At a time when most restaurants are looking to outshine, out-furnish, and out-glitz their competition in order to attract meetings business, there are a small number of niche restaurants that prefer to keep their clientele in the dark.
“Dark restaurants” are either pitch-black inside or equip diners with blindfolds to help them simulate the experience of blindness. The first of these restaurants (“Blinde Kuh” or “Blind Cow”) opened in Zurich in 1999 as an experiment to cultivate empathy for the daily lives of the visually impaired, as well as to enhance guests’ actual dining experiences by blocking one sense—sight—in favor of taste.
In the past 12 years, more than a dozen of these specialty eateries have sprung up in such popular destinations as New York, London, Paris, Berlin, and Beijing. Some of these establishments also “deliver” the experience upon request to hotels, restaurants, and other catering venues—thus enabling diners around the world to see the light while dining in darkness. And meeting planners in both small and large companies and associations have gravitated to the “dark restaurant” concept as a novel exercise in teambuilding.
Blind Meals to Go
It wasn’t that much of a stretch for Susan Easter, the manager of medical education at Focus-Ed, an independent medical education and communications company in Tampa, FL, to bring dark dining to a meeting of 200 ophthalmologists at the Washington-Duke Inn in Durham, NC, back in October 2007. The goal was to increase compassion and customer service by putting “health care professionals on the opposite side of the desk to experience what their patients go through on a daily basis,” she says. Easter had been inspired by some colleagues who had raved about attending a dark dining fundraiser for blindness prevention. She called upon Opaque, which operates three dark restaurants in Santa Monica, San Diego, and San Francisco, to duplicate the same experience for her group.
However, as Easter discovered, a lot more organization is involved when the blind restaurant comes to you. For example, Opaque always tries to train visually impaired locals as wait staff rather than bring in servers, because, according to Benjamin Uphues, the company’s owner, it’s important to give “meaningful employment to this minority group, which numbers over 765,000 in California alone.” He says that his team has already trained over 100 visually impaired people in various cities, and they act as wait staff for Opaque on an ongoing basis, thus reducing setup time for future meetings.
Therefore, when Easter hired Opaque for her meeting, Uphues and his team visited Durham far in advance of the event to work out logistics with the staff at the Washington-Duke Inn, as well as visit local agencies that work with the visually impaired. Then they returned three days in advance of the meeting to train the wait staff and to erect the materials that would completely black out the conference room.
On the day of the event, after Focus-Ed’s afternoon meeting ended, Opaque took three hours to finalize the preparations before leading participants into the dark space, with soothing music playing in the background to put them at ease.
Easter says that her attendees had been briefed in advance about the dinner, and that while some initially were “wary,” overall there was a positive response. “Many people in optometry don’t have much experience in low-vision circumstances,” she says. “People commented most on how not being able to see made them more acutely tuned in to their other senses. You listened more carefully to what people were saying and you picked up conversations from other tables. Even your senses of smell and taste were more acute.”
While Easter knew the menu in advance, which included foods “easily eaten by hand and managed without making a mess,” such as baked chicken breast, mini-carrots, and roasted potatoes, with fruit for dessert, many diners did not recognize the tastes without visual cues and were surprised afterwards when they learned the actual foods involved. She warns that it’s important to survey all participants in advance as to food allergies and special needs. She also advises that since you have people wandering around in the dark, it’s not a bad idea to take out extra insurance for the meeting as well. (On the issue of safety, Uphues notes that the company gets local fire departments to approve all venue setups and has fire personnel wearing night-vision goggles on the scene, in case of emergencies.)
Easter says that even though it was not the original intention of the meeting, the dining event worked well to achieve teambuilding. “People who sat together seemed to bond nicely and speak to each other without hesitation, even though they were from all levels of the company, and some were spouses or guests … Among tablemates, there was more interaction and conversation [than at a ‘sighted’ dinner] since people needed to work together more closely than usual to pass the salad dressing or find their bread and butter.” She says that rapport was also built between the participants and the wait staff, who introduced themselves to the Focus-Ed employees, addressed everyone by name, and helped them by explaining where the food was located, with cues like, “Your meat is at 12 o’clock and your veggies are at 4 o’clock.” Easter was so pleased with the outcome, she is “looking for an excuse to do another dark dining event.”
