Learning Customer Service from the Visually Impaired

“You are about to enter a different kind of darkness—a darkness so pitch black, you will not be able to see a thing. Place your hands on the shoulders of the person in front of you. We will walk slowly. Ready? Now, follow me, I will show you to your table.” So began one of the most interesting and memorable dining experiences I’ve ever had. All the waiters in the Jaffa Blackout Restaurant are visually impaired. The pitch black conditions I experienced for a few hours, the inability to see even my own finger in front of my face (I tried wagging my finger and smacked myself on the nose), was no novelty for our waitress but a basic fact of daily life. Indeed, the Blackout Restaurant has dual purposes.

Removing our sense of sight heightens our senses of taste, touch, and smell and it allows us to experience food in an entirely different way. But more importantly, the total darkness allows us to experience for a short while, what it is like to be totally blind. The experience gives diners empathy for the visually impaired as well as surprising insight about how they feel and think.

Other “eating in the dark” experiences use blindfolds and low lighting, which is drastically different than the experience of complete darkness. Some have non-visually impaired waiters who use infrared goggles to navigate their way around. Both those options might focus the diner on the non-visual aspects of their meal but they offer little in the way of empathy and insight.

What made my experience at the Jaffa Blackout Restaurant even more personally educational was that several things went wrong during the meal; a circumstance that brought attention to another element of this unique dining experience—the amazing service.

After being seated we were told there was a pitcher of water at the far end of the table. We each had an empty glass. But how to know when to stop pouring before water spills over the top? I had the brilliant idea of putting my finger in the glass as I poured so I could stop once the water touched my fingertip. I proudly announced my solution to the waitress. “Um…actually it’s easier to just pour half a glass.” She was polite enough not to mention it was more sanitary as well, but I got the message.

One of my companions immediately tried the “half glass” technique which would have worked better had she remembered to make sure the pitcher made contact with the glass. As it was, she promptly poured a half-glass of water right onto the table. Our waitress was hovering nearby and was over with towels and a fresh pitcher of water before we knew it.

Another unique aspect of the service was that everything has to be communicated to diners in far more detail than usual. “Please sit back, I will be serving from your right. I’m placing a medium sized plate in front of you. Don’t worry about food ending up on the table, it will. We clean the table between each course. If you drop a knife or fork, don’t try to find them on the floor, just let me know and we’ll bring you another.”

Between the four people in my party, we dropped knives and forks three times (sleeves can brush a utensil off the table rather easily—and yes, we eventually did roll up our sleeves). Although we felt a little abashed by our multiple utensil droppings, our waitress convincingly conveyed true reassurance when saying, “It’s really no problem, it happens all the time,” by using an especially sweet tone of voice (as she could not rely on facial expressions).

We also realized we would have to pay close attention when we put down a utensil or a glass so we remembered where we placed it. ‘Fishing around’ for such things invites drops or spills. It had not occurred to me that being unable to see required from the person a substantial use of short-term spatial memory. It was a fascinating insight into the kinds of basic challenges visually impaired people contend with.

Our waitress checked in on us repeatedly to see if we needed anything or if anyone needed to be escorted outside for a restroom break (thankfully, the restroom had dim light—some spills diners can do without). When I asked to visit the restroom a waiter who was still training was assigned to lead me out. I put my hands on his shoulders. He took a few steps and hesitated. He turned and bumped into a table. He turned again, took two steps and bumped into another one.

“I’m so very sorry but I think I’m a little lost,” he admitted. He rang a little bell (every waiter carries one with them). Moments later our waitress joined us and guided us out. The waiter-in-training apologized to me again and promptly promised to send a round of drinks to the table.

The last mishap was that our deserts were delayed. Interestingly enough, we had no idea that was the case. No watches are allowed in the restaurant (they can emit light) and people typically lose sense of time in complete darkness. Our waitress came over and told us the time, “The kitchen is a little delayed tonight. If you have to leave to get back home to a babysitter or something, we can pack your deserts for you and of course, we won’t charge you for them.” Happily, we were able to stay and enjoy our deserts and the experience in its entirety.

I left the Blackout Restaurant feeling schooled in many ways. I had expanded my understanding and appreciation for the tactile and multi-sensory experience good food can and should provide. I had gained numerous insights into the challenges the visually impaired face on a daily basis as well as empathy for how disciplined and focused they must be when performing simple tasks others take for granted.

But most importantly, our waitress made us feel cared in a profound way the likes of which we had not encountered in any other dining experience. Her command of the environment and outstanding communication skills allowed her to assume a role greater than mere waitress--for a few hours she was our leader and guide. The Blackout Restaurant was the last place I expected to learn about leadership or customer service and the lesson—was truly an eye-opener.

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

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