Want to enjoy a croissant in the city where the flaky pastry was first created? Or a cappuccino in the country it originated in? How about an authentic Danish in its birthplace? Well don’t make plans to visit France, Italy or Denmark, because you are heading to Austria.
“Austria is a small country, yet we have so much culture and such great traditions around food and coffee, but, globally, people don’t know that so many of their favorite dishes originated in Austria,” says Dominik Prousek, CEO of Aida, a 110-year-old coffeehouse company that serves up traditional gourmet cakes, pastries and other sweet treats with its coffee. “In fact, Viennese cuisine is the only kind named after the capital city and not the country.”
Just walk the streets of Vienna and you’ll quickly see that Aida is an excellent ambassador of this rich culture and culinary history. Its 28 locations throughout the city and beyond appeal to your senses: From the retro pink façade of the branding and the picture-perfect pastries showcased in the glass countertops to the smell of their baked goods and rich coffee — which earned them the “Golden Coffee Bean” by Gault-Milau in 2006 — beckoning you in for a taste.
The preeminent quick-serve Aida is open all day, serving up breakfast, snacks, quick bites, as well as ice cream and drinks in the evenings. They also serve almost 30 different types of traditional Viennese coffee specialties.
Now Prousek, who stepped up as the fourth generation from his family to lead Aida in 2018, wants the world to know what he’s known from birth. “It’s my mission in life to spread this Viennese coffee house culture worldwide. It’s more than just pastries and coffee, it’s an experience,” he says.
A history of heart
The story of Aida starts in 1913 when Josef Prousek, a confectioner born in North Bohemia opened a small pastry shop with his wife, Rosa, in Vienna. They would expand their production and add locations through the 1930s, preserve beloved recipes during World War II and rebuild Aida branch-by-branch after the war.
Their son Felix, who introduced Austria’s first espresso machine in 1946, followed in his father’s entrepreneurial footsteps, running the business after Josef’s death in 1974. Felix’s son Michael continued the tradition of coffee, pastries – and ingenuity – when he joined the family business in 1982. With his wife, Sonja, Michael introduced a full refurbishment of the storied brand in 2007, capitalizing on their famous pink hue, while also contributing favorite products to the café’s portfolio, such as the Mozart cake. Now Dominik Prousek is embracing his family’s history as he looks to a future where Aida is known the world over.
“What has ensured our success is that we’re still living under the philosophy of my great grandfather,” Prousek says. That ethos is to make every customer smile every day. “We took a luxury good and we made it affordable to everyone.”
The idea of a luxury café that is accessible to all is quite different from traditional Viennese coffee houses, where the affair is intended to be a longer one with waiters in coats and live pianists entertaining you.
Aida retains the high-end experience Austria is known for while embracing fast-casual operations as the preeminent quick-service coffee shop chain in Vienna. On any given day you could run into construction workers and executives alike, all stopping in for a few minutes of an elevated, yet unfussy, experience.
The next in line
Growing up, Prousek always knew he wanted to be a part of the family business, waiting tables as a kid and again in college. He even contributes some of his best life lessons to his time serving.
“When I came out of university, I thought I knew everything. I read everything in every book, and I saw it as my turn to rock the world,” Prousek laughs as he remembers his early days.
He quickly realized he still had things to learn. In his first year, he wanted to appeal to younger customers and lean into trendy offerings such as cupcakes.
“But I soon realized that was the wrong approach, that tradition is what survives at the end of the day,” says Prousek. “That might be one of my biggest learnings that if you have a product that works, stick with it. I’m proud that we’re still using the same recipes of my great grandfather.”
He also learned about who to trust with the Aida brand. Building off the expansion efforts of previous generations, in his first few years he opened up two franchise stores outside of Austria. However, after just a year he’d shuttered both, realizing he’d partnered with the wrong people.
“You have to work with people who share the same passion and commitment to working in your field,” says Prousek. “Because I grew up in that scenario working at the coffee houses, I love interacting with people and I love being the CEO,” he says, admitting that he still sometimes takes a half day to wait tables or sell coffee or ice cream.
He now approaches partnerships much more intentionally, targeting big QSR and travel retail groups because they understand what it means to be in the food and beverage business. He has partnerships with Lagadere Travel Retail, with whom he opened several locations in Austria and is in conversations with many other groups for more international opportunities, including franchising locations in the Asia and the United States.
“I really see the whole world as a potential target,” he says, of what lies ahead. “But what I’m really looking for are the right partners to help me achieve my goal of spreading the Viennese culture around the world.”
Celebrating a lasting legacy
While each Aida CEO found ways to expand and innovate, it’s the connection to the past that kept the company thriving, and that’s something Prousek keeps in mind as the world around them changes.
While of-the-moment foreign chains set up shop throughout Vienna to appeal to younger demographics, such as Five Guys, Prousek says he always keeps in mind older generations who still want to engage with authentic Viennese experiences.
“Aida is here to connect generations, where everyone meets no matter their age,” Prousek says.
And as they celebrate their 110-year anniversary – conducting a contest akin to Willy Wonka’s golden tickets with delicious prizes such as a lifetime of birthday cakes – Prousek moves forward knowing the value of what his family has built.
“We represent not only the history of Vienna, but the history of our family, too,” says Prousek.
The name, Aida, for example. Josef chose it because he loved the opera by Guiseppe Verdi and liked the idea of coming up first in the phone book listings. And the iconic pink color of the logo that would eventually infiltrate the facades of all the storefronts? All for his wife, Rosa, whose name in German means pink.
“A lot of brands want to invent a good story,” he says. “But ours isn’t invented. We are the wonderful story.”
And as he eyes international expansion, he prioritizes the strong company culture that has kept Aida functioning for more than a century.
“I’m very close to my employees because it’s still a family business. Everyone has my number and my door is always open. I’m proud to say that our company functions that way and that it will even 10 years from now when I want us to be in the biggest capitals in the world.”