Tradition Under Threat

For centuries, coffeehouses have been at the center of Vienna’s social and cultural life, but their existence is now being challenged by rising rents and stricter smoking regulations

“A heart-filled welcome! We are happy to have you!” Cafe Wortner’s greeting | Photo: David Reali

It is early Sunday afternoon, Oct. 31 at the Café Wortner in the 4th district, one of Vienna’s most appealing traditional cafes, recently voted “Best Kaffeehaus in Vienna” by the Chamber of Commerce (WKO) earlier this year. Partly it’s the setting, set back behind a fountain in a small triangular pocket park on the Wiedner Hauptstraße; partly it’s the décor of warm wood paneling and cushioned booths, in a warren of friendly spaces. A handful of guests are scattered through the Kaffeehaus, with a coffee at hand, perhaps a Kapuzziner or a kleiner Brauner. One is attacking a plate-sized Schnitzel, another is mopping up a Gulasch.

It seems like just any Sunday. Except that this is the last. At least as far as Daniel Karl is concerned.  Owner of the Wortner since 2002, he is coming to terms with the fact that tomorrow will be different.

Age 34, sporting a rosé shirt and a designer belt, Karl doesn’t look like the typical coffeehouse owner. Nevertheless, sitting and talking with customers, greeting many by their first names, he embodies the spirit of Viennese coffee houses – a tradition that may be threatened in the face of rising rents and pressure from the EU anti-smoking regulations, that since July, are being implemented more strictly in Austria.

At the Wortner, though, it’s not because of the new smoking regulations and not because of any loss in clientele. This past summer Karl found out that his rent, 5,000 euros per month, would be doubled. The Kaffeehaus was doing well, so the “Russian investors” of Freenet Finanace Corp. who own it, decided that as long as the coffeehouse was making a healthy profit, he could afford much more.

“But we can’t do that,” says Karl. “We have a staff of eighteen people that we have to provide for, and if we pay 10,000, we can’t afford it. We won’t make any money at all.” We gaze down at the menu on the table in front of us: “Kaffeekultur seit 1880” it boasts. It seems like a waste.

Other traditional Kaffeehäuser have also closed due to rising rents. When Café Servus on Mariahilferstraße was handed over to the fourth generation, the rent there too was raised. Changes in the economic situation of a business allow the owner to legally modify the rental agreement. Most often these modifications result in a demand for more rent.

Now Café Servus, after 70 years of tradition, is a clothing store.

“It’s all about greed, which is a problem of the times,” Karl continues. “Our situation is really ironic, because it is generally said that the first three years are critical for your business. If you survive the first three years, you will survive for another 100. We had a double-digit growth rate at the beginning, but we didn’t survive after all.”

During our conversation, Karl gets up several times to greet customers as they walk in, and to say goodbye as they leave.

“Do you see that man over there?” Karl asks. “He’s the owner of Porgy & Bess. He would always bring his colleagues here for drinks.” Now he will have to find another Kaffeehaus. Karl gets up and walks over to the man as he is preparing to leave. He pats him on the back – “This one is on me.”

“We are witnessing the downfall,” another customer says to his companion. The other nods sadly and in silent agreement, they sit down to take a sip of their beer. It seems as if neither of them wants to leave, reluctant to let go of what constituted an essential part of their day: a breakfast coffee, a lunch or a drink after work at Café Wortner.

As far as what will happen to the café, Karl can only speculate.

“If they’re clever they won’t change it, but I have no idea what will happen. Tomorrow it could be a Starbuck’s.”

Karl compared his leaving to a relationship, saying he won’t be back to visit for at least a couple of years. “Imagine you break up with your boyfriend. You wouldn’t go out to lunch with him or to a movie the next day,” he says. “And this Kaffeehaus was more than a girlfriend. It was my wife.”

Kaffeehäuser matter in Vienna; they serve as a kind of public living room where people can be at home away from home, spending unrushed hours among neighbors and friends, chatting, reading or writing, or perhaps meeting with colleagues or a client. For over three centuries, Viennese coffeehouses have been at the center of the city’s social and cultural life.

“We cherish these traditions,” Karl points out. Some are literary: Vienna’s famous writers and thinkers each had a Stammcafé where they spent long hours and developed their ideas, from Fiedrich Torberg (Café Herrenhof), Karl Kraus (Café Central) and Sigmund Freud (Café Landtmann), to Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek (Café Korb), playwright Thomas Bernhard (Café Bräunerhof) or cabaretist Helmut Qualtinger (Café Altwien).

