For one restauranteur in China, décor is not a problem. That’s because his clientele can’t see anything.
Welcome to China’s weirdest dining phenomena: the ‘darkness’ restaurant. Diners sit in pitch black conditions, choosing from a specially designed menu, and unable to see their dinner companions. They find their table by holding the shoulders of waiters, who wear night-vision goggles. With the exception of the restrooms, all is dark.
The concept was brought to China by a student hoping to get into business school. Chen Long was preparing for his entrance exams when he came across the term ‘darkness restaurant’, and after doing some research discovered that such a thing actually existed in Zurich. A priest had come up with the idea as a way to create jobs for the blind. When Chen visited the Swiss restaurant he became excited and thought it might work in China, where an increasing number of younger people hunger for new experiences.
He appears to have been right. According to the newspaper China Business, Chen now has five restaurants in major cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Xiamen. Last March he also received HK$10 million ($1.29 million) in venture capital from Zhongxia Investments to expand his chain of theme restaurants.
The chain is called the Whale Belly Darkness Restaurant and clearly attracts people for whom escalating dry cleaning expenses are no object. Patrons eat dishes with names like ‘Guess and see’. As an additional part of the experience, they have the option to make a piece of pottery (in the dark obviously).
With his MBA-thinking cap on, Chen did some segmentation analysis and saw a ‘customer need’ among his young peers. With China’s online dating business booming, he figured his darkness restaurant would be the ideal venue for blind dates (literally). He partnered with ‘making-friends’ websites such as ifindu.com.cn and mosh.cn (which has over 200,000 members). Maybe it’s not as strange as it sounds: meeting someone in the dark is a way to transition a relationship from the virtual to the real world. One can get to know the “personality” before judging the looks (presumably at the next date, in a restaurant with lighting).
Chen’s is not the first concept restaurant to take off in China. A ‘rainforest’ restaurant was briefly popular. But the Beijing eatery credited with launching ‘experimental dining’ was themed as a prison.
However, not everyone is convinced by the darkness restaurant’s long term prospects. Wang Fei, the chief editor of Fantong.com, a catering website, says theme restaurants quickly lose their freshness and are just fads that don’t last.
Chen appears to be having second thoughts of his own. He admits his takings were greater in the first year of operation than the second, and at his new restaurant in Tianjin – which opened last month – he has incorporated a semi-dark area, where the light is sufficient for diners to read the menu. But instead of changing tack, Chen might do well to listen to Darth Vader. As he once pointed out to Luke Skywalker, the dark side has a power that no one should underestimate.
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