Five years of Date Lab: Who got hitched, who got ditched and what we’ve learned in our quest for a spark

July 28, 2011

There are countless reasons why two people don’t hit it off on a first date. Most are perfectly legitimate. But there is one that drives a hardworking matchmaker crazy.

“There just wasn’t any spark.”

Spark, chemistry, x-factor, zing — curse you, whatever you are. For five years, the editors of Date Lab have been sending single Washingtonians out on blind dates and recounting the highs (and lows) for our readers. And after wining and dining 250 couples — 20-somethings, senior citizens, straight, gay, rich, not-so-rich, and nearly every race on the Census form — the one thing we know is this: No matter how perfect a pair seems on paper, no matter how sure we are that the spark will ignite, there’s no predicting when that indefinable romantic catalyst will show itself.

The same is true for coupling up in the real world. Dating Web sites use carefully calibrated algorithms to match potential partners; singles mixers disguised as kickball teams and networking events put the emphasis on socializing; friends fix up their buddies based on intuition (and wishful thinking). And still, the path to romance is littered with mismatches.

But each week, we’ve waded into the dating pool with optimism. Now, as Date Lab celebrates its fifth anniversary, we look at where some of our experiments in sparkage have led.

THIS WAY TO THE LAB

When Date Lab launched, it wasn’t with the intent of being a marriage machine. Nor was it mere lowbrow entertainment. The idea, modeled on a New York Post feature called Meet Market, was to examine dating and “this humongous role that it plays in people’s lives,” says Sandy Fernandez, a former Washington Post Magazine editor who helped guide Date Lab through its first few years.

The feature “took the reporting DNA and the values of The Washington Post and put them into this area of life that I think a lot of people would say is frivolous, but it’s really not,” Fernandez says. “It’s really talking about that search for partnership and meaning that pretty much everyone is on.”

From the start, Date Lab has stuck to a few fundamental principles. First, the matching process is human: no formulas or science involved, just a couple of editors sifting through thousands of questionnaires to find potential pairs. Second, our fix-ups are truly blind — the only thing participants know about the person they’re about to meet is his or her first name. And finally, while Date Lab can’t always aim for a “perfect” couple, we’ve vowed to never intentionally send out a bad match just for fireworks’ sake.

That the concept would succeed wasn’t exactly a given. After all, in real life, dating can be downright dull. Dinner. Stilted conversation. Furtive glances at the clock. And for it to work, we would need a steady stream of adventurers willing to put their personal life in our pages (and sign a pretty extensive legal release). Would buttoned-down Washingtonians play along?

Not only did daters sign up, but when the first dates went out in 2006, “we immediately knew that we had something,” Fernandez says. “There was a beauty to the realness of it.” Five years later, we have 4,000 applications from people hoping we’ve got a match for them.

SUCCESS! SUCCESS?

We’re often asked about our rate of success. But success isn’t easy to measure when it comes to relationships. Everyone’s looking for something different: true love, a new friend, a hook-up, a good story. We tend to declare mission accomplished if by the end of the night our couple want to see each other again. Tallying the dates with that definition in mind, we get roughly 104 out of 253: 41 percent.

Some readers, however, expect more — they want serious sparks, love at first sight, marriage proposals. For them, we’ll begin our Date Lab disquisition with the first of our couples to reach the altar: Chris Bradley and Chrissie Brodigan, whose 2006 matchup was one they might never have made themselves.

For Brodigan, attractive meant “tall, dark, handsome and a geek.” But she described her dream date as “a sexy chef,” so we tracked down a man with a gourmet resume. The one catch: On the tall and geeky requirements, he fell a little short.

We often gamble on a compromise such as this one (but then, so do all daters). For someone seeking a documentary-loving polyglot who makes magic in the kitchen, we might drum up a multi-lingual filmmaker. But if the only thing he knows about food is how to make reservations, will the match be dead on arrival? We like to find out.

