‘Five months with no guests’: Can Vienna’s famous cafes survive coronavirus pandemic?

'Five months with no guests': Can Vienna's famous cafes survive coronavirus pandemic?
An artificial skeleton dressed as a waiter sits with a poster reading 'Bored to death' and grave candles at the entrance of the Cafe Humel in Vienna. Photo: ALEX HALADA / AFP
Vienna's café culture is world famous but the pandemic has forced coffee houses to close since November. The cafes and restaurants that survived World War Two now fear for their future and say time is running out.

Around 150 cafes and restaurants across Vienna opened for one hour on Monday, but not to serve any guests.

Instead, owners lit candles and posted signs reading “Funf vor Zwolf” – or Five to Twelve – to stress that time is running out given the perilous state many coffee houses and restaurants find themselves in due to the lockdown as a result of the corona pandemic. 

Many businesses posted videos to a Facebook page, explaining their plight. Cafe Edison had a violinist in the window to play music to passers by, while Mary’s Coffee Club in Vienna Neustadt placed a bagpiper outside to play in the snow.  

Andre Stolzlechner, of Restaurant Hollerei, said: “It is a crying shame. Five months with no guests, and there is no end in sight.”

Austria has been in lockdown since the beginning of November, when there was a dramatic rise in coronavirus infections.

Since then restaurants and bars have only been allowed to offer takeout and delivery services with dining in not permitted. The forced closures were recently extended until at least the end of February.

Even Vienna’s famous coffee houses, many of which have been in business for over a century, surviving World War II, are now under threat from the lockdown.

Der Standard recently reported that the owner of the famous Landtmann Cafe, which dates back to 1873, features an original 1920s interior, and was the former haunt of Marlene Dietrich and Sigmund Freud, is being sued for rent arrears.

Company boss Bernt Querfeld, whose family runs 12 restaurants in Vienna, told the newspaper, “At Café Landtmann, we have always paid our rent on time for 44 years – and now this.”

He added “The landlords' argument that the pandemic does not limit the usability of cafés is almost a form of corona denial. This entire approach is very strange.”

The case will now be settled in court. 

Querfield sees the landlord's actions as a direct attack on Viennese coffee house culture.

Vienna’s cafe culture is world famous. The first coffee houses in the city opened in 1683 and traditional coffee houses in the city have such a strong cultural heritage that they were recognised by Unesco in 2011.

Featuring old fashioned furnishings, elegantly dressed waiters, the traditional Viennese coffee house is supposed to be like a second living room, giving you the chance to sit as long as you like reading a newspaper while sipping a coffee. They have always been seen as a place where Viennese people would escape to relax. 

Now, decades-old family run institutions such as Cafe Hummel (established 1935) in the 8th district of Vienna advertise takeaway services featuring waiters dressed in black and white about to deliver by bike.

Cafe Hummel also took part in the protest, posting a photograph of a skeleton holding a sign saying “bored to death”, and commenting “Mr. Ober Karl, our skeleton, stands for the waiters affected by the crisis. We continue to persevere with our Viennese hospitality for our guests”. 

Christina Hummel, 44, and the third generation of her family to run the cafe, which is in Vienna's Josefstadt district.

Many in the sector feel “fobbed off from week to week” by changes to government policy and are finding it impossible to plan, she says.

As to whether she would consider opening in defiance of the law, Hummel says that's out of the question.

“First and foremost I'm a mother of a six-year-old son and I'm responsible for 30 families in my business — I wouldn't do anything which would get me into trouble or mean I would have to pay a fine,” she says.

“I'm no Covid denier or conspiracy theorist, we know it's a drastic situation at the moment in the hospitals.”

She rejects the label of “rage restaurateurs” that parts of the press have given protesting cafe and restaurant owners, describing herself instead as someone who is “passionate about hospitality”.

In the long term, Hummel is optimistic, however.

“Viennese cafe culture has already been through crises. This Viennese way of life will never be defeated; as the saying goes: 'A real Viennese never gives up'.”

Peter Dobcak, the head of the gastronomy group at the Chamber of Commerce told Vienna.at businesses of all sizes are affected by the lockdown.

He said he still fears 20 – 30 percent of Viennese restaurants will not survive the coronavirus lockdowns, as he has repeatedly warned throughout the pandemic.

Almost half a million people are on short time work in Austria, Der Standard reported this week, adding the government has put aside €300 million for the hospitality industry, which includes catering and accommodation.

Applications can now be submitted to the Austrian Hotel and Tourism Bank (ÖHT), said Minister Elisabeth Köstinger on Tuesday.


Member comments

Become a Member to leave a comment.Or login here.