At ‘Blind Cafes,’ Eating In The Dark Is A Social Experiment

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<p>(Courtesy&nbsp;Asha Poyzer)</p>
<p>The Blind Cafe founder Brian “Rosh” Rosheleau.</p>

This story originally aired on March 2, 2016.

Pitch black darkness may not sound like an ideal setting for dinner. But at Blind Cafe events in Boulder, which resume this weekend, dining in the dark is the backdrop for a social experiment.

One night last October, founder Brian Rocheleau, known to many as "Rosh," greeted about 50 people in the lobby of Wesley Chapel.

"Just a couple ground rules," Rocheleau said. "We ask that you guys don't bring any light into the dark. So that means you need to turn off your cell phones 100 percent. That alone will be life-changing for many of you."

My audio equipment did not meet his ground rules. An organizer used duct tape and heavy fabric to prevent my recorder from polluting the darkness with light.

Navigating the darkness

For the waitstaff that night, this environment was not so foreign. The three servers were visually impaired, and they confidently led diners -- who were not visually impaired, but linked together by grasping the shoulder of the person in front of them -- to theirs tables.

The Blind Cafe included dinner, dessert and live music all in the pitch darkness. Rocheleau started it at the Wesley Chapel about six years ago, and it now tours the country, popping up in cities including San Francisco, Austin and Chicago.

More than dining in the dark

Rocheleau said he was inspired by a cafe in the dark in Reykjavik, Iceland. The experience was so profound, he wanted to bring it to the United States, in part to get people outside their comfort zones.

"People have all sorts of experiences [at Blind Cafe events]," he said. "A lot of people will feel fear the whole time and go through a process of crying or feeling sad. [Others] feel open or excited."

Diner Danielle Vrieze of Boulder said she had no concerns going into the dark.

"I think maybe it will be a little awkward, but I'm excited for the unique experience," Vrieze said. "Probably the worst thing would be reaching for a pitcher of water and knocking it over."

Another important goal for Rocheleau is to help people understand what it's like to have poor or no eye sight. At one point, diners asked the waiters questions, like how they read people when they can't see their faces.

"I think we read expression as blind people through the tone of the voice and through a vibe that somebody sends off," server Greg Hill told the audience of diners. "So you can sort of tell if somebody is uptight from how they're speaking or a particular feeling you get from them."

Shedding inhibitions

The evening ended with a performance by Rocheleau's band, Rosh & the Blind Cafe Orchestra. He urged people to get out of their seats and dance. It was too dark to tell who was dancing, but many felt comfortable enough to sing along.

Vrieze said the darkness made her husband less inhibited.

"He's not really into [public displays of affection] or that kind of thing," Vrieze said. "I noticed throughout the night, there was more hand holding, stolen kisses and things that I normally don't experience from him when we go out to dinner in public."

Rocheleau said he hopes to expand The Blind Cafe to more U.S. cites, as well as abroad.

The Blind Cafe returns to Boulder Thursday through Saturday at the Wesley Chapel.