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.’
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.
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?’
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.
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.