In the case of Brodigan, a 29-year-old Web site designer, and Bradley, a 34-year-old chef, a little disconnect on paper didn’t dampen the chemistry in person. She loved everything from his vintage wingtips to his foodie talk. He was bowled over by her boundless energy. At the end of the evening, it was Brodigan who asked Bradley to kiss her (though he said he’d already planned to). Within a month, the two were inseparable — and engaged. Six months later, they eloped.

The thrill of the first Date Lab wedding didn’t last long — for them (more on that later) or for us. It would be a few more years before we could brag aboutanother lifelong commitment. After a host of dates, from the bland to the hopeful to the cringe-worthy, we hit the jackpot again with Megan McKnight and Grant Schafer.

Neither had signed up expecting to find The One. McKnight, now 30, had applied on a wine-induced lark after prodding from her sister and friends. Schafer, 28, had never been on a blind date.

“I was like, ‘You know, I have nothing to lose,’ ” he says. “I thought it would be funny.”

Schafer couldn’t find any good photos of himself but sent a few he had on hand. “I looked like a dork,” he says of the pictures he uploaded with his application.

He didn’t know it then, but geekiness was an asset. McKnight had listed her type as “adorkable,” a la Zach Braff. And Schafer, trim and earnest, has the blazing blue eyes and ready smile of the adorkable.

Stepping into Potenza that night in November 2009, McKnight spotted Schafer and “kind of got that excited heartbeat, like, ‘Oh, wow, he’s cute,’ ” she says. The two settled into a booth and almost immediately discovered common ground. She was a grad student studying library science; he was a Loudoun County public schools social worker. They both leaned liberal and wanted to travel the world. “I felt instantly comfortable with him,” McKnight says. They still joke about his attempt at a flirty toast: “To our adventurous spirit.”

After dinner, they moved to the rooftop bar at the W Hotel (his idea). In his post-date interview, Schafer rated the date a 5 on our 1-to-5 scale. McKnight’s Date Lab-reading brother warned her she should lowball the rating, so she went with a 4.25. “But I was really excited,” she says now.

That first date was followed by a second, which endedwith a kiss (her idea — “I could tell he’s way more shy than I am,” she explains.) Then a third. And a fourth. McKnight, living in the District, found a way to look past Schafer’s far-flung Loudoun address. “I liked him so much. I was willing to make it work,” she says. “We fell in love very quickly.”

Out with friends one evening that January, Schafer remembers gazing at McKnight across the table and musing, Wow, I think I could marry her. “She was just so great. And I was so happy.”

By May, they were living together. Two months later, he lured her back to the W rooftop and popped the question. There were tears — “Ugly crying, not Miss America crying,” McKnight jokes — and neither remembers if she even uttered “yes.”

We at Date Lab were practically doing cartwheels, and maybe all that enthusiasm was a catalyst: It was only months before we made the match that blossomed into our third engagement.

Digging through our database to find a match for mega-runner Daniel Zielaski in the spring of 2010, it didn’t take us long to find Anna Russell. A marathoner with a beaming smile, she described her dream date as a traveler and someone who “doesn’t need tons of stuff in life to make them happy.” Zielaski, a minimalist — “I sleep on an air mattress,” he said in his questionnaire — had covered 27 countries in six years and was in search of a fit adventurer. There was one catch: Zielaski described his type as redheaded; Russell is brunette. Ignoring specifics such as that had doomed us in the past; would hair color be the deal breaker?

Zielaski and Russell went out in May 2010, and from the first moment they hit it off. Zielaski declared her “gorgeous”; Russell said “immediately there was a good vibe.” They talked about running, shared steak skewers and cracked cans of PBR. Both emphatically rated the night a 5. Zielaski called it “truly the best first date I’ve ever been on.”

They met a few days later for a run that morphed into an 11-hour adventure. Strolling the city, they stopped for a picnic lunch, sat in on a free yoga lesson and shared a casual Thai meal near Eastern Market. From then on, Russell and Zielaski say they were rarely apart.

