Jürg Spielmann and Christina Fasser, founder and president of the foundation board blindekuh | pictures: Désirée Good

The eye-opening ‘blindekuh’ restaurant

Inspiring for both parties

The blindekuh Foun­da­tion and restau­rant (named after the German equi­va­lent of ‘blind man’s buff’) have taken a niche concept that brings toge­ther sigh­ted people and those with impai­red vision and turned it into a success story. Jürg Spiel­mann, who set up the foun­da­tion, and Chris­tina Fasser, chair of the board of trus­tees, discuss how the concept came about, the impact the coro­na­vi­rus crisis is having on jobs for blind people and their own expe­ri­en­ces of blindness.

At the blindekuh restau­rant, ever­yone eats in the dark. No-one can see anything. Do you find eating in the dark a diffe­rent expe­ri­ence from eating in a lit restaurant?

Jürg Spiel­mann: The thing that I find really diffe­rent is that, for once in my life, I don’t feel like I’m being studied. Anywhere else, there’s always that slight edge there. When you’re blind, you never know who’s watching you. I’m used to that feeling that someone’s gawping at me – even when no-one is. I feel more rela­xed in a dark restau­rant, where I know that no-one can see anyone else. 

Chris­tina Fasser: That’s the same with me. I’m more rela­xed too. When I go to a conven­tio­nal restau­rant, I some­ti­mes forget that I’m blind and I end up orde­ring some­thing that isn’t very ‘blind friendly’. Then, when the food arri­ves, I get very stressed.

‘It was a totally diffe­rent expe­ri­ence. New. Inspi­ring. Exhilarating.’

Jürg Spiel­mann

That’s diffe­rent at blindekuh? 

Chris­tina Fasser: I have no problems at blindekuh. What’s inte­res­t­ing, though, is other people’s reac­tions. They differ a lot.

Jürg Spiel­mann: Exactly.

Chris­tina Fasser: I once went to blindekuh with my nephew and some of his friends. Six 20-year-olds who’d not long since left school. The conver­sa­ti­ons were really inte­res­t­ing. At one point, some­body asked, ‘Is it always like this for you? Crazy!’ One of the waitres­ses ended up chat­ting with us. I reali­sed they were around the same age. They talked about what they’d studied for their school leaving exams. The boys were inte­res­ted in knowing what she was going to do after school. My nephew’s friends were blown away by the fact that she was plan­ning to do an intern­ship in Nepal.

Jürg Spiel­mann: There was one expe­ri­ence that really stayed with me. I went to eat at blindekuh with a blind colle­ague. Other custo­mers we didn’t know were alre­ady sitting at the shared table when we arri­ved. So two of us at the table were profes­sio­nally blind and the other four were hobby­ists. My colle­ague and I didn’t want to out oursel­ves straight away. We got talking with the other guests and they noti­ced that we were mana­ging ever­y­thing pretty well. Towards the end of the evening, someone asked whether we were visually impai­red. We admit­ted we were. One person was deeply offen­ded. I still can’t under­stand why.

Chris­tina Fasser: Perhaps they felt they’d been studied, like we do in a normal restaurant?

Jürg Spiel­mann: That’ll be it. I see what it was about now.

Jürg Spiel­mann | Photo: Dési­réé Good

How did the idea for a restau­rant in the dark come about in the first place?

Jürg Spiel­mann: The initial inspi­ra­tion came from the ‘Dialo­gue in the Dark’ exhi­bi­tion, which was held at Zurich’s design museum (‘Museum für Gestal­tung’) between Febru­ary and April 1998. Ever­y­day situa­tions were staged in totally darkened rooms, provi­ding a unique expe­ri­ence for sigh­ted visi­tors. The four of us who set up the foun­da­tion worked as exhi­bi­tion guides.

Chris­tina Fasser: I was invol­ved in finding the guides and coming up with guide­lines for them. The expe­ri­ence made a huge impres­sion on me. I got to know blind people who had applied for count­less jobs before the exhi­bi­tion came along – without success. Working at the exhi­bi­tion gave them a new sense of self-confi­dence. And that played a big role in helping them to find other work. Feeling appre­cia­ted is extre­mely important. Posi­tive feed­back is crucial. It is important not to spend your time dwel­ling too much on negatives.

The expe­ri­ence of the exhi­bi­tion inspi­red you. 

Jürg Spiel­mann: The exhi­bi­tion unleas­hed a huge amount of enthu­si­asm for this set-up. It made a tremen­dous impres­sion on sigh­ted visi­tors. The blind guides helped them to make their way round in abso­lute dark­ness. Sigh­ted people would not have mana­ged that on their own; not on the spot. This exch­ange of roles had a profound effect on us. When you’re blind or visually impai­red, you have to deve­lop special abili­ties to compen­sate for your lack of sight. Finding that these abili­ties were suddenly a bonus was a very special expe­ri­ence for us. Normally, when we come across people who have never met a blind person before, the first ques­tion is, ‘Oh, how do you cope?’. Coupled with the thought, ‘I hope I never have to!’.