Some are culinary: Special kinds of coffee like the Maria Theresia, a large espresso served with Cointreau, are only available in traditional establishments. You won’t find them at a trendy espresso bar or a Segafredo.  “These types of drinks are rarely ordered,” says Karl. “But older generations and regular customers know that we offer this and appreciate it.”

Traditional Kaffeehäuser like Cafe Wortner allow regular patrons to relax, even if it means napping in the booths | Photo: David Reali

It’s a special atmosphere, hard to find anywhere else. Traditional coffeehouses offer a place not only to drink a cup of coffee, but to read, to reflect or just to relax. In a coffeehouse, you can drink a kleiner Brauner and sit there for five hours without being urged to leave, or to order more. The goal is not consumption or profit, but to spend time. It is a tradition at the heart of what it means to be Viennese.

“People go to coffeehouses to be alone, to rest,” says Karl. “But they go to be among people at the same time.” They come specifically for that feeling, and they come everyday. “For me,” he says, “a coffeehouse is a place where the owner sits down at your table and takes his time to talk with you for a half an hour or longer. You can’t find that anywhere else.”

These are also establishments that have a certain familiarity, a sense of trust. Karl points out that customers often leave business documents to be picked up, because they know that person will surely be there at some point in the day. “A mother once gave us her house keys for her son to pick up after school.” Needless to say, this wouldn’t happen at Starbuck’s.

Everything about this closing seems wrong. It’s the first time we have been to this particular café, and we are already mourning the loss, wishing we could hold on to it for just one day more.

All over Vienna, tradition is threatened, often because of the new smoking regulations that require space to be divided by non-porous walls into smoking and non-smoking zones, at the expense of the owner. For Karl, however, the new laws were not a problem.

“With the size of our coffeehouse, it is easy to divide the space,” he says. And though it would have cost him 10,000 euros to put in a dividing wall, that was the least of his worries. “Since we found out in August that we would be closing in October, we did not bother to install the glass doors,” he shrugs. “Our regular customers accepted that.”

But smaller coffeehouses struggle with the new regulations. Since 2005, 200 coffeehouses (out of 2,700) have been forced to close down, according to statistics released by the WKO. The stricter smoking law, which came into effect in July, is expected to only increase this figure.

Still, rising rents seem to be the larger problem.

In 2009, Café Ritter on Mariahilferstraße also faced serious problems. The family who owned the café, the Hrachowinas, were in arrears as a nine fold increase in their building rent made it impossible to continue operating the business. After several attempts at eviction, Café Ritter was taken over by a newbie in traditional gastronomy, Harald Holzer, in March 2010.

But other cafés are prospering.

Café Korb first opened its doors on Mar. 26, 1904 and has not changed since a major renovation in the 60s. Customers take a seat on worn leather booths, which are hard to get. They are being served by waiters dressed in the traditional garb, a tuxedo and bowtie. The flair of the old times is still in the air. Photographs on the walls frame Susanne Widl, the proprietor of the family business since the year 2000, with guests like novelist Jelinek, the pop legend Falco, Andy Warhol and Arthur Miller enjoying a Kaffee.

Widl has transformed the basement into an art lounge, allowing the venue to host events of all kinds, like the Wednesday Jazz concert series (Sandra’s Salon) that relocated there, beginning in November and December.

It also serves as the non-smoking section of the café.

“Everyone sits upstairs, though,” says Stefan Hauer, a waiter at Café Korb. “So far, three people have complained about the smoking situation, but three hundred have told us that it’s great the way it is.”

A study by the WKO reported that a third of the Viennese population have their morning coffee at a coffeehouse up to three times a week. Half of those are regulars at their Stammcafé.

Back at the Wortner, we leave Karl to talk with other guests, and decide to wait it out. We want to stay on a little longer and savor this lovely café until the doors close for the last time. We order more food and more beer, oddly moved by the realization that we are apparently eating the last Schnitzel Café Wortner will ever serve. At the other end of the room, more people have accumulated at Karl’s table, making it what looks to be the “Café Wortner family.” An older man, apparently Karl’s father, has brought cake. Glasses clink, forks scrap against plates; but no one says a word.

In the end, Karl brings out a bottle of champagne and pours everyone at the table a glass.

“To tradition,” he says. “Prost!”

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