O’Noir

By Jessica Lee
Imagine you are visually impaired for a second, and you enter a room. You hear the sound of glasses clinking and people chattering in a small and crowded dining room.At O NOIR, restaurant-goers eat their meals in a pitch-black room. The experience, as claimed by restaurant owner Moe Alameddine, will heighten your other senses so that you can savour and smell the food better.Though the restaurant was labelled by many food critics in Toronto as a “gimmick” when it first opened in 2009, O NOIR has proven it has staying power by continuing to fill its dining hall night after night with new customers.“Here, you’re coming to live an experience, it’s different, you won’t experience it anywhere else,” says Alameddine.

And it’s true. One of the factors of O NOIR’s success is the fact that they are the only restaurant in Toronto that serves their food in a darkened setting. They have a monopoly in the city for eating in the dark.

“We’re not a place that anyone can do. You cannot open and imitate us in one day. It’s gonna be very hard for you,” says Alameddine.

One of the reasons O NOIR is so hard to copy is because of the staff. Alameddine employs blind waiters to serve food to the diners because it is easy for them to navigate dark rooms.

“For them, light and dark is the same thing. But for us, it’s a big problem, to operate in the dark,” he says.

Alameddine speculates that he may be the only person in Canada who can train a blind server, which is why his restaurant is so hard to copy. Training includes teaching the servers how to interact with the public, communicating with other servers, and how to walk in the dining room without crashing into tables.

Though the concept is not new, there are many other dine in the dark restaurants around the world, such as Blind Cow in Zurich, Switzerland, and Black Out in Melbourne, Australia- with careful managing of the restaurant, Alameddine has made the business a success.

Jeff Hermsen, who runs the Toronto-based website Restaurant Consulting attributes O NOIR’s success to its uniqueness.

“It’s obviously a niche idea,” Hermsen said, “but I think the people are really intrigued by it because it’s something different.”

Hermsen also mentions O NOIR’s ability to gain the attention of the press, saying that O NOIR attracts the restaurant-goers’ to the restaurant by being at the forefront of people’s minds.

O NOIR also sustains a steady stream of customers from word of mouth, which is why Alameddine stresses that customer service is important.

For any restaurant, the “meat and potatoes” of how well it will fare in the industry lies in service, quality of food, and atmosphere.

O NOIR is a “destination place”. Around 90 percent of customers come to the restaurant through reservation. Very rarely are there diners who walk in from the street and it benefits the restaurant because Alameddine can save money on paying less rent for a side street at Church and Charles, instead of a prime spot on Yonge.

Another source of revenue comes from corporate companies, who recognize O NOIR’s uniqueness and regularly hosts their events at the restaurant.

For other entrepreneurs who are thinking of creating a niche, knowing who your customers are is very important. Also, being able to balance a budget is key to maintaining a business.

“The ability to survive really comes down to whether they’re able to manage the restaurant the way any restaurant has to be managed,” says Hermsen. “[Restaurant owners] need customers and they need to run it like a business. Food costs have to be in line, their marketing budget has to be in line, their staff costs have to be in line; otherwise no body makes any money right?”

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