A year later, “we kind of agreed that we would redo” the second date, says Russell, now 28, who didn’t know that Zielaski, 27, had bigger plans. As the two walked near the start of the Capital Crescent Trail in Georgetown, he got down on one knee.

A SWING, AND A MISS

But anytime we start thinking “Hey, we’re getting good at this!” the matchmaking gods turn their backs on us. The result: those memorable Date Labs where our good intentions go horribly, horribly awry.

In 2006, we sent out techies Soko Hirayama and Jesse Crafts-Finch, the only couple ever to rate their date a zero — which, technically, isn’t even an option on our 1-to-5 scale. The article ran under a headline that declared: “Let the hatin’ begin!”

Hirayama, then a 24-year-old Web designer, had signed up mostly for a laugh, she told us recently via Skype from her home in Japan, where she has lived since 2007. She had hoped to meet “somebody cute-ish and talk about geeky things,” she recalls. She wasn’t expecting love at first sight, but “honestly, I cleaned up my room just in case he was unbelievably cute.”

The cleanup turned out to be “such a waste,” she says. Crafts-Finch, then 23 and a video game design intern, seemed geeky enough, but the date almost immediately derailed. Hirayama noted his “not-really-happening red shirt” and his failure to compliment her. He ordered his dessert before she finished eating her dinner — “so rude” she says; by then, Hirayama was openly checking her cellphone for messages.

In her post-date interview, she admitted, “I was really bored.” Crafts-Finch wasn’t exactly enamored, either. “In terms of meeting someone I would want to date, it was a complete failure,” he said in his post-date interview.

Reached by e-mail recently, Crafts-Finch, who has since left the Washington area and runs a small business making video games, says he wasn’t surprised by Hirayama’s criticisms or the hailstorm of Internet comments that followed.

Hirayama got an e-mail from a woman scoping out potential dates for her son, but much of the other feedback was negative. Hirayama shrugs off the haters. “These people who commented negative things didn’t know me anyways,” she says. Today, she’s in a casual relationship but, forthright as ever, she’s quick to add, “I really love America — always open to somebody who can bring me back.”

For a while, it seemed that Hirayama and Crafts-Finch had a lock on the worst date in Date Lab history. But then, K. Bryan Johnson met Theresa Mack.

Their post-date interviews told two very different tales. Mack, a 52-year-old mother of three and then-administrative assistant, gushed that “we meshed from the very beginning.” Johnson, then 49, said he usually dates women who are “more stylish and, to sum it up, medium-size, thin,” and detailed the designer-label clothes he’d worn that evening (and what they cost). She said they walked to the Metro arm in arm; he didn’t remember it that way. She asked for his card; he told her he’d forgotten them — then admitted to our reporter, “I don’t give them out to everyone.”

When the article was published on Valentine’s weekend in 2009, readers swamped the comment board, calling Johnson knuckleheaded, shallow, vain and worse.

Mack admits now, “I guess I was naive.” She didn’t read the online comments (she didn’t know they were there), but when she headed to work that Sunday she got a quick taste of the public reaction. “The security guards were like, ‘Who does this guy think he is?’ ” Mack says.

In the days that followed, co-workers showered her with support. “I learned that they were closer to me than I really thought,” Mack says.

She says that, in hindsight, she knew it wasn’t a good match. Johnson, she says, “was like ‘me, me, me’ the whole dinner.” When he talked about attending parties with models, “I was like, ‘No, I could not fit in with your crowd.’ ” But Mack didn’t convey any doubt in her post-date interviews, even after it became apparent that she was one half of a wildly lopsided he-said/she-said. “I was a perfect lady,” she says. “I figured somebody has to be the better person.”

Since then, Mack hasn’t dated much. “I decided I was going to concentrate on my career,” she says. She laughs when asked if she’d participate again. “Who knows! Maybe I might,” she says. “You have to put yourself out there.”