And that was diffe­rent in the exhibition?

Jürg Spiel­mann: In the exhi­bi­tion that effect simply disap­peared. The sigh­ted visi­tors were in the same situa­tion as the non-sigh­ted. Ever­yone was in the dark. Those of us who often have to be guided in ever­y­day life were suddenly the guides. It was a totally diffe­rent expe­ri­ence. New. Inspi­ring. Exhi­la­ra­ting. The exch­ange of roles was a wonderful expe­ri­ence for both sides. There was huge demand for tickets, and the exhi­bi­tion had to be exten­ded. And among the guides we quickly agreed that we couldn’t let some­thing like that just come to an end.

That’s how blindekuh came about?

Jürg Spiel­mann: All it took was someone to say let’s do it. And that was the role I played. I’d got to know Stefan Zappa during the exhi­bi­tion. He was losing his eyesight at the time.

Chris­tina Fasser: He’d lost his job because he couldn’t see well enough anymore. He was an inte­rior desi­gner. Jürg Spiel­mann: I knew he had the time. He’d alre­ady desi­gned restau­rants and he’d studied econo­mics too. He had a lot of skills I didn’t have. I knew that the two of us couldn’t manage it alone. So I called on other guides: Thomas Moser, a singer, and Andrea Blaser, a social worker. I can remem­ber nights when I was so buzzing with energy – it was more intense than anything I’d felt before, or since.

‘Perhaps they felt they’d been studied, like we do in a normal restaurant?’

Chris­tina Fasser

You estab­lished blindekuh as a chari­ta­ble foun­da­tion. Why?

Jürg Spiel­mann: We wanted to set up a foun­da­tion so we could be focu­sed and effi­ci­ent. We knew it was going to need a lot of money. And it was clear to us that it had to be non-profit. If the project ever turned a profit, we had to make sure that the money was fed back into the foun­da­tion. So in 1998 we set up the chari­ta­ble foun­da­tion ‘Blind-Liecht’. To make commu­ni­ca­tion easier, it was rena­med blindekuh in 2017.

What exactly is the purpose of the foundation?

Chris­tina Fasser: It is and always has been to offer sigh­ted people an insight into the culture of the blind or visually impai­red popu­la­tion. We are in the process of drawing up a more precise defi­ni­tion. The second aim is to create sustainable and satis­fac­tory employ­ment for blind and visually impai­red people.

It’s a success story. The blindekuh Foun­da­tion and two restau­rants in Zurich and Basel… 

Jürg Spiel­mann: … and we’ve crea­ted sustainable jobs. That’s an important part of the success story.

Chris­tina Fasser: Exactly.

Jürg Spiel­mann: In the second half of the ’90s we were in the middle of an econo­mic crisis. Even in times of prospe­rity, it’s diffi­cult for anyone with a disa­bi­lity to find a job.

Chris­tina Fasser: Abso­lut­ely. It’s extre­mely diffi­cult for a blind person to find a job. We’ve just carried out a study with Retina Inter­na­tio­nal. The aim was to inves­ti­gate employ­ment among people with impai­red vision. In Ireland and England 60 to 70 percent are curr­ently unem­ployed. The same sort of figure applies in Switz­er­land. It’s unbe­lie­va­ble. Even highly quali­fied indi­vi­du­als have diffi­culty finding a job today.

Jürg Spiel­mann: There were a lot of people looking for work in 1998 too. We wanted to set up an estab­lish­ment where it’s dark, and where blind people guide the sigh­ted. These jobs were speci­fi­cally desi­gned for people with impai­red vision. Sigh­ted people don’t have the ability to wait on tables in the dark.

Chris­tina Fasser: There’s a second important factor. We have employees who are recei­ving an inva­li­dity pension that pays a propor­tion of their salary, say 50 percent. So they need to earn the other 50 percent to achieve an income that covers their living expen­ses. The problem is that there are very few part-time jobs for blind people. And the ones that do exist are mostly in an office setting. At blindekuh, we offer inte­res­t­ing part-time jobs.

Jürg Spiel­mann: I’d like to mention PR as a third factor. blindekuh provi­des us with an excel­lent plat­form. It allows us to carry out PR on the job, as it were. It’s not about having a blind person stand up and give a talk to a sigh­ted audi­ence – which is some­thing we do too, of course. It’s about allo­wing sigh­ted custo­mers to expe­ri­ence, to a certain extent at least, what it is like to live without seeing.

And does the concept work in finan­cial terms too?

