Grandmas make the best cakes: Vienna cafe hiring the elderly proves a point

February 7, 2024

Located just a few metres away from the Austrian capital’s Naschmarkt, a market that has been in operation since the 16th century, the cafe is renowned for its cakes and traditional Viennese recipes.

The cafe’s interior is full of knick-knacks including porcelain animal figurines. Photo: Shoaib Shafi

From Mohntorte (poppy seed cake) to Vanillekipferl (vanilla-flavoured, crescent-shaped cookies), the menu is a testament to the rich culinary heritage of Vienna and the (mostly) women who have handed it down through the generations.

Beyond being a cafe, however, the Vollpension is seen as a statement against social issues such old-age poverty and loneliness. It is a place where the elderly find empowerment, companionship and a sense of purpose, creating a unique atmosphere that helps foster an intergenerational dialogue.

“When we started it, the idea was to create a place in urban Vienna where generations come together,” says David Haller, one of the young founders of the Vollpension.

“People in old age often end up lonely and with very low income that leads to their alienation in urban society. There is a strong connection between poverty and loneliness in old age.”

It is mostly women who face the brunt. According to the Austrian Society for European Politics, around 38 per cent of women aged 65 and above in the country are considered poor.

Customers enjoy drinks and cake at the Vollpension Cafe. Photo: Shoaib Shafi
A wall decorated with framed old photos and other items at the Vollpension Cafe. Photo: Shoaib Shafi

“Through simply baking cakes, [the older people Vollpension employs] become a part of the social structure again,” Haller says.

“With the slogan ‘Bake against poverty’ and with the realisation that the best cakes are made by grandmothers and grandfathers, we began this cross-generational project.

“[Older people make] certain types of cakes that you don’t get in high-end cafes but just at home. It is because they are made with love and passion. At Vollpension, we are trying to recreate that feeling.”

David Haller is one of the co-founders of the Vollpension Cafe.

In 2020, at the height of coronavirus pandemic, the Vollpension launched the “world’s first Grandma Baking School”. BakAdemy is an online platform that offers on-demand, live baking courses taught by the cafe’s elderly staff, helping to spreading their knowledge and recipes worldwide.

“We invited grandmas and grandpas from all over the world to share their favourite recipes,” Haller says. “The response was phenomenal … from India, New Zealand, the United States and Australia.

“Since then our international customers [visiting the cafe] have increased.”

The Vollpension menu offers an array of options – depending on who is on baking duties that day – with small or large servings, as well as vegan and vegetarian alternatives.

Vollpension has given people like me a new life. It is an extraordinary place for all of us working here

Kathrin Rauscher, 66, Vollpension worker

Customers choose from packages that include unlimited coffee, tea, cocoa and cold drinks, or from a time-based seating policy: 60-minute packages cost €12.90 (US$13.90); 90 minutes costs €18.90; and a big breakfast for two, over two hours, costs €59.90.

The employment of older folk by cafes or restaurants is not a concept unique to Vollpension.

Forget-Me-Not Cafe in Shanghai, China, does the same, as do Nonna Dora’s pasta bar and Enoteca Maria restaurant, in New York, in the United States, and .

The Restaurant of Mistaken Orders in Tokyo, Japan, specifically employs old people suffering from dementia.

A worker grates pepper on a dish with help from customers at The Restaurant of Mistaken Orders in Tokyo, Japan.

If the experience of Kathrin Rauscher, 66, is anything to go by, more cities could do with such places.

“I was a health practitioner and retired as a head nurse,” says Rauscher, who has been working at Vollpension for six years and specialises in making Belvedere cuts [Rauscher’s own take on chocolate cake] and honey gingerbread cake.

“Vollpension has given people like me a new life. It is an extraordinary place for all of us working here. We work according to our schedule and chart our own working hours.

“We also spend a lot of time together, share our life experiences and knit, dance and play together. What I love most is that we get to meet so many people here and that is sort of liberating – meeting people from diverse backgrounds.”

Merchandise for sale at the Vollpension Cafe. Photo: Shoaib Shafi

Hashi Rathnayake, a tourist from Sri Lanka, noticed the Vollpension in her travel guide.

“The moment I read that they have this kind of cafe in Vienna, I knew I had to come here. And it was much better than I expected.

“It’s heartening how you are treated here. For example, after having a coffee along with Sachertorte [a type of Viennese chocolate cake], one grandma came and asked me if I would like to eat something else. She almost insisted, asking if I would have one more cup of coffee or lemon drink.

“I almost had tears in my eyes because it reminded me of home the way she was speaking with me.”

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