Despite multiple attempts to contact him for this article, Johnson was unreachable. But if he felt the heat of reader reaction, he can take solace in the fact that he hasn’t been alone. Daters often come under fire in the wild world of Date Lab’s online comment boards, where anonymous posters fire off opinions about everything from the daters’ choice of words to their clothing, the size of their bodies and even their prospects for happiness.

“Some people were saying that I should be fired,” recalls Todd Funkhouser, a high school teacher who says he was characteristically candid during his 2009 date and the post-date interviews. On the date, he’d suggested taking a photo of himself pretending to shove his date’s head toward his crotch. Afterward, he described her as, “definitely stockier than I’m interested in.” His antics resulted in his date, Kim Goldman, declaring him, “immature and socially awkward,” and the online commenters agreed.

“The funniest one I saw was a nomination for ‘most despicable Date Labber of the year,’ ” says Funkhouser, 39, who adds that the vitriol didn’t really surprise him.

As for Goldman, 38, as shocked as she was by Funkhouser’s description of her — “I’m a competitive triathlete!” she notes — she’s more forgiving. “I think that underneath that rough exterior he probably is a nice guy,” she says. Both are still single.

AND A TWIST

When things go wrong, we can take our lumps, but readers aren’t shy about calling for our heads. So, in 2008, after a string of bad dates, we decided to hand over the reins to someone else. Was this matchmaking gig actually so easy a monkey could do it? To find out, we enlisted the help of Armani, a capuchin from Rockville.

Decked out in a tux, Armani grabbed two photos from a row of 10 and tore them down the middle. We took that for a match.

And at first blush, it seemed Armani had scored one for monkeykind. His picks, Ginger Ammon and Matt Duffy, shared a pitcher of sangria, flirty laughs and a smooch. Both gave the date a glowing 5. In the years that followed, Date Lab mismatches were regularly met with demands that we “bring back the monkey!”

Except, well, it’s complicated.

When they were interviewed, Ammon and Duffy thought they’d have a second date, really they did. But a week went by, then another. While we were busy tossing kudos to Armani, Ammon found herself growing closer to someone she’d met just before going on Date Lab. And she admits now that she’d probably inflated her grade. Duffy, a blond former body builder and fraternity brother, wasn’t her type. On her questionnaire, Ammon had noted that she goes for dark hair, dark eyes, slim, foreign men and that she wasn’t a big fitness buff. Plus, “I don’t know if there was that instant connection,” she says. “[That’s] still what I’m looking for.”

So why the 5? Because the date was fun. And “he was a really nice guy, so I didn’t want to hurt his feelings,” she says.

Duffy stands by his 5. “There wasn’t ... that [feeling of] ‘I could spend the rest of my life with this person,’ but you never know that at the beginning,” he says.

And what being matched by a monkey? Duffy is unfazed. “It’s almost completely random, which is how you meet someone a lot of times anyhow,” he says. Ammon felt, “a little surprised,” then “kind of stupid. Like I felt like the joke was on us, and I didn’t sign up for that.”

Ammon, 32, went on to start a relationship with the man she’d met before Date Lab, but she’s now single. Duffy, also 32, found love without our help; he’s engaged and headed down the aisle in August.

Sometimes, too, we help make a match without even knowing it. Alex Ozenberger’s a successful Date Lab with Holley Simmons didn’t turn into a relationship. In fact, date No. 2 was a bomb. Simmons, 26, says the awkwardness she’d found endearing on the first date wasn’t that cute after all. Ozenberger, 25, says he knew he’d blown it. Flirting “is something I’ve always struggled with.”

The January article included an update that left no doubt that the initial spark had faded, but that weekend, “I got Facebook messages from, I think, three different girls,” Ozenberger says. “I wasn’t expecting that.”

Two he found “kind of weird,” but the third struck a chord. Its sender was Kathleen Sims, who had applied for Date Lab herself months earlier but hadn’t made our short list as a match for Ozenberger. To Sims, 23, he seemed “really cool, really laid-back” and, best of all, “he said that he’s happiest when he’s curled up with a mug of tea and a book,” she recalls. “I’m happiest like that, as well.”