Chris­tina Fasser: blindekuh works. Ever­yone knows that the margins in the restau­rant indus­try are very tight. But we rely on grants for invest­ments. We can’t sell a table more than once per evening. We want to allow our seeing custo­mers time and they need to take their time. Jürg Spiel­mann: Normally, you go to the toilets on your own. At blindekuh you have to be accom­pa­nied to the exit. To make sure that seeing custo­mers feel comfor­ta­ble, we need more employees than a conven­tio­nal restaurant.

Chris­tina Fasser | Photo: Dési­réé Good

How is the current crisis affec­ting blindekuh?

Chris­tina Fasser: It’s the abso­lute worst-case scena­rio for us. At the start of the year we were still very posi­tive. We finis­hed last year well and were able to increase our equity slightly.

And the coro­na­vi­rus has hit you hard.

Chris­tina Fasser: Yes. We’re on redu­ced hours. Our insu­r­ers have said that we’re only covered for epide­mics, not pande­mics. They did cover 60 percent of our turno­ver for two months. But they’ve speci­fi­cally ruled out a second wave.

And the busi­ness itself?

Chris­tina Fasser: It’s picking up. We’re making around 50 percent of last year’s turno­ver. Of course we aren’t able to serve as many custo­mers as normal. We don’t know how things will deve­lop. The situa­tion is a bit up in the air, parti­cu­larly in Basel.

What’s special about Basel?

Chris­tina Fasser: The restau­rant there is in a cube inside an old indus­trial buil­ding. We have a 300 m2 space on the roof for events for 300 people. In terms of capa­city, it’s pretty much unri­val­led in Basel. The lit section has always helped to finance blindekuh. Until 29 Febru­ary, we were totally booked out for the current year. Then ever­y­thing was cancel­led. The limit up until the end of the year is 100 people. We can’t make the event space work with those sort of numbers. It’s going to be diffi­cult with just the restau­rant. The area it serves is small. Poten­tial custo­mers from Germany or France find the price diffe­rence steep. And there are signi­fi­cant cultu­ral diffe­ren­ces too: the French, for exam­ple, want to see what they’re eating.

Do you have any ideas for a solution?

Chris­tina Fasser: We are looking to start a fund­rai­sing campaign so we can retain jobs over the long term. We don’t just want to keep them going until the end of the year. It’s about retai­ning our staff long-term. Above all, we have to reco­ver the equity we’re losing at the moment so that we are ready for any future crises. We’re having to make up the loss at the moment. We can’t do anything else. I know other busi­nesses are going through the same thing. But we’ll do ever­y­thing we can to retain our employees: a blind person can’t just go and find some­thing else. They can’t work as a clea­ner or find a job in Ticino or Enga­din. A sigh­ted employee in the restau­rant indus­try has those opti­ons in an emergency.

Are you looking into support from chari­ta­ble foundations?

Chris­tina Fasser: We’ve always worked with foun­da­ti­ons. Support from foun­da­ti­ons allo­wed us to rede­sign the entrance at the Zurich restau­rant last year. After ten years, Basel was in need of reno­va­tion work. The problem is that chari­ties prefer to give money to a project with a begin­ning and an end. They like to be able to calcu­late the precise sums invol­ved. That’s when they’re more prepared to provide funding.

But it’s more diffi­cult to calcu­late the impact of the crisis?

Chris­tina Fasser: Now it’s really about retai­ning employees. The government’s fast liqui­dity loan was a big help. Like many others, we haven’t touched it yet. But we’ll use it if we have to. Then we’ll have to pay it back. It’s a point of honour. If we could count on the support of chari­ta­ble foun­da­ti­ons here, that would really help us.

Do you think the concept still works?

Chris­tina Fasser: Since we first laun­ched, we’ve served a total of around 1 million custo­mers. Vouch­ers are a very good fund­rai­sing tool. Sales drop­ped off during the coro­na­vi­rus crisis. People are more reluc­tant to buy a blindekuh voucher as a gift if they can’t be certain that the reci­pi­ent will still be able to visit the restau­rant tomorrow.

Jürg Spiel­mann: The team and the trus­tees are making every effort to offer a consis­t­ently high stan­dard. We now have a Gault Millau-rated chef.

Chris­tina Fasser: We’re deligh­ted about that. The chef simply wanted more time to cook well. We value quality. And we need to deli­ver on our promise.

And the name has estab­lished itself as a brand.

Jürg Spiel­mann: We were extre­mely lucky there. The name blindekuh. Not all blind people were happy about it. Some felt it was disre­spectful. The children’s game invol­ves picking on the blind man. We had long discus­sions about it. But we had to find a name that had the word ‘blind’ in it in some form or other. And the name had to involve a certain degree of self-depre­ca­tion. And, as expe­ri­ence has shown, it works.

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