Vienna Venture that Helps Elderly Bakers ‘Learned From Scratch’

The social enterprise in Austria's capital will share its recipe for success over the last 10 years, including thriving during the pandemic, at Convening EMEA.

Author: Michelle Russell       

4 elderly women bake goods

A group of grannies work in the kitchen of the Vollpension cafe located in Vienna’s 1st district. Vollpension helps elderly residents supplement their incomes — and enrich their social lives — by employing them as bakers at its cafes. (Photos courtesy of Vollpension)

Jaimé Bennett, PCMA’s regional director of EMEA, was taken on a tour of small businesses during her first site visit in Vienna earlier this year. The goal was to find places that Convening EMEA event professional participants could explore as offsite visits during the conference, Sept. 28-30, that reflect the host city’s “quirky” and inventive nature, Bennett said.

One of the stops was at Vollpension, a café with the unique mission of helping elderly residents augment their pensions — and enrich their social lives — by baking. Bennett’s colleagues at Vienna Tourism proposed that a Convening EMEA group of about 20 could tour the kitchen where the omas and opas (grannies and grandpas) bake and serve customers of all ages, getting a better sense of the Vollpension model of bringing the generations together.

“I loved the whole concept,” Bennett said, especially the fact it gave retired pensioners a new purpose and contributed to the local economy. But, she decided on the spot, it would be an “injustice” to share it with only 20 Convening EMEA participants.

David Haller

David Haller

So Vollpension, which celebrates its 10th anniversary in September, will be baked into the full Convening EMEA program with a session featuring the nonprofit’s cofounder David Haller (whose responsibilities, roughly translated from German, include baking courses, partnerships, and taking care of the grannies). Vollpension will also occupy space at Messe Wein Exhibition & Congress Center along the “Mall” — where Convening EMEA’s main networking, catering, and partner activations will take place — with a mini-café equipped with grannies and grandads serving the Viennese specialty Buchteln (yeasted sweet rolls filled with apricot jam).

Vollpension ticks a few boxes for Bennett, who aims to “create a multigenerational ecosystem from students to the C-suite” at the event — last year’s Convening EMEA featured a nine-year-old speaker. “Coupled with our global vision, there were so many alignments with Vollpension,” she said, including the importance of legacy and CSR for associations, corporates, and for cities hosting events. Their story, she said, seemed an “exceptional opportunity for others to learn from.”

To learn more about the enterprise, Convene chatted via Zoom with Haller, who logged in from Vollpension’s baking studio in Vienna’s 6th district. During the pandemic, he shared, Vollpension went online with baking courses and on-demand videos of grannies sharing their baking tips in the kitchen. The baking studio now hosts in-person baking courses, and when we spoke, members of the Austrian Tourism Board were in the midst of sampling the end products of their lesson.

Here are highlights of our conversation.

How did the idea of Vollpension come about?

Well, where do you get the best cake? You don’t get it at Sacher or Demel [two cafés in Vienna]. You get it at your grandma’s place, because she does it with her old recipe and with her love and storytelling all around it. So that’s one core of Vollpension. The other core is there’s no space in urban places where young and old come together. Everybody does their own thing, but there’s no interaction. So, the Vollpension is a place where the generations come together. We want to destroy all the stereotypes there are and show that generations can work together and of course, you get the best cake at grandma’s. The word “Vollpension” means, if you translate it directly, all inclusive. When you book a room in a hotel and you take vollpension, it means it’s all inclusive, so you get everything. It fits perfectly because the word “voll” means full and “pension” is retirement. All the grannies and grandpas who work at our place are fully in their [government] pension, so Vollpension. When you come to your grandma’s, you don’t say, “Well, I’d like to have this or that.” You just sit down and then she goes all in and gives you everything. It’s the best word that we could have come up with.

How has this initiative evolved over the past 10 years?

We [Haller and three other social entrepreneurs] had this idea and it was during the Vienna Design Week. We had the chance to do it as a pop-up for 10 days and it went so well that we did it again one year later in 2013 as a pop-up, and then people started to make groups on Facebook, asking, “Where, when is the next Vollpension happening? We need you. Can we come? You have to go on with it.” We did a little tour in Austria with the Viennese Tourism Board. We went to four bigger cities. After that, we thought to ourselves, “Well, we need a home base.” We looked for a place and we found it in Vienna’s 4th district. We rebuilt it and we opened in June 2015 the first real Vollpension.

That was also a big switch for us because till then, it was still an idea, an association, that little thing, and then it got serious and we incorporated. From then on, we made a lot of mistakes and we learned by doing. Because all of the people who are in the core and who ignited everything 10 years ago were not from the restaurant business. We come from the social business or from marketing. We had that nice idea. We learned from scratch.

For me, for example, I have a very strong connection to my grandmother. When it comes to commitment and devotion, I’m probably the only person [you know] who has grandma tattooed on my arm [shows me his tattoo].

