that case I did an expose on a food blogger, and I’m not sure if her line of work is perhaps more quantitative in nature – trying to drive as much traffic as possible to her site for instance – and built around the idea of monetization around ads. Maybe that does not lend itself too much to qualitative relationship building, but hard to say because I’m not really a foodie, so perhaps her impression of me was we have nothing in common other than Nor Cal.
That should be as good of an excuse as any to network in my opinion, but I’ve also learned over the years that living in a place sometimes cancels out the notion it is exciting – if you see the same thing every day it can be kind of boring as a topic – and that naturally tends to neutralize whatever prospect on networking around that theme. So, great to find other shared interests such as food for example. The more points of interest you can find in common and touch on, the more likely you are to hit it off with someone.
Case in point: I’m currently in St. Louis Missouri right now, which makes it an interesting challenge to network with people in Nor Cal, but I’ve been running into all kinds of people out here with ties to Northern California. That little bit of polarity makes it really fun for me because it just naturally lends itself to “connecting the dots”. About a month ago I came across a job announcement in St. Louis for a new company coming to the area called Dinner Lab. Check this out!
After looking into Dinner Lab, I knew I wanted to do a feature on them. Fortunately, I also discovered they had expanded out to San Francisco as well, so the one thing I was looking for was a person in the company I could connect to, and I think I may have found one in LeeJay. Turns out LeeJay Victor is Dinner Lab’s Market Manager for San Francisco, but she also went to college out in St. Louis, and maybe she even makes her way out here once in a while to help with the expansion project here. I don’t know about you, but to me that’s kind of an exciting deal, lol!
The reason I am so interested in Dinner lab has less to do with the food, and more to do with how innovative of a business model they have. I’m sort of a student of modern business, and digital strategy is a big part of that, but the most important things to me have to do with creating a special experience, meaningful encounters with other people, and especially awesome times for people to get together in person. Turns out this is precisely what Dinner Lab is doing around evening dining experiences. In fact, their digital strategy is very understated, but this is consistent with their focus on developing a word-of-mouth reputation. Their focus is on people, food, and events, so they concentrate their efforts there, and they hope it’s all so good that the rest of it – such as marketing to help get the word out – kind of ends up taking care of itself. Well, turns out they have been wildly successful with this approach, and within a few years, they’ve gone from a startup in New Orleans to expansion across almost every major U.S. city. It’s really taking off!
I was pretty stoked to get this in as a Nor Cal Explorer segment, because we are talking about an exclusive club, and based on their more established cities, they tend to quickly reach a point where they do not have enough supply to meet the demand. You sign up for an annual membership (for a nominal fee), and then you get access to some of the hottest up and coming culinary events – invitation only, so to speak – where new chefs who maybe work in support of already established top restaurants experiment with creative menus of their own design, and maybe find out they are ready to open their own dining experiences. From the looks of it, my contacts from both St. Louis and Northern California might be pleased to find out through me that there are still some open spots in this underpublicized underground movement… word of mouth! It’s one of those things you kind of have to be “in the know” to get in on, and “first to know” for that matter.
Now I may not be a foodie, but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate great food. As a Marine I have had the opportunity to travel the world and sample all kinds of exotic foods, a worthwhile experience indeed, but for the most part these days I prefer to keep it simple and wholesome. I find new tastes interesting, but not to the degree where it is integral with my lifestyle, and this has more to do with regulating my diet around my training/sports lifestyle. However, I do enjoy turning simple things into high quality, and when I cook for others I often get compliments. It’s not that I consider myself a cook at all, just that I figure if you are going to cook something, then it should be done right. My old man taught me how to do this on a budget, for instance, but what took me to the next level were some jobs I had as a teenager working at restaurants.