Not Seeing Is Believing
Several years ago, C.V. Bells, then a team training and development manager with the Red Mountain Retail Group, in Santa Ana, CA, went one step further with the dark dining event she arranged with Opaque at the Marriott in Irvine. Bells, who now owns a design firm called Styled4You, says that her goal for the real estate development/redevelopment company was to “help people realize there are boundaries to their thinking, to see that life is what you make it, and if you have limitations in your viewpoint, you have limitations in your life. We challenged them to question how their sight was restricting them. We felt they could see that best by not seeing at all.
“When you go through the [dark dining] process, it changes your understanding of perception,” explains Bells. “I’m sitting at a table with eight other people—we’re talking back and forth—and my impression is that this table is huge and I have a lot of space. I’m moving around and not touching anyone else—leaning forward to be heard—and everyone seemed less concerned about how they looked or came across, so the conversation felt more open. But when the lights came on, it turned out that we were at a little table and we were sitting very close together—completely different than how I had imagined it!”
Bells’ midday event was a part of the “personal growth” training, designed for “everyone from CEO to file clerks,” not an after-meeting meal, as Easter’s dinner had been. Therefore, after the meal, the meeting facilitator turned on the lights and asked the attendees, “What did this bring up for you?” Bells says that despite initial excitement about the meal, there were a few attendees for whom the experience evoked some personal vulnerability issues that they’d thought were behind them or had never before been addressed, such as claustrophobia and abandonment (“You have that many people in a room, there are bound to be people with issues about being in the dark”).
But for most, the luncheon opened up the group’s thinking and offered an unexpected benefit, a deeper connection among the participants. “We’re already a pretty close-knit group, but bonding goes to a different level in the dark. We learned a lot about people that we didn’t know before, throughout the meal and also during the discussion afterward,” says Bells, adding that it “was definitely one of the most unusual training exercises I’ve done in my years of meeting planning for this company.”
For companies who want the dark dining experience with less advance setup, Dana Salisbury’s company, Dark Dining Projects, in New York, incorporates blindfolds for participants, rather than making the entire venue dark. “We want to be able to see what attendees need, when they need it,” says Salisbury.
Salisbury, who runs dark dinners monthly in New York City, says she has arranged dark events as far afield as Seattle, Florida, and Massachusetts, for private parties as well as companies like Procter & Gamble. She describes her meals as a “sensory feast” that addresses more than just taste. She also says that when people are blindfolded, “they are more willing to take in new experiences. They are more relaxed. And by being blindfolded [when the staff isn’t], they can be confident that any of their desires can be filled or questions answered by just raising a hand. They don’t have to worry about where the waiter might be. They feel more empowered.”
Salisbury says the optimum number of participants at one of her events is between 40 and 60, but she has organized events for as many as 131. She prefers to keep the atmosphere personal and intimate, without microphones. “We want people to get a sense of the space by the sounds of people moving in it. You become incredibly aware of how many things you can sense without your eyes.”
Food is the centerpiece of a dark dining event, but to further emphasize the enjoyment one can get from all the senses, Salisbury provides customized entertainment for the audience. “We usually do something early on in the evening to bring people into focus before the meal. For example, for about 20 of the ‘color gurus’ at Benjamin Moore—those responsible for color development and marketing—we started the dinner by reading a poem full of color imagery called ‘White Kimono.’ … Then we asked them about their favorite colors, and we had an extraordinary tap dancer tap out the names and feelings of the colors, accompanied by a singer who sang about the colors in expressive ways.”
For meeting planners interested in bringing dark dining to their future events, all those interviewed felt that the pricing shouldn’t be a deterrent. According to Easter, Opaque’s costs were “reasonable … considering how closely they worked with the hotel property and the chef to work out the menu and logistics.” Opaque’s Uphues says that his company’s flat price is normally $44 to $46 per head above food costs if no travel costs are required; if a lot of work is involved, the minimum number of guaranteed attendees is shifted upward. C.V. Bells, who says she works on a fairly tight budget, believes the value far outweighed the additional costs. “Maybe it ran us 10 percent more than usual, but the worth? Astronomical. My only advice to other planners is, ‘Go do it!’”
for a list of dark dining restaurants around the world.