Grandmas and grandpas are the stars of popular café Vollpension in Vienna. Astrid Hofer had a look around and talked to the masterminds behind the concept, as well as their beloved crew.
The chairs and sofas are slightly worn out, but undeniably comfortable. There’s framed family and wedding portraits, pictures of cats, dogs and Austrian landscapes on the walls and flowers on the tables. And if you take a closer look, you will also notice the tiny animal figures on the counter, the books, the embroideries and even an old radio sitting on a vintage table. Vienna’s Vollpension, a unique coffeehouse located in walking distance of many of the city’s tourist attractions such as the Opera house, Belvedere Palace and the buzzing market area of “Naschmarkt”, is probably the closest you can get to an Austrian grandmother’s house as a visitor to the city.
"We aim to bring generations together over coffee and sweets."
The interiors are far from being a coincidence: More than half of the staff at Vollpension are indeed retirees. The grandmas and grandpas, as they are called around here, bring their life experience, their baking recipes and sometimes even their own memorabilia to the cosy coffee place, which is beloved for both its vibe and its authentic Austrian bakeries. “Vollpension welcomes people of all ages and from all walks of life. We aim to bring generations together over coffee and sweets,” says Moriz Pfiffl-Percevic, one of the masterminds behind the concept. The idea came to life in 2012, when Moriz, who worked in fashion before shaking up Vienna’s hospitality scene, met a business partner for afternoon coffee and cake – a classic Viennese tradition. “We both agreed that nobody made better cakes than our own grandmas, so we played around with ideas on how to make grannies the stars of a new business,” he says. A few weeks later, there was a name, a logo and a rough business plan. Fast-forward another couple of months and Vollpension toured the country as a pop-up café with a handful of staff, including the first grannies, selling their cakes at events such as conferences and festivals. In 2015, the team opened its first permanent address in Schleifmühlgasse.
The name Vollpension (“full pension”) refers to both the retirement money provided by the Austrian government and a hotel offering full board, Moriz explains, outlining the social concept behind the popular cake place: “There are currently 600,000 retirees living in single households in Austria. Many are lonely and many also struggle financially. A quarter of them live under the so-called poverty line and another quarter just above it.” Vollpension aims to kill two birds with one stone. “Many of our grandmas and grandpas value the idea of having a new meaningful task as well as the social aspect of Vollpension,” he explains. “At the same time, we give them the opportunity to earn some extra cash.” Vollpension employs a mix of the young and the elderly, with the younger staff working as waiters and waitresses while the granniess and grandpas are the stars of the kitchen and the hosts.
"We are all like a big family. Many elderly are single or widowed and it’s not always easy to meet new people at our age, but at Vollpension everyone is welcome. We all have important jobs and we constantly learn from each other, no matter if it’s about baking or computer skills."
When Vollpension was looking for new people to join its team in 2015, Marianne was among the first to apply. “I’m a very outgoing person. I love meeting new people and chatting to them, so this is a perfect fit,” she says. Marianne’s job at the café is to welcome guests at the door, explain the food and drink concept and, currently, also check Covid-19 tests and vaccination proof. “Before joining Vollpension, I worked in law companies for roughly 60 years. I also volunteered at schools where I practised reading with children, I am taking English lessons and I was part of an amateur theatre group before the pandemic hit,” she says. Having lived by herself for many years and with her daughter based in a different part of the country, Marianne is glad to have found new friends, young and old, at Vollpension: “We are all like a big family. Many elderly are single or widowed and it’s not always easy to meet new people at our age, but at Vollpension everyone is welcome. We all have important jobs and we constantly learn from each other, no matter if it’s about baking or computer skills.”
Guests at Vollpension can choose between different packages for their stay, ranging from unlimited coffee and tea with or without cake for 30 minutes (€5,90 / €9,90 or £5 / £8.50) to the two-hour bottomless brunch (€24,90 / £21). While the breakfast and snack menu – a mix of meaty and plant-based dishes – remains roughly the same each day, the cakes change according to the staff rota. “They are baked freshly every morning and all our grandmas and grandpas use their own recipes,” says Moriz. According to Marianne, one of the crowd pleasers is Vollpension’s version of the famous Viennese Sacher cake, a chocolate tart with chocolate frosting, filled with apricot jam. “Grandpa Johannes is the master of the Sacher cake – and many claim it’s better than the original one,” she proudly states. Pre-Covid, Vollpension welcomed over 200,000 guests a year, with visitors to Vienna making up about 80%. For obvious reasons, the current ratio is rather reversed.
The worldwide pandemic hit Vollpension at the worst possible time – it had opened a second coffeeshop in Vienna’s prestigious first district only a few months before. “We were literally in survival mode for a year,” recalls Moriz. However, instead of burying their heads in the sand, the team quickly found new ways to keep the business alive and staff employed while life as we knew it was on hold. “We couldn’t afford to wait for government support, so we had to sit down and get creative. In hindsight, some great things came out of lockdown,” Moriz says. While a crowdfunding campaign helped Vollpension pay its bills whilst their doors were closed, the team also came up with a whole new digital platform called ‘BakAdemy’, offering both on-demand and live baking classes, led by some of the café’s grandmas and grandpas.
On top, there’s new merchandise and print products such as cooking books and recipe boxes. “The new digital project has been very exciting and we all learnt a lot”, Marianne tells us. “I was involved in the video production and I am also familiar with working with a teleprompter now.” Her colleague Karin, who stars as one of the baking grannies, raves about the social interaction aspect: “I really enjoy chatting with people from all over the world from my own kitchen. Seeing my participants presenting their cakes at the end of the class motivates me to keep going.”
The digital move allowed Vollpension to spread its wings globally for the first time. “Under the umbrella of our campaign ‘Bake Against Poverty’, we now have grandmas teaching from their kitchens in countries such as the United States, Hong Kong and Australia,” Moriz says. And the team plans to expand even further: “There will be baking classes in different languages from all corners of the world. The Vollpension family keeps growing and we are always looking for additional pensioners who are keen to teach on our platform.”
As for their physical coffeeshops in Austria, the team doesn’t rule out opening further locations. And while it’s too early to talk about concrete plans, there certainly won’t be a shortage of staff. When Vollpension opened applications for their second address in 2019, more than 450 retirees expressed their interest in the first 48 hours alone.