A Global Recipe for Food on the Go
International Vienna is turning tables and giving take-out a few new twists with ideas from the U.K., Mexico, and the U.S.
In Vienna, goulash, dumplings and strudel reveal a lot about the Viennese. As famed 19th-century French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin might have said: Now as ever, what you eat says a lot about who you are.
It’s a gastronomic history deeply rooted in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Many of the city’s restaurant owners have passed their businesses down through the generation, so the terrain is not easy for innovative newcomers.
Just ask restauranteur Josef Bitzinger, whose family has been in the restaurant business in Vienna for over 200 years. For the last 60, they have owned the Augustinerkeller, a traditional wine cellar restaurant under the Albertina museum in the 1st District. They also run two Bitzinger sausage stands, known for an upmarket clientele – and hefty prices, at least by Würstelstand standards.
"Small shops cannot create a trend", he said from his cell phone, as he rushed through the Altstadt to check on his businesses. Occasionally, he pressed the hold button to take other calls, and his voice was replaced by the unmistakable sound of Austrian folk music. "The Viennese will always try good quality food", he said. But beyond local favourites, "what they like is Italian, French and Asian."
Still, a group of multi-cultural entrepreneurs is challenging Vienna’s practiced palate. Three start-up food outlets offering American, British and Mexican comfort foods, are defying Bitzinger’s assumptions, appealing to the changing tastes of an evolving international city.
The 12 Munchies dessert and quick bite shop, in the 18th District, offers a rotating selection of mainly American-and British-style baked goods. The Pie Factory, in the 9th, is a British style takeaway and quick sit down restaurant specialising in British meat pies and fruit pies. And also in the 9th is Fresco Grill, a Mexican restaurant featuring ready to assemble favourites such as burritos, tacos and enchiladas, and a party catering service.
Although 12 Munchies opened less than a year ago, it has already achieved cult status among staid 18th District locals, who regularly visit the tiny, retro-styled shop on Türkenschanzstraße 2/3. Customers can sample the rotating pastry selection as they lounge in green, 1950s chairs. Cream cheese brownies, homemade Oreos, and fruit filled cupcakes are among the weekly selection of 12 desserts displayed in a vintage white display cabinet.
"I spend a lot of my time explaining to customers what we are serving", noted owner Dominique Foerting, "They come for the new food experience."
Foerting is an Austro-Swede who was raised in Greece and trained at a hotel management school in Switzerland. Together with Austrian artist Ernst Kostlich, and German-born Daniel Kunzelmann, she founded the 12 Munchies in June, after Kostlich decided not to use the rented space as an art studio. Within four months, they had a catering contract for Vienna Fashion Week, which illustrates how their new store is appealing to Vienna’s avant garde.
"We catered the pre-show for the bloggers – who can make and break fashion designers", Foerting said.
Difference in the detail
The Pie Factory, 9, Spitalgasse 15, is in a middleclass neighbourhood near the University Dental Clinic. A large, wrap-around plate glass window draws onlookers
towards the small store; bar stools line the window counter and a brick façade gives the place an industrial feel.
Co-owner Caroline Aitken proposed the pies to her business partner and long-time friend Bibiana Binstorfer, after Caroline returned from working for 20 years in the hotel and food industry in South Africa and Singapore, where she honed her entrepreneurial skills.
"Why pies? Pies are not so exotic that Austrians won’t try them. An Austrian mother once told me that her kids will only eat vegetables when it has one of our smiley faces on it."
About every eight weeks the menu changes. Recent combinations included a traditional chicken and vegetable pie, a South African chicken curry pie, and an Austrian potato and goulash pie. By fusing familiar with foreign, the Pie Factory has built a steady clientele of locals and expats.
Boom, bust and bureaucracy
Yet the small restaurants and cafes face tall odds, Bitzinger believes. "Vienna has too many restaurants and not enough customers", he said, and smaller venues find it hard to do enough business to turn a profit.
Bitzinger’s views are echoed by the Vienna Chamber of Commerce Chairman Will Turecek. In the last three years, Vienna has lost 359 restaurants. Roughly 8,000 remain, Turecek said, for a decline of nearly 5%. He expects the sector to continue contracting.
Bureaucratic barriers unique to Vienna often hinder newcomers. An attempt by 12 Munchies to open a snack bar in a park failed, because the city’s 500 Imbiss licenses are passed on within families, giving them little incentive to modernise. But Munchies’ owners found a way to manoeuvre through the protectionist law by contracting with the Imbiss owner in Pötzleinsdorfer Park to sell their baked goods. Further projects are planned.
Alejandro Estrada also had to jump through bureaucratic hoops to open the Fresco Grill. An American-Panamanian, Estrada said he could not have negotiated the hurdles of opening a business without help from his Austrian girlfriend’s family.
"The critical things I needed to know for an Austrian business plan, I could not have known if Irena’s Aunt did not help me. The language barriers, the bank workers and people who worked for the government, many doors would have been closed to me", Estrada said.
Today, Estrada’s small, two floor Mexican restaurant attracts a dedicated following who are unaware of nearly €250,000 in start-up capital needed to turn the historic location into a modest restaurant decorated with modern art and chrome chairs. On warm days, the queue often extends out onto the pavement, with business people, media figures, and students rubbing shoulders.
Recipe for success
While the newcomers worked hard to overcome bureaucratic barriers in a declining market, the social networking site Facebook has provided a free and effective way of reaching customers.
"The Pie Factory had 300 friends on Facebook before we opened. A Brit posted about us, so we started posting construction updates", Aitken said. Now, they post menus and new offerings.
12 Munchies Facebook page has more than 1,000 followers, and customers and owners maintain a lively chat with a community feeling. The result is a growing customer loyalty base.
"Once, a woman posted online that she would be here in the afternoon and told her friends to show up. Four showed", Foerting said. Although the success has meant longer working hours for the owners, all three businesses have staff and are planning expansions.
Fresco Grill has recently started looking at satellite locations for a planned delivery service, and the Pie Factory is planning another outlet in the 3rd District, near a business centre under construction.
"We have found a niche in the market", Aitken said.
That niche is one of many in Vienna’s emerging food scene. Sushiandstrudel.com, a blog written by American food connoisseur Kristen Marie, recently started tracking changes in the capital’s culinary landscape. As more ethnic restaurants open in Vienna, she noted, local chefs are more likely to experiment with blending Austrian cuisine with international food trends.
For Pie Factory owner Binstorfer, the idea is not new.
"A lot of Austrian standards, like goulash and garlic soup, were brought here [from the outer provinces] during the Austro-Hungarian Empire", she muses. "A lot of what we think is Austrian, was foreign before."
18., Türkenschanzstraße 2/3
0650 861 0980
The Pie Factory
9., Spitalgasse 15
(01) 406 42 61
9., Liechtensteinstraße 10
(01) 336 12 12