For instance, one of my first jobs ever (under the table actually because I was so young) was as a bus boy for this old Italian guy who specialized in a fusion of Italian and Spanish cuisine. I learned more about how good cooking could be from all the food he let me take home after dinner services, but the most important take aways had to do with his instructions to me on how he wanted the service to run and my role as a busser. There’s a lot that goes into the business that most people have no clue about, but the chefs are involved in every detail even down to the clearing and setting of tables, how the silverware is to be laid out, and even how the napkins are to be folded. It was all essential to the dining experience from speed of service, table turnaround, demonstrated attention to detail, and ultimately the atmosphere or experience of a night dining out there – the key was to get people to come back and enthusiastically recommend the place. Every once in a while I go out to eat, and I can’t help but look at whatever the place is doing through that old man’s eyes.
Another example was a job I had up in Chico sometime in my late teens where I got to work with one of our city’s two five star restaurants. The funny thing about it was what made the place five stars was our chef, and he split his week across two restaurants, so really our town had just one five star chef, lol! But oh man did I learn about great food from him. My basic job was just as a dishwasher, but I was efficient in that, so the chef was always putting me to work in food prep and sauce making. He would hand me a recipe, instruct me on technique, and basically have me handle the bulk work while he attended to the main courses. He also put me in charge of, at least keeping an eye on, the smoker. That smoker was I think the centerpiece of the kitchen, and the aromas of everything from chicken to salmon gave me a new found sense of taste that I have carried with me ever since.
So looking into LeeJay and Dinner Lab, I have to say I am impressed with their creation of one-time dining experiences. They set up for an evening at some eclectic location, build their kitchen, organize every detail, and it’s all built around the menu and vision for a dining experience from whoever they have guest hosting. They get a chef to send out a menu, people in the club review it and reserve their spots (which apparently sell out very fast), and then just the day before the event an email with the location is sent out to attending members. Like I said, I can appreciate how challenging it is to get everything just right at an established restaurant, but you have to think the challenge is ten-fold when you are setting out a pop up event like this. It does probably do more to show off the chefs’ capabilities, no doubt offers extremely unique and fresh dining concepts, not to mention represents something of an exciting experience for the dinner guests to be a part of.
Just reflecting back on that job description I came across in St. Louis, and my understanding is they need people who can thrive on the fly- doing anything from vendor relations and marketing on one hand, to setting tables and cleaning silverware on the other. With the fluidity involved in the events, sometimes locations fall through, and each occasion is as unique as a given chef can imagine. So the type of person needed for this kind of role must necessarily be “dynamic” in the ultimate sense of the term. You almost have to wonder what kind of person they would look for to do this… what are the qualifications, experience, and personality traits… because I’m not sure there is really much precedent for them to draw on. That job sounded like it was tailor made for what I could do, but I decided not to apply because I don’t consider myself a foodie. Yet, the more I have looked into Brian Bordainick, the CEO for Dinner Lab, the more I have thought how I might like to work with him. He’s an impressive fellow with projects expanding far beyond just Dinner Lab, and in many ways doing some of the same things I want to do to give back to my community. Now that I think of it, one of the best ways I can imagine to go about fundraising for causes is to hold high-end dinner parties.
This brings it all back around to Leejay Victor, because it says a lot about her that she would work for this startup, and it also says a lot about their organization – that they see her as this dynamic person for the challenge. At the very least, I would imagine it should be very interesting to meet her.
Finally, there is the food itself. Looking at some of the upcoming events featured on Dinner Lab’s website, almost everything I saw listed was something new I never even heard of, lol! In fact, there were some things I saw that I would personally be hesitant to even try, but there’s no doubt the chefs are turning people on to some of the state-of-the-art ideas in food, and perhaps in some cases pioneering new ground. Like I said, they have enjoyed tremendous word-of-mouth success from this, so obviously Dinner Lab and their participating chefs are delivering truly impressive experiences.
LeeJay, if you happen to read this, I would love to continue this conversation with you. If you prefer, feel free to drop me a line sometime. It will be my personal pleasure to connect with you. Best, email@example.com