The Black Zero

The economic aspect of the hotel became an integral part of its programming. Then, to finance the Wednesday dinners, seminar participants crowdfunded and gradually grew the budget to enable more comfortable restaurant experiences. In this context, we were experimenting with different payment methods, systems and means of communication. The hotel became a testing ground for alternative economies on a 1:1 scale.

From the first day, this hotel was an economic project. Acting as a hotel always means to handle input and output. So we have to be sure what it wants to reach. It is a question about how the hotel should act as an economic player in the neighbourhood. Which kind of deals is it making? The hotel itself doesn’t want to generate profit for itself. It is just creating an output out of all the input. So the income does not exceed its costs of maintenance.

But what is an input, and what is the output? For the hotel, it is more than a finance issue. Yes, the hotel doesn’t want to earn money and losing money would also be a problem. That’s the easy part of the black zero. But there are also the deals each of us is making with the hotel every day.

Doesn’t the hotel want to create an added value which is not monetary? In line with Pierre Bourdieu’s definition of social, economic, cultural and symbolic capital. Maybe the hotel doesn’t want to keep. So this hotel would become a marketplace for all the different kinds of capital. Both the hotel and each participant have the incentive to create any type of deal. So the Hotel Project also became a deal-laboratory for us.

The bar-sharing deal

The project always had an economic aspect. For Take 1, the first hotel experiment, we had a budget of 100€ for dinner, breakfast, building materials and a bar.

After discussing finances, we realised that a collective pooling of resources allowed us to provide all the necessary materials for the overnight stay. Items like sleeping bags, a stove, pots, and flashlights were brought by individual participants for the group’s benefit, while we harvested other building materials from the UdN grounds. Following this understanding of our resources, we spent most of the money on food and beverages. The bar would then be composed of contributions by every participant. Each of us (as hoteliers) had to invest a favourite drink in the hotel bar. During the evening every drink was free for us (as guests). This way, we had a welcoming variety of drinks.

To share a bar is more than to share drinks. If you are sharing the bar itself, everyone is also responsible for the whole bar. That also means the entire group shares risks. It was also a deal of trust. Every attendant estimated his or her amount of drinks and the money they pitched in the shared wallet.

Dinner capital

We allocated the budget for the first Wednesday-Dinner by crowdfunding, private credit and the leftover from Take 1. It means that a lot of people invest a small amount into the project and they will share the risk, as well as the profit. Privately funded money had to be paid back on the same evening.

We had a budget of 244€ plus 88€ credit – obviously not enough for running a Hotel, and we had to generate more money for the following events. Also working with private credits is not the best way for our project. But what would this mean for the Black-Zero- Line? Is it a Black-Zero-Fail to generate money for a growing project? And do we want to follow the capitalist logic of growth?

As a minimum, the project has to maintain a “black zero” – cover the production costs to ensure there would be enough money in the cashbox to manage the following dinner.

To budget

Before the first dinner, we decided to have a bar group and a food group, each with their dedicated funds and opportunities to generate money. Different functional groups were responsible for the bar and kitchen, respectively.

The group operating the kitchen used the crowdfunded money to purchase groceries for dinner. At the same time, the bar group pre-financed the money necessary for buying drinks in the form of personal credit. After the dinner, it turned out that the bar had not generated enough money to pay back the costs of the purchased drinks. Although in monetary terms, the bar donations had exceeded those of the food donations – a common phenomenon in the gastronomy sector. Since we had to pay back the personal credit which had been put down for the drinks, we decided to merge the cash box for the food and the bar. Since the musician had already been paid from the food money, it made sense for us to put all cash together. That meant that those parts which may not be lucrative during one evening could be financially saved by a part of the hotel which generated more money. At the end of this evening, we merged the hotel’s financial sectors into one, the musician, the food, and the bar would all be paid out of the same pot.

Dinner payment systems

The payment moment

It is daily interaction between a host and a guest in a restaurant. The host has to communicate the price of the things he is offering, how much a guest has to pay and how and when to pay. This is also very important for the atmosphere in a restaurant. To give an example, we can compare the design of payment in a fast food restaurant to that of a fancy 5-star restaurant:

“geiz ist Geil” – In the fast-food restaurant, you can see colossal info screens, telling you how cheap the food is and the communication with the waiter is reduced to taking an order and making the payment.

“don’t talk about money” – In a luxury restaurant, nobody is talking about money. There are menus without prices, and it is not usual to ask for the price. Also, in the payment moment, the guest receives the check-in a small map where the bill is hidden, and you can hide your credit card or your money inside. Communication about money is handled in a more concealed manner.

“let’s talk about the deal” – During our dinners, we designed a lot of different payment moments where also the aspect of trust became crucial and the question of price communication became a question of price responsibility.

The guest has to think about, what is fair and how much they want to pay for what they’ve got with a different instance of bargaining, information about a reasonable price and possibility of discussion about a fair deal.


We decided to start a Bierdeckelsystem, when we decided that we want to have a reception for the hotel evenings. One of the main tasks for reception is to manage the business issues with the guest.

We had to ask ourselves what this could mean for our restaurant, and we decided on the one-cashbox policy for the guest. Because until this moment they had the feeling to pay for the drinks at the bar and the food in the kitchen. But in a hotel, you should pay for the whole ambient and the whole hotel infrastructure. There was also the experience that it is really difficult for the guests to decide how much to pay and for what. And the result of this situation was the Bierdeckel-System:

At first, each guest has to go to the reception. There he gets the Bierdeckel, and the receptionist informs him about the Bierdeckelsystem and the project itself. The receptionist has to personalise a Bierdeckel by writing the guest’s name on it. During the whole evening, all the drinks and the food the guest consumes are marked at the Bierdeckel. When the guest is leaving, he has to go to the reception again to pay. Looking at the notes on the Bierdeckel, knowing what he has consumed and discussing with the receptionist, the guest has to decide what to pay.

Key card

Indeed, a hotel isn’t a restaurant, and a reception isn’t dealing with Bierdeckel. Hotels are using a similar tool, the keycard. The keycard is the key for the rooms, but it also functions as the whole hotel's payment instrument (the restaurant, the bar, the shop, the hairdresser...). So we created our own keycards as the bill. This keycard was used like the Bierdeckel before.

Hotel-Wert? currency

After a few weeks of the Bierdeckelsystem, the guests paid a lot less than at the beginning of the project, and we lost money. So we had to change the setting for the UdN spring-party. The things we wanted to keep were the reception and the cashless restaurant. Ben Pohl used an alternative currency system in similar projects and proposed the Hotel-Wert?-money. Like in the weeks before the guest had to go to the reception first, where the new system was explained. There he could change Euros to Hotel-Wert?-money. With this money, guests could buy drinks and food. At the bar were fixed prices to pay and at the kitchen, the guests could pay as much as they wanted.

Deal communication