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Saving the Vienna Coffee Houses

Café Central, Palais Ferstel, Vienna, Vienna's Cafe Culture

Photo: Jessica Sample

Meanwhile, the Viennese coffee firm Julius Meinl, founded in 1862 and billing itself as the world’s oldest coffee brand, seeks to reinvigorate café culture by ensuring the quality of its beans and staff. “In Vienna, we have a very discerning clientele,” the fifth-generation owner Thomas Meinl tells me during a visit to one of the company’s training centers on the outskirts of the city. Meinl recently introduced new brewing and grinding equipment and his offerings now include flavored coffees, virtually unheard of in the city before.

In another bid to stave off closures, Gregor Eichinger, a prominent Viennese architect, is calling on the city to grant tax breaks and for owners to rethink the very institution. To that end, he recently organized an exhibition at the Museum of Applied Arts entitled “The Shape of the Café to Come,” and invited five design teams to create new tables, seating, and dishes for the coffeehouse of the future.

The exhibition prompted a heated discussion in the Viennese media—an article in Der Standard elicited hundreds of comments, many passionately in defense of the status quo. Still, owners feel pressure to modernize. While neo-nomenclature like “soy chocochino” might have been anathema a decade ago, owners like Querfeld are trying out such things. “We’re innovating slowly,” he says, expressing certainty that the institution is nowhere near its end. “The traditional Viennese coffeehouse,” Querfeld wagers, “has survived two world wars and many economic crises. It will stay around.”

Michael Z. Wise is a T+L contributing editor.

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