Aïda interview

From Vienna to the world

No Viennese café house concept has yet made it internationally, according to Aïda Executive Director Dominik Prousek. But with a compelling story and a product selection that has stood the test of time, his company could be the first – with travel locations well within his sights. Mark Lane reports.

Today, Vienna. Tomorrow, the world. After ten years of careful planning and market testing, Austria’s leading coffee and pastry shop chain Aïda is ready for worldwide expansion.

In October 2020, Aïda will take its place at arguably the greatest international business showcase of all, having won the catering contract for the Austrian pavilion at the World Expo in Dubai.

Aïda beat off competition from more than 100 Austrian food & beverage brands to win the rights to operate a 300sq m café at the event, which is expected to host more than 30 million visitors across its six-month duration. The brand will also be exhibiting there, intent on making the contacts that will facilitate its move into multiple overseas markets.

Meanwhile, optimism for international success has been buoyed by Aïda’s successful first foray into operating in major travel locations. The company opened a café in partnership with franchisee Lagardère Travel Retail at one of the main entrances to Vienna Airport in April 2019, where it achieved its first annual revenue target in just seven months. And that’s just the start. The partners have agreed to collaborate on a new 300sq m Aïda café at the main train station of the Austrian city of Graz.

A colourful display of Aïda products in the brand’s store adjacent to the Vienna State Opera

Local history, global future

Aïda takes its name from an opera by Giuseppe Verdi, a favourite of founder Josef Prousek, who was born in 1883. In 1913, with his wife Rosa, he bought and ran a pastry shop in Vienna called Bonsaing & Söhne. In 1921, production was expanded and the once small confectionery store became the Chocolaterie & Grosskonditorei AÏDA.

There is a fascinating story to tell and a rich history to draw from, as Aïda seeks a bright, global future. Executive Director Dominik Prousek is a fourth generation member of the family business that runs Aïda, and he sees airports and railway stations as the ideal vehicle to grow his company’s international ambitions.

“We have quickly found out that in the travel retail space you have such a variety of different cultures and people travelling through the airport,” he says. “I believe there is something for everyone in the Aïda café, as evidenced by the amazing financial results we have achieved at Vienna Airport to date. Our unique Austrian coffee and pastry shop experience is attracting the custom of every passing nationality.

“Rival airport brands like Costa and Starbucks have coffee and small snacks but we offer a 24-hour variety for what you can eat. You can come for breakfast, a snack, lunch, teatime, dinner; you can have a drink; you can come for an ice cream; we really cover the whole spectrum that an airport traveller needs – and very few stores do that.”

Rich history: The brand's menus include vintage Aïda café images

The variety of Aïda’s product selection is key, Prousek explains. “If you go to Burger King you have a burger, and if you go to an Italian restaurant you have pizza, or sushi at a Japanese restaurant; that’s all you get. At Aïda, we have possibilities to serve the customer at all points of the day and that’s why I think airports and also train stations are going to be such a success for us.”

There are 150 items to choose from on the Aïda Vienna Airport menu. These have been carefully selected from the brand’s full portfolio of about 800 sweet and savoury products, which can be found on sale across Aïda’s 34 cafés in the Austrian capital. All of those products are handmade at the company’s 4,000sq m factory on the outskirts of Vienna.

To visit the Aïda production facility is probably about as close as you’ll come to a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory experience in the real world. Here, more than 100 pastry chefs produce three tons of cakes, snacks and pastries daily, alongside 30 types of ice cream. The aroma of sugar, nuts, dough, marzipan, cocoa and other ingredients tantalises the senses as the chefs hand-fashion products that include many of the recipes invented by Prousek’s great grandfather Josef more than 100 years ago.

‘Healthier’ sugar-free, gluten-free and vegan sweet and savoury options are also produced – one of the nods towards modern food trends. “We love to keep up our traditions of creating great food; our recipes have stood the test of time and we are certain they will continue to be popular for many more generations,” explains Prousek. “We are also respectful of trends and will experiment with them at various times, but many of them are fads that come and go.

“Our specialities – such as strudels, topfengolatsche [a popular Austrian sweet snack] and Sacher cake [a type of chocolate cake] – give an authentic taste of the original Viennese café-konditorei experience and we know, from our overseas market testing, that the taste travels well and is popular among the people of many cultures.”

As well as exporting products all over the world via its online shop, Aïda has already successfully tested its offering with pop-up stores across the globe over the past decade. These have been placed in China, Poland, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Saudi Arabia, Croatia and Kazakhstan for durations of one to three years. Many of the products sold in these locations have been factory-frozen in Vienna, and last between six months and one year. They are then either shipped or flown to their destination, ensuring a consistency of taste at cafés in the various markets, however distant. The method has been proven in the domestic market, Prousek notes.