Sims toyed with the idea of tracking down Ozenberger but worried she’d seem stalkerish. She read the article again. And again. “I was finally like, ‘Well, the worst that happens is that he just [doesn’t] reply.’ ”

In the Facebook message she told him, “I’m sure Holley is missing out.” Within an hour, there it was. More Facebooking and e-mailing followed, until the two agreed to meet.

Ozenberger struck her as down-to-earth, sweet and quiet, “but I’m quiet, too, so I don’t mind that,” she says. They had plenty in common, and, yes, they even had chemistry. “I was physically attracted to him right away,” Sims says. “He’s got these amazing blue eyes.” Soon they were “boyfriend and girlfriend,” Ozenberger says.

Simmons, now living in New York, fielded a flirty Facebook message of her own following Date Lab. A short-but-intense relationship followed, but she’s now single. “I decided to adopt the ‘it happens when you least expect it’ approach to love,” says Simmons.

HAPPILY EVER AFTER?

We might not have found a fail-proof recipe for a romantic spark, but our experiments have certainly been educational. We’ve learned that having your parents drop you off for your date probably isn’t going to go over well. Air guitar moves can flop. Being an hour late doesn’t necessarily doom the night. Looks matter — even models get dinged on appearance — but a warm smile and an open attitude can go a long way.

We’ve learned that whether you’re a hipster, or a hippie, young or old, black, white, gay or straight, lighting someone’s fire often comes down to more than matching traits on a checklist.

But, above all we’ve learned that what you expect is rarely what you get. Sometimes delightfully so. Sometimes heartbreakingly so. Date Labbers Brodigan and Bradley hadn’t planned to find a spouse the night they met. But when they tied the knot, they were expecting some version of happily ever after. Then, life got in the way.

Brodigan calls the experience a bittersweet story. “If two people ever loved one another so madly and deeply it was us,” she says.

Bradley landed a restaurant gig in New York, and Brodigan followed him, landing a tech job of her own. At first, “we did great for each other,” says Bradley, now executive chef at Untitled, a new restaurant at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art.“But personality-wise, we didn’t really work out.”

Brodigan says the transition from living single in Northern Virginia to married in uber-intense New York City “wasn’t the quirky transition that romantic comedies portray.” In New York, with its rock-star chef culture, “marrying a chef was a lot sexier to talk about than to live out,” says Brodigan. Her long work hours and the the demands of Bradley’s career made spending time together almost impossible.

By 2008, Bradley was moving out; they have since separated.

Still, Brodigan is hopeful for the future. She moved to San Francisco last summer; in the spring, she began dating a co-worker“who’s really awesome and special.” And this time, she’s focusing less on great beginnings and more on what follows. “Chris and I had such a great starting story, but it’s such a small thing,” she says. “Like, who even cares how a movie starts? You care how it finishes. It’s everything that comes afterward.”

And what comes after Date Lab hasn’t often been a happily-ever-after. Disappointing? Maybe. But it was hard to feel anything but giddy standing on a grassy lawn overlooking a lush Loudoun County vineyard, watching two more Date Labbers tie the knot earlier this month. Under a cloudless sky, McKnight and Schafer exchanged vows (hers started off with “I knew you were a catch when you wanted to go to the Library of Congress for our second date. On a Saturday night.”). They promised to love and honor each other, and were pronounced husband and wife by McKnight’s brother, who officiated.

“All You Need Is Love” played as the newlyweds headed back up the aisle, ready to start their next adventure.

Date Lab editors Amanda McGrath and Christina Breda Antoniades can be reached at datelab@washpost.com. Join them, along with Date Lab couple Megan McKnight and Grant Schafer, for a live chat Thursday at 1 p.m. ET.

Check out more updates on past Date Lab couples, photos from past dates and of daters mentioned in this story, and our by-the-numbers breakdown ..

Single? If you’re in the Washington area, fill out our application and let us find you a match. Plus, follow us on , and .. And indulge your Date Lab additction in our archive..

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