Feature Writer Romeo Edmead – The Blind Wait The Unusual Way
Before I returned to work for the Ziegler Magazine, I experienced something unique that was just perfect to share with all of you. On January 28, 2010, I spent the day at a Manhattan hotel waiting tables. If that does not strike you as peculiar enough for a totally blind person, what if I told you that all of the estimated 350 guests were eating in complete darkness. This event, called Dining in the Dark, served as a fundraiser for eye research, and was visiting New York for the third time in as many years. Benjamin Uphues, the owner of 3 California restaurants that offer Opaque Dining, resides on the west coast but says he really enjoys traveling for special events. “We take this show on the road about 20 times a year”, Uphues said, “and we are always looking to expand.” The excitement he exuded for the event was very conspicuous during our preparation, as he repeatedly clapped his hands and shouted words of encouragement. The team of 16 blind waiters and waitresses began practicing at 2 pm for an 8 o’clock dinner. No canes were allowed, and partially sighted servers wore blindfolds. We were assigned 2 tables
each, and we followed rope and stanchion for orientation. As everyone walked back and forth from the kitchen to their tables, we were instructed to constantly say “coming through”, “coming through”, in order to avoid accidents. Initially the drill was done
without our dinner carts, but as 8 o’clock approached, the carts were added to further simulate reality. With one hand following the rope, and the other pulling the cart behind us, practice continued until 6:30.
After vacating the room where dinner would be served, we spent most of our time in a back room where we were given walkie-talkies. They were necessary for us to listen for instructions and radio for assistance if need be. Then, 10 minutes before show time, we went out to greet our tables with the lights still on. The 18 people that made up my tables appeared to be ready, and just had some general questions about blindness. One inquiry prompted me to mention to one of my tables that I baby sit my 1 and 2 year old niece
and nephew, to which one guest replied “if you do that once a week, I have complete faith in you!” Then the announcement came through my earpiece, all servers report to the kitchen because the lights will be off in 2 minutes.
The first trip pulling my dinner cart was slightly shaky, because the rope continuously made contact with the plates on my top shelf. I did lose a lid for one of my plates, because space was very limited between the rope and tables. After going in to slight panic mode, wondering if I lost an entire plate of food, I luckily retrieved the lid with out incident. Thankfully, I made it with everything intact, and handed everyone their plates after removing each lid. Several members of my first table excused themselves, but we were forewarned that some succumb to stage fright after the lights are turned out. The trip to my second table was much smoother. When moving through crowded areas I decided to walk sideways instead of pulling the cart directly behind me. I found that I had much better control. All guests at that table remained, and I stayed around to mingle until the lights were turned on again.
Throughout the half-hour we were given to deliver dinner, there were several vociferous outcries of disapproval. Once I finished serving everyone my curiosity got the best of me and I inquired about the outbursts. I was pleasantly surprised to know that the uproars were because some cheated periodically by using their cell phones for light. It was great to see that those who committed to be in did not want to cut any corners. Overall, the night was successful and I was thankful to be a part of the festivities. Talking with others, I found they echoed the same sentiments. First timer Dennis HR Sumlin, said, “This was wonderful and I would certainly do it again.” When asked if anything bothered
him about the day, he said “practice became tedious after a short time because I memorized my route rather quickly.” Mr. Sumlin stated that he definitely could not wait tables full time, but developed a new appreciation for those who do.
Rick Mendez, who has done it all 3 times, could not even rank one year over another. He said, “They were all fantastic. I guess if you forced me, I’d say this year only because each year I become more comfortable.” He really enjoys the way the program puts the blind in such a positive light. Before our conversation concluded, Mr. Mendez said, “If I could do this full time I would with out any hesitation.
At the end of the night, Mr. Uphues thanked us all for a job well done. For him of course, this was not a novelty. He owns 3 restaurants located in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego. Each one offers the dark dining experience, and all operate weekly. Unlike the special fundraising events, waiters and waitresses are expected to cater to their guests’ every need.
Customers visit one of the three restaurants only after making a reservation. Prior to confirming a seat, they are fully cognizant of the type of dining they will experience. Upon arrival, they are kept in a lighted area until a blind server comes to lead them to a table in darkness. Three courses are offered for a set price of $99, and further requests come with additional charges. Mr. Uphues said, “We have about 10 servers in each city and we use between 3 and 5 per night. Tables require approximately 90 minutes to 2 hours of service, and the wait staff does it all independently.” When asked how he developed the concept, Mr. Uphues said he is from Germany, and dining in the dark is more common in Europe. “Basically, I figured why not bring this with me to the United States.” The dining in the dark special events tour will be making various stops around the nation this year. You can find them in Dallas TX, Philadelphia PA, Kansas City MO, and several other locations. If you are interested in having this experience while earning a few dollars as a server for a day, call 800-710-1270 for further information.