Global ambitions: Aïda Executive Director Dominik Prousek

“We tried to choose what we considered to be some of the hardest markets to enter and we have gained a lot of important knowledge,” he says of the overseas Aïda café experiments. “For example, in certain markets we have to make adjustments for different taste buds. In China, we found that they prefer 50% less sugar in sweet products, whereas in Saudi Arabia the taste is for a higher than standard sugar content.

“I consider our coffee to be pretty strong, but in Croatia they like it even stronger, so we accommodated for that. We also had to overhaul our factory processes to achieve halal certification in order to operate in Saudi and other Islamic markets.”

“Exporting the taste of Aïda to the world is my dream and that’s what drives me every day.”

Food aside, there have been other lessons learned from these overseas forays. The many logistical issues around exporting Aïda products, related customs paperwork and regulations, and the day-to-day mechanics of operating stores have been tried and tested. “The countries we have entered have all had their own specific issues to address,” says Prousek.

An Aïda pastry chef hand-fashions a product bound for the brand’s Vienna cafés

Handcrafted: Pastry chefs prepare cinnamon rolls inside Aïda’s 4,000sq m factory

Ambitious plans

International expansion has been on the agenda for Prousek since he was just 13 years old, when he told his father he wanted Aïda to become a worldwide brand. His passion remains as strong as ever, despite the inherent risks.

“I want as many people as possible to experience the taste of our coffee specialities and my family’s original recipes, and to achieve that we have to look beyond our home market. I’m 33 now and it feels like the right time to do it – making this big push for overseas expansion has been ten years in the making. Austria is famous for three things: our culture, our music and our desserts and pastries, and we are at the forefront of the latter. There is no reason why we can’t bring our experience to new markets.”

Indeed, Prousek recognises customer experience and the quality of food & beverage as vital factors in differentiating Aïda. “It’s hard to differentiate between the big worldwide coffee shop chains – you go there, you get your cardboard cup of coffee, and you leave. What I want to offer is what Austrians have had for centuries, the Viennese experience of sitting in a coffee shop, with great food and service, and I think the whole world would enjoy this.”

Staff present some of the sweet and savoury products on offer at Aïda’s debut airport café

A tour of about half a dozen of Aïda’s flagship stores in central Vienna confirms what Prousek means by this “experience”. All are busy, with tables full of families, friends and associates of all ages, many deep in conversation, consuming coffee and items from the eye-catching counter pastry and cake displays, or from menus adorned with images from Aïda’s history. Waitresses in Aïda’s signature pink uniforms and waiters in pastry chef outfits provide efficient service, many taking the time to share friendly words with customers.

While many elements of this idyllic café experience can be transported to far-flung domestic markets, Prousek acknowledges that the more confined spaces and different customer profile at airports requires a slightly different strategy. Nevertheless, many of the signature Aïda touches can be seen at the Vienna Airport café. A growing trend for takeaway food & beverage for travellers on the go is catered for and this, Prousek points out, will became even more important when the brand breaks into airside cafés.

Aïda, together with partner Lagardère Travel Retail, already has an airside presence with a mobile café at Vienna Airport. The pair are eyeing new airside opportunities that will be presented by a major new terminal opening – due for 2023 – at the airport, which achieved +17.1% traffic growth last year.

“Airside offers more opportunities for passengers buying takeaway items for the plane,” says Prousek. “We can also sell many nicely-packaged full cakes and other pastry and confectionery items which can be bought in our cafés and taken home for gifting. Although they are perfectly within their rights to do so if they have purchased them in the airport, passengers are in the main reluctant to carry food items through security.”

For now though, Prousek has his eyes on the bigger picture of potential international growth for Aïda and the commencement of the 2020 World Expo event in Dubai. “It is a shame that no Viennese café house concept has yet made it out there internationally, but we have put the time and resources into readying ourselves to fill that gap,” he concludes. “Exporting the taste of Aïda to the world is my dream and that’s what drives me every day.”

Airside mobility: Aida's pop-up store at Vienna Airport can move between gates

Counter display in one of Aïda’s flagship cafes in central Vienna

Aïda’s signature apple strudel made to Josef Prousek’s original recipe

Traditional Aïda dessert ‘Naked Cake’ is made up of two layers of sponge cake and filled with sweet curd cheese, topped with fresh fruits

FAB eZine

March 2020

FAB is published monthly by The Moodie Davitt Report (Moodie International Ltd).

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