Music Up, Lights Down at the Blind Cafe

In Austin, traveling musicians offer patrons unique dining experience.

April 01, 2011, 1:58 PM

April 4, 2011— -- It's not every restaurant that requires patrons to work together and rely on waiters to get through a meal.

But at the Blind Cafe, in Austin, Texas, on a recent Saturday evening, patrons filed into a large room much like kindergartners would follow a teacher. Each patron put his or her right hand on the person in front, and the group filed into a pitch-black room behind a blind waiter.

"Gerry, I'm feeling a little overwhelmed here," one nervous patron shouted to the waiter as she entered the room. "I'm O.K. right now, but I just wanted to let you know."

Set up in the cafeteria of St. Martin's Lutheran Church over a three-night period, the Blind Cafe featured sounds of a live saxophonist and the smell of curry as more than 92 patrons entered the darkened room on the last night.

With every kind of light covered over or turned off, patrons could not rely on their eyes to tell them anything about the room, the food or even their tablemates. Instead, throughout the evening, their blind wait staff attended to their needs and at the end of the dinner, the diners were given the opportunity to ask questions about blindness. Questions ranged from simple ones such as how the blind wait staff dressed themselves to more in-depth ones asking about each blind server's personal stories.

It's all part of experiencing the Blind Cafe -- a traveling live music cafe created by Brian Rocheleau, who prefers to be called Rosh, the 33-year-old lead singer and guitarist of the folk rock group One Eye Glass Broken.

"I'm not blind, and in no way are we trying to simulate blindness for people," Rosh told "There are very different types of blindness. Some people lose it over their entire lives, and others are blind at birth. So to try to claim that we would create an experience of blindness for people would be wrong."

Rosh said that as a musician, his initial goal was to create a concert in darkness where people wouldn't be distracted by cellphones and social media or even social etiquette. However, he decided to reach out to the blind community after realizing the cafe could be a philanthropy project and could be used to raise donations for local charities.

For Austin's Blind Cafe, Rosh was able to donate one hundred percent of the proceeds -- almost $1,500 -- made on one night to the 2011 Bell Program, a program for Braille Enrichment for Literacy and Learning in Austin.

Blind Cafe Travels From City to City

"What I've noticed is that people are feeling more related to each other. When you take away your sight and you're with a group of people and you all have a task to do together, you have to be very present," Rosh said. "You have to get out of the future and you're not thinking about the past, you have to be right there."

First launched in February 2010, the Blind Cafe has traveled from city to city. It has opened in Boulder, Colo., four times and twice in Portland, Ore. Rosh says his next cities are Cincinnati, already scheduled in May, and Seattle, slated for later this year. Austin's Blind Cafe is the seventh one Rosh has organized with his staff of one sighted and two blind people, but he says he does hire new local staff members in every city he visits.

"By keeping it as local as possible, it becomes a very organic and authentic process rather than just having my whole team showing up in a city and knowing nobody and then leaving," Rosh said.

Fifty-eight-year-old Gerry Leary is one member of the Blind Cafe's permanent blind wait staff. Leary, who has been blind from birth, has been working with Rosh for two years now. One of the main servers, he helps to train new wait staff in every city.

"I bring [guests] in to the dark room and seat them at the table and get them oriented with their place setting and food," Leary said. "But we probably average one person per show that asks to be brought back out."

In those instances, Leary says a waiter will take the guest out to the light for a break, but he says those instances are rare.

"I want people to realize that you can function without one of your senses and that there are ways within yourself to adapt to a new situation," Leary said. "I'm hoping that people will use the other four senses and learn how to interpret them better."

Those four senses are no doubt used profusely during the dinner. Leary says patrons in past Blind Cafes have become so lost with using their utensils in the dark that they eventually use their hands to eat. Even throughout the concert, patrons are left to only imagine what the stage or the musicians look like.

At Blind Cafe, Musicians Learn To Play In The Dark

Though the band has seven band members, only two members travel with the Blind Cafe. Rosh, the main vocalist and guitarist, and cellist Phil Norman travel and hire local musicians in every new city.

"I want to build a community experience, and I want to create an opportunity for them to come into this context and share their personal gift," Rosh said. "And these string players, they have to learn to play in the dark and that can be a challenge."

With two local violinists and a violist accompanying the band at every new city, the band is a little bit different even though they play the same music at each Blind Cafe. However, music isn't always the main reason why many patrons seek the Blind Cafe.

"I've met people from all walks of life coming in here," Leary said.

Leary says some people have blind relatives or spouses and want to better understand what their lives are like, while others are just curious about how the Blind Cafe works. Regardless, Leary says they leave having experienced something unlike anything else.

Jodicus Prosser, a Blind Cafe patron and a retired military pilot, told, "This reminded me of when you're first taken into the cockpit and you're completely shielded from anything outside, so all you can do is use the instruments and trust this little needle telling you which way you're going and if you're going to land correctly. It's quite amazing when they take the hood back off and you realize that you've made the best landing you ever made."

Prosser said he hadn't experienced anything like the Blind Cafe since his work in the military. "The experience was much the same, you realize that there are other senses that are better than all that dependence we put on our eyes." contributor Suyun Hong is a member of the ABC News on Campus bureau in Austin, Texas.

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