“Coffee culture is booming. Which also means that these days, we even have to compete with the fancy espresso machines people have at home.”
Café Weidinger is off the beaten path, a corner café on the far side of the Gürtel in the former working class district of Ottakring. It’s a place that’s easy to miss from the outside. It’s not especially attractive or quaint. Little would you know that inside is a charming, traditional Viennese Cafe, whose family owners are justly hailed as the saviors of Viennese Kaffeehaus Kultur.
It was in 1955 that Ernst Weidinger, whose family had opened the café 90 years ago this year, co-founded the Klub der Wiener Kaffeehausbesitzer (Viennese Kaffeehaus Owners’ Club) to help revive the Kaffeehaus tradition that had suffered in the post-war era. A year later, the club hosted its first Kaffeesiederball, inviting politicians and diplomats and potential financiers who might support a revival.
Today, the Kaffeesiederball is held annually in the Hofburg, and is worth more than a € 1 million to the industry. To keep up with the competition – Vienna now hosts over 400 balls per year – the Kaffeesiederball has become bigger, ever more stylish and more elaborate, with music everywhere and dancing through the night.
The early balls were much more modest affairs, recalls Wiedinger’s daughter Anna Karnitscher, organizer of this year’s ball.
“Now it’s like Hollywood. It’s become a very complex event, broadcast on TV and social media,” explained Karnitscher, 48. “It’s become a platform for a lot of people who then go on to become famous.”
Karnitscher also sits on the panel that determines which cafés are granted UNESCO status, established in 2011 when Viennese Kaffeehaus culture was recognized as an intangible cultural heritage tradition. The strict set of criteria includes the quality and selection of coffee, how the coffee is served and the Kaffeehaus furnishings.
Today, Karnitscher and the other Kaffeehaus owners face growing competition from sleek, new coffeeshops and coffee bars offering artisanal and specially roasted coffees. She keeps abreast of the latest trends and techniques, from choosing the best beans, knowing how long they’re roasted or stored, how finely they’re ground, how the water is filtered, and so on.
Despite the existence of the club, the ball and UNESCO recognition, the Kaffeehaus as a fixture of Viennese life is too often taken for granted, and the Weidingers are continually trying to find ways to keep it alive and thriving. The cost of rent, staff and overhead still poses a daily struggle for many.