An interview with Stefan Zappa, the founder of Blind Cow, the first restaurant in the dark globally.

For company founders, copying business ideas from different markets has become fashionable. Such enterprises are frequently called Copycats. Copycats select the best business ideas and then replicate the original business model. A very well-known example is the online trader Zalando, who was “inspired” by A large number of investors even specialize in screening markets for promising business ideas which are suitable for “cloning”. Globalization and internet facilitate and reinforce the possibility of this transfer of ideas. There emerged a controversial debate whether such “cloning” helps to develop markets rapidly and more efficiently or not. On the one hand the threat of your business idea being copied in the early stages is an obstacle for investing in innovative ideas. On the other hand some of the most successful businesses are based on ideas from others that have been modified and scaled. We are interested in how social entrepreneurs perceive the Copycat discussion in their areas. An interview with Stefan Zappa, the founder of the first restaurant in the dark internationally, provides us with some firsthand insight.

Mr. Zappa, Blind Cow is the first restaurant in the dark globally. In a dark restaurant the guests eat in complete darkness and are served by visually impaired people. How did the business idea originate and what have the positive effects been?
The idea originated from the exhibition of “Dialog im Dunkeln”. We liked the approach of facilitating a dialogue between blind/visually impaired and normal sighted persons. However, we wanted to create a permanent institution which promotes the understanding of blindness and integrates visually impaired people into the employment market. Since its founding, our restaurant in the dark has had more than 750.000 guests and more than 70 workplaces have been created.

What challenges do you face?
Restaurants in the dark are very labour-intensive. Labour costs account for more than 50% of all expenses. We have managed to optimize the work flow so that today we can almost cover all our costs. In this respect we are surely taking a pioneering role.

Your business idea has been copied in many cities wordwide, an indicator that you managed to build a replicable business model. How did the copycats go about it?
Nowadays the internet is a highly transparent tool which makes it easy to copy ideas. Some of the copycats approached us directly, learnt from our “know-how” and built a franchise model for restaurants in the dark.

In the for-profit business sector, such a “know-how” “pinch” would probably result in a lengthy legal dispute. How do you feel about others copying your ideas?
This is a double-edged sword. We invested a great amount in the development of our restaurant in the dark, both emotionally and financially. Seeing others copying our idea without our direct consent and participation is somewhat painful. For us however, it is the cause that matters. We want to facilitate the dialogue between sighted and visually impaired persons. If the cloning of our idea helps to multiply the impact the end justifies the means.

Are there any ideas that you copied from your copycats?
Of course you are always interested in what others are doing with your initial idea. We were for example inspired by the dark restaurant “Dans le noir” in Barcelona that introduced a two shift operation. After replicating the two shift model it helped us to operate the restaurant at a higher capacity and to work more efficiently.

More information about the dark restaurant Blind Cow.

Published by Sosense