It was February 2020 and there were gentle murmurings in the news about some novel Coronavirus in far off China in Wuhan province. In City Hall, incumbent mayor, Michael Ludwig, was slowly starting to turn his attentions to Vienna’s Mayoral Elections, the Bürgermeisterwahl, with Ludwig the top dog following Mikey Häupl’s passing on of the baton back in 2018. Vienna is a bastion for the SPÖ, and even the disappointing Nationalratwahl showing, and subsequent emergence of a Türkis-Grün coalition would be unlikely to mean an upset in the forthcoming election of a new mayor.
Häupl had been in power for 20 years by the time he stood down, and so it was time for a younger and fresher face to oversee the “best city in the world” (if you subscribe to the gospels of Mercer and the EIU). Michael Ludwig was anointed by the outgoing Häupl back in 2018 and Vienna carried on in its typical way, topping surveys and with events all year round on the Rathausplatz. But then the smooth segueing from one event to the next was rudely disrupted as “the virus” reached Austria and the first hospitalisations occurred in late February. A few weeks later and Austria was put into a full lockdown, in the hope that the pandemic’s spread could be halted.
With all events cancelled until further notice, nothing was on at Rathausplatz, and so it really was Vienna’s cleanest place (a subtle allusion to a joke about the previous incumbent crossing the square twice daily with a Fetzn (Viennese slang for either a cloth or a hangover)). As we all battened down the hatches and waited for orders about when we could emerge, apart from trips to the supermarket to swell Rewe’s coffers, and the pharmacy, it was clear that Vienna’s stricken gastronomy sector would need a boost.
After all, from having been originally given a stay of execution of a few days, suddenly restaurants were also locked down with immediate effect, and those who did not deliver through mjam or lieferando (as my nephew advises me the services are called) or establish their own contactless deliveries were faced with no trade. A week of lockdown became a month and then another three weeks were added. The first relaxations of lockdown started in April, with May to be the month to emerge from our corona-avoiding cocoons into “the new normal”.
And of course, as soon as the stir crazy population was allowed out, albeit with social distancing and requirements to wear masks, there was talk about how to get restaurants and bars opening again. 15 May was announced as the grand re-opening, with vastly reduced capacities in restaurants, and groups of four maximum. For Ludwig, not being able to oversee the SPÖ’s Mayday workers’ parade in anything other than virtual form was seen by party hardliners as a disaster, but Ludwig had a card (or voucher) up his sleeve. No “get out of jail free” card as part of SPÖ’s monopoly on power in City Hall, but instead a “Wiener Gastro Gutschein”, announced with an oversize voucher of similar proportions to a telethon charity cheque, just prior to the reopening of restaurants.
And so it was the word on everyone’s lips, or at least everyone with a Hauptwohnsitz in Vienna. In mid-May, we were told that in a few short weeks we would all be dining out in Vienna and Michael Ludwig would be picking up the tab, well Stadt Wien to be more accurate. But details were scarce for a while, other than to say that those living alone would get EUR 25 and those in multi-person households EUR 50. The dissenters quickly latched onto it being a ruse to win over the floating vote, or win back former voters to the fold. One of my Stammtisch crew was quick to say that he wouldn’t accept this kind of charity, so I asked him what he’d do with his voucher. He brayingly replied that he’d spend it on beer. Only to be brought down to Earth again when we explained that only non-alcoholic drinks could be bought on it. This was only the start of the misunderstanding.
By mid-June, when the scheme should have originally been in full flow already, and we had not heard any more. But like papal white smoke after a conclave, eventually the good news would be forthcoming, and the following week the vouchers started coming. This sadly triggered vandalism of letterboxes in parts of the city, and some people lost their vouchers as a result, although apparently it has been possible to have replacements issued. Possibly the delay in the system going live, as well as the enduring spectre of Kurzarbeit, job losses and people trying to save money to perhaps be able to sneak off for a break somewhere away from Vienna, are all the contributory factors why the atmosphere is a bit flat, very much like a bottle of pop left in the fridge for the duration of the pandemic.
When I first looked into where I was going to go with my wife, the main problem was that there was nowhere near me that grabbed my fancy from the app. Initially I entered my street name, but that delivered only hits near the other end of what is a longish street. My wife’s cousin remarked that when he looked for his ancient mother-in-law, all the hits within a kilometre were 45 minutes away on public transport (due to the hub and spoke nature of lines in outer districts), with those more accessible not being what an 88-year old will eat (the nearest place was a Döner stand, and I also have no idea how a little old lady consumes €25 worth from such a place).
Other friends have said their selection of locations was dominated by big established chain-like restaurants, some of whom made a pretty penny through their contactless delivery services in lockdown. One friend commented that “Wir für Wiens Wirte” which is the slogan used on the website for the scheme is a misnomer. The original idea was to support the “Wirtshaus nebenan” but there are now participating McDonalds restaurants, chain bakeries. My favourite independent bakers don’t appear to be participating, and they were the closest places “nebenan”.
I thought it an outrage than places like the golden arches were allowed to participate until it was pointed out by a Stammtisch friend that if both parents have lost their job and the kids haven’t had a treat in ages as a result, that maybe a trip to McDonalds is a big thing and important for a semblance of normality. After all, feeding a family of five on EUR 50 as a meal out might be otherwise impossible. At the other end of the spectrum, I know others who bemoaned the fact that at their restaurants of choice that were participating that the EUR 50 voucher would barely cover mains without side dishes. Then again, they are also not the types who actually need a handout from Stadt Wien to give themselves a treat.
My wife and I decided, