Passionate diners frequently chase the next big thing. If visiting a new restaurant is good, visiting it before anyone else has is better.
Similarly, exclusivity counts. The idea of being sufficiently in the know invite to score an invite for a private tasting menu would seem to have major appeal.
That’s where Tasting Collective comes in. The members-only dining club recently announced that Houston will be its 12th city, joining places such as Austin, Chicago, New York, and San Francisco. Nat Gelb, Tasting Collective’s founder and CEO, tells CultureMap that Houston’s vibrant dining scene made it a good fit for the company’s model.
“We look at the restaurant scene,” Gelb says. “There’s a specific kind of restaurant that works well with us: forward thinking restaurants that are willing to think a little outside the box.”
Tasting Collective’s model is straightforward. Diners pay an annual membership fee ($99 for the first 250 people, $165 after that). In exchange, they receive access to private, chef-led dinners that take place every two weeks at local restaurants. Those meals are always six courses and cost $50, plus tax, tip, and beverages. Members may also buy guest tickets for a higher price (typically around $75).
Dinner occur on nights the restaurant is closed or early in the week when business is slower. Tasting Collective buys out the space for the night, and the restaurants keep the $50.
The company makes its money on the membership fees. As the membership base grows and demand increases, Tasting Collective could add multiple seatings per night or multiple nights per restaurant.
Meals might include some of the chef’s most popular items as well as dishes that the chefs are still testing and want feedback on from the diners. The experience is interactive. Chefs introduce the dishes, tell stories about their careers, and take questions from attendees during dessert.
“The core of what we’re all about is creating human connections through food,” Gelb says. The chef comes out three times to share stores. The members participate by giving feedback and the Q&A. When they leave the event, they feel like they really know the people behind the restaurant. That’s what it’s all about.”
Gelb says the company has lined up three months of events, starting with Pondicheri chef Anita Jaisinghani on Monday, February 24. Next up will be chefs Tony Castillo of Mastrantos and William Wright of Helen. Future dinners will be revealed closer to when they occur. The company looks for chefs who are well-known in the market or who have worked at a prominent restaurant and are just starting out on their own.
"Anita from Pondicheri, we did an event with her in New York," Gelb says. "She was amazing. She had a blast with it. She was full of stories. People loved it. We knew we had a great first event partner there."
The CEO acknowledges that some parts of Tasting Collective’s model takes inspiration from Dinner Lab. The New Orleans-based pop-up company arrived in Houston in 2014 but declared bankruptcy in 2016. The biggest difference between the two company is that Tasting Collective only works with restaurant; it isn’t trying to create pop-up dinners in unusual venues such as an office building’s lobby.
“I would say the difference between what they did and what we do, we don’t have the overhead,” Gelb says. “We’re not creating restaurants in a parking lot. We have one employee at each event who is essentially the oil that makes the machine run smoothly and makes sure the things we need go well . . . The business model makes a lot more sense, shall we say.”