It was tough the last 10 years, but we always stuck to the idea because it was so close to our hearts and it was so obvious and such a nice thing to do.

Then we opened our second Vollpension in 2019. It is in the 1st district — it started well, and six months later, the pandemic hit. We had to close that one and we are reopening it right now [in June]. It was closed for two years because it was in the university. It was only open for the students and for the teachers there, but not for the public.

A lot of changes happened during the pandemic. We rented this flat here and we built, as you can see, our own studio back there where we did the online classes and the on-demand videos. We created our own baking website with grannies’ knowledge. We did a lot of merchandising with new books, recipe cards. You can order the cakes made in Vienna and we ship them to you in all of Austria and the plan is [to expand shipping to] Germany and Switzerland. Then one of the big things is, of course, the live baking. It went very well online. We’re very happy to do it now in person.

In addition to giving the pensioners some added income, what has working at Vollpension meant to them?

If you work as an elder person at the Vollpension, you have two things you can do, either you bake or you are a host, which means you say “hi” to the people, explain to them what we do here, bring them to the table and help a little bit with waitering and everything. A lot of those who do that, they’re not really into baking. When it comes to those who want to bake, they just love baking.

When we started 10 years ago, we said, “Well, we want to create a place where generations work together and you get good cakes.” We hadn’t thought about people not getting a high-enough pension and being lonely. That’s also something that just came up and now, we have our focus on that. So everything we do is to create jobs for elderly people, to give them a voice with everything we do. If the press is here, if we do interviews, if they’re on Euronews, if they’re online, if they’re in front of the camera, it gives them empowerment and they do things they would never otherwise do in their life.

Then we have a book with the recipes, but it’s not only recipes. It’s also the people with their stories and their pictures. You have something in your hand you can show and you can give your kids or your grandchildren.

older woman serving younger people at cafe

Some of the elder employees at Vollpension bake the goods, while others greet customers as hosts of the cafes.

What are you hoping to achieve in the future?

Our idea is we don’t want to be a coffee house that has one place and it’s in the fourth district in Vienna. If we could choose, we’d say every corner in the world needs a Vollpension because the need, it’s everywhere. Not because we want to get rich because we’ll never get rich because we’re a social business, so everything we earn goes back into it. What stands always on top is to create jobs for elderly people. You have now the opportunity to come to the studio and do live baking with the grandmas, or you can come to a classic coffee house, or you take a class online, or you buy a book. It’s multidimensional.

What is great about being part of Convening EMEA is that we can be on the center stage and tell our story — and we have a lot to tell. That’s pretty cool. We want to give the people who attend a little Vollpension experience, so we’ll make a small coffee house with our old furniture and where you can get a little bit of the Vollpension’s atmosphere.

What has been the biggest surprise for you working on this project over the last 10 years?

That I’m still sitting here with almost 100 employees and I don’t know how many thousand sold coffees and cakes and stories exchanged. Of course, at the end of the month, we have to pay our bills. For my part, I don’t want to calculate what I earned over the last 10 years money-wise. I earned so much more in emotions and sweets and the love I got from the grandmas who told me, “Wow, thank you very much for bringing me here and being in front of the television,” or whatever. Being rich is not about money, it’s also about the work environment and what you get back.

My other question would be, how do you stay thin?

I always just try samples.

I love what you’re doing. There’s such a need for this, not just in Vienna, but in other parts of the world — certainly in the United States.

Where are you exactly in the States?

I’m outside of New York City.

Well, then, let’s just open up Vollpension in New York City.

I’m in!

Times Square — here we come! World domination. That’ll be our conversation when I see you in September.

interior of a cafe

The original Vollpension opened in June 2015 in the 4th District in Vienna, Austria.

More Than Money

Vollpension’s David Haller said what the pensioners who work in the kitchen and at the café get out of it is much more than a paycheck.

“What is really, really important for all of them is that they have meaning in their life,” he said. “And work does something for you. You get a feeling of ‘I’m needed.’ Of course, money is important because some have very, very low pensions, but it’s really about having fixed points in your week where you can say, ‘I’m there on Tuesday and on Friday and around that, I can build my normal schedule.’

“Then of course, there’s the aspect of getting to know new people, especially younger people, which helps because a lot of them only talk to persons who are their own age and you talk about your health and what bugs you and everything. With the young people, it’s a completely new approach. The learning curve, it’s not the young only learn from the elder people, it’s also the elderly learn from the young.

“I always say the Vollpension is a place where there’s friction, but we want that friction. We want it to be authentic and real, and that’s what happens. Sometimes when it’s completely packed on weekends, people scream and people do whatever, but at the end, we all stick together. We don’t want to create the perfect world. That’s not what it is. Sometimes it’s a real mess.

“But it’s fun and at the end of the day, when they go home and then they lie in bed, they’re completely exhausted, but they have the feeling, okay, I did something together with others and it’s for a good cause.”

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.

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