In this Vienna bakery, grandmas are the stars
You may think you are entering an extremely charming old-fashioned café when you step into Vollpension in Vienna.
The furniture is worn but inviting. The walls are covered by framed portraits and other art. Lace doilies, tiny vases and cute animal figurines evoke a room with warm family memories.
This could be your grandmother’s house.
Grandmothers (and a few grandfathers) are indeed a large part of the staff — and the only ones who bake the delectable cakes, using their own recipes, that are sold by the slice and are the café’s main focus. The clientele often includes young mothers with children and other multigenerational groups.
Vollpension is a cozy and often crowded café, in a travel destination known for its incomparable “Kaffe und Kuchen,” or coffee and cake, emporiums.
But it is also a highly successful experiment in “social good” or “social entrepreneurship,” a commercially sustainable way to provide much-needed extra income. Equally important, it provides friendly generation-bridging interaction for older people who may otherwise feel lonely or isolated.
“This is more than just a coffee shop,” said Hannah Lux, 31, the managing partner of the café and one of its three owners. “I come from the countryside and was raised by my grandparents. Older people are very precious to me. We are working on building a community, a human way of coming together.”
Bridging generations with baked goods
The cafe’s name is German for “full pension,” which refers to both the one that Austrians get from the government upon retirement and to the kind of hotel stay that includes meals, or full board, said Lux.
The shop’s omas (grandmas) and occasional opa (grandpa) stand behind a counter to describe, serve and sometimes share the history of the various cakes offered each day.
They are baked daily in four neon-rimmed individual ovens that seem to float above and behind the counter, the café’s only modern, and slightly surreal, touch. More substantial food and alcoholic beverages are also available.
Monthly activities offered at the cafe, Lux said, allow the older staff to “share their knowledge and skills” with each other and with younger people. Topics include knitting, yoga, theater, dance, spices, yoga and poker, and are open to the public.
When lines to enter grow long, and they often do, some of the omas and opas act as chatty hosts.
“We tell them our life experiences. It’s generations coming together,” said Judith Siöberg, 69, a grandmother of two (“and two more on the way”) who has worked at the café since it opened in 2015.
Like most of the 45 employees, 23 of them seniors, she works part-time. “We can choose our own days and shifts, and every day is different. Some of us have to be with our grandchildren.”
It started as a granny pop-up
The enterprise started in 2012, said Lux, as a pop-up and then a traveling show. “We toured Austria with 10 grannies. We rebuilt an old VW into a mobile coffee shop and went to festivals, beer parties and fairs. It was like a little circus.” And it has kept that exuberance.
“It’s a crazy house. It’s a lot of fun,” said Siöberg, who has lived around the world, including the United States, and speaks English and Hungarian in addition to German.
Her specialty is “American cheesecake” (delicious, this writer can attest) though she also makes brownies and other treats. Other bakers make their own favorite recipes, including strudels, chocolate tortes, Bundt cakes and poppy seed cakes.
Schlag (whipped cream), a Viennese favorite, is available to top any of them. Thanks to good notices on TripAdvisor, Yelp, Facebook and other sites, tourists and local fans alike enjoy the cafe. Reservations are available and are a must on weekends, she said.
Last year, said Lux, the coffee shop had revenues of 1.2 million Euros and served “over 80,000 pieces of freshly made cake baked with love.”
It was important to her and her business partners, Julia Krenmayr and Moriz Piffl-Percevic, that the café become a stable business. To help accomplish that, they chose a central location, at Schleifmühlgasse 16, near a hostel and the Naschmarkt, a historic outdoor market.
The cafe is expanding
Vollpension has become so successful, in fact, that they will open a second café in October in an even more central location, a few blocks from the famed Café Sacher, home of the Original Sacher Torte (a title gained after some legal wrangling).
They will compete, said Siöberg, but she isn’t worried. Some of her fellow bakers make versions of the famous chocolate torte that she believes are better: “Theirs is dry. We make Sacher Tortes that are moist.”
They might open one or two more spots in Vienna, Lux said.
Because they have been contacted by people in many parts of the world—Barcelona, Madrid, Berlin, Rome, London—they have considered franchising their socially-conscious, community-building concept in cities throughout Europe and beyond.
Shabby vintage is their decor
The second Vollpension will have a musical theme, including live music that will often be classical, Lux said, but the décor will be similar to the existing café. This time around, she said, she is working with three vintage stores, whose owners are providing pieces of furniture—like 60 chairs from an old hotel—that are “too shabby to sell in a vintage store.”
She doesn’t mind. “I think this kind of thing, finding a new place for old things, is parallel to putting old people in the center of the city. They are so often pushed to the side.”
The first time around, Lux said, furnishing a dilapidated former pizza place was more of a hodgepodge, combining flea market finds, online purchases and personal donations, equally dictated by finances and aesthetics. “Everything is kind of ugly,” she said.
“It’s kitsch. They have all this kitsch,” said Siöberg, who brought in a few pieces herself.
Nevertheless, customers sometimes steal items, added Lux, so the owners are constantly replenishing the stolen stock.
‘It was in our cellar’
Early on, she contributed an oil portrait of her great-grandmother. “It was in our cellar,” Lux said, and her relative’s stern gaze is one of the first things customers encounter when they step into the café.
Lux’s grandmother, who was 90 when they were decorating, approved of the choices, Lux said, “as long as you don’t tell people my house looks like this.”
Two striking wall decorations are framed completed jig saw puzzles showing battle scenes. Lux said she found the first, with a Napoleon theme, at a nearby flea market. Two weeks later, someone brought in another huge completed puzzle in the same frame. This one showed a battle scene in Germany.
“It had the same name of the person who put the puzzle together,” she said. They now hang side by side.
Recently, Lux said, she received “a super-nice email telling me the person’s grandma had died, and she would like to bring in some plates and other decorations” so that her grandmother could become part of the café.
“People have a lot of emotional stories about their grannies and their childhoods. They have a community feeling.”
Freelance writer Aileen Jacobson writes for publications including the New York Times, Newsday, AudioFile and Lilith. Follow her on Twitter @aileenj.