Saturday 24 February 2024

The Vollpension project: Here is how seniors become hospitality professionals in Austrian cafés

Vollpension is "A place where we support seniors on their way out of financial and contact poverty. Our cafés create jobs, serve as a link between generations and drive social innovation, both offline and online. Always accompanied by the typical Viennese "Schmäh""

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MILAN – The hospitality sector is ageless, a bit like the warmth of grandparents. Who, even in retirement, have a lot to give: from these assumptions, Vollpension was born in Austria. A workplace to give the elderly the opportunity to continue earning, putting their entire culinary experience at the service of customers.

Vollpension is a project that started in 2012 and took its completed form in 2015: what were the values that led to its inauguration?

“Especially in big cities, there aren’t many points of contact between young and old. In the age of digitalisation and an often anonymous everyday life, the gap between the generations is growing.

Especially in the western world, more and more older people are living alone. And poverty is becoming an even bigger problem for older people.

That is why we have made it our mission to combat poverty among the elderly, especially among women, and to address the problem of social isolation that many seniors face.

The cafes serve as an intergenerational space, where we create a positive workplace for young and old.

A place where we support seniors on their way out of financial and contact poverty. Our cafés create jobs, serve as a link between generations and drive social innovation, both offline and online.

Always accompanied by the typical Viennese “Schmäh”, our local, endearing and rather dry sense of humour.

We see Vollpension as an impetus for older people to become an active and firmly integrated, valuable part of our society, from which both young and old can benefit.”

Opening Vollpension was a work that also involved the social fabric: who are the supporters of the project?

“If you take a look at our website, you will see the huge number of partners who support us on our way to creating intergenerational togetherness. The whole idea is based on collaboration, which makes us very proud.

Over the years we have built a supportive public community that for example helped us get through the pandemic with a very successful crowdfunding campaign. Various government institutions, companies, film, advertising and communications agencies and many individuals have also lent a helping hand.

We are well connected both locally and globally, which helps us to take our business international with projects, press relations and networks. Perhaps one day even with an international site.

At the end of the day, however, we are very proud that we are still purely owner-managed
and have no investors on board.”

Giving jobs to retirees: the community of seniors looking for extra income to supplement the state subsidy was particularly receptive to the opportunity you offered. Did you expect this?

“Throughout the assessment process, we mostly consider seniors who are affected by old-age poverty.

We hoped that the elderly community would be receptive and not really sure, because the topic of poverty is often accompanied by a feeling of shame.

But the overwhelming enthusiasm exceeded our expectations. Many retirees have embraced the opportunity, not only for the extra income, but also for the social interaction and the chance to share their skills and stories. We are proud to employ 40 seniors at our two locations.”

Vollpension has never stopped even in the midst of a pandemic: from offline, the network of seniors has moved to online and even expanded. What two projects have you created on the web and how have they evolved so far with the end of Covid?

“We moved to our digital platform to stay connected with our community and successfully
launched two projects: virtual backing classes led by our senior staff, which were held via
Zoom during the pandemic, coupled with on-demand backing masterclasses, and an online marketplace for our merchandise. Both were very well received and helped us to stay connected as the world faced social distancing and to secure our business in difficult times.

Both projects are ongoing and will be further developed so that we can combine online and
offline experiences.

You could even say that the pandemic has helped us to implement our Backademie – as we call our baking school – even faster than originally planned.

In the meantime, we have moved the online courses into real life and hold weekly baking classes with our grandmas and grandpas.

But the masterclasses are still a good start to immerse yourself in the baking world and to develop further.”

Grandparents’ recipes: do they also work for the younger generation on the hunt for the latest trends to consume and share on social?

“Interestingly, we’ve found that ‘retro’ and ‘authentic’ are trends that resonate with younger
generations. The timeless appeal of homemade, heartfelt food made from recipes passed down through generations seems to be universally loved and often shared on social media platforms.

For example, we have partnered with a dairy alternative company to provide vegan options. We also have our own content unit, which develops authentic and innovative
social content and makes it easier to share our recipes and stories.

Instagram and TikTok are perfect for this – our community loves our baking content.

And we also help our seniors to gain digital skills.”

What do you find in Vollpension from the long tradition of Viennese coffee shops and how does it differ?

“Vollpension retains the cosy, communal atmosphere that is the hallmark of traditional
Viennese coffeehouses.

What sets us apart, however, is that we integrate our seniors into the café with their stories and charm, making our cafés more like a grandmother’s personal living room than a coffee house.”

What coffee have you chosen for your coffee shop?

“We source the coffee from our partner Espressomobil and have a hand-roasted, sustainable
blend that is 83% Arabica and 17% Robusta beans. We have chosen a blend that
complements the traditional Viennese pastries and cakes that we offer.
And what espresso machines and grinders did you use?
We use high quality durable espresso machines from Futurmat or Gaggia and grinders from
Fiorenzato. Since we ourselves are very critical when it comes to good coffee, we regularly
do Batista training with our service staff to be able to guarantee good quality.
Training older staff, was that a challenge?
Of course, it makes a difference whether you work with seniors or younger people. This
already starts with the application process – for example, classic online career platforms are
not the channels where we find our older colleagues. Because of our model – most of the
seniors work on a part-time basis and we also have many students in the service who are
also employed part-time – we have a relatively large team. Training staff is an ongoing issue,
plus the age difference. We have therefore created an internal online academy where we
have recorded all processes and made them easy to consume. Our seniors are therefore not
only trained for the gastronomy area, but also learn to be digitally competent. By now, all our
seniors can use WhatsApp and once let loose, there is no stopping them. On the other hand,
we learn and benefit from the life experience of our older colleagues.

At Vollpension, the idea is not to set prices for customers-can you explain how this
works?

“At the moment we have two different pricing models at our two locations in Vienna. We
started one during the pandemic, which is an all-inclusive model, where we have a certain set of packages that include, for example, coffee and beverages with free refills paired with cake or breakfast and more, limited to a certain duration.

The other is being tested from June to end of August in our second location, where the idea is to operate on a ‘pay forward’ model. This allows people from all walks of life to enjoy what we offer, while contributing what they can.

It also contributes to the community ethos of Vollpension. It is based on the ‘gift economy‘ principle of Nipun Mehta, an Indian-American entrepreneur. Our goal is to switch to a pricing model this year, which we will have at both locations.”

What are Vollpension’s next projects? Exporting the concept?

“We are often approached by interested partners and are exploring the possibility of taking
the concept to other cities, given the universal appeal and social impact of what Vollpension stands for. But of course it has to be the right fit.

On the other hand, we see that demographic change will be an ever-increasing problem. In
Austria alone, we are facing a huge wave of retirements, where not only workers but also knowledge is being lost. We have played a pioneering role here for more than 10 years and are consulted by many companies as experts. We definitely want to expand this area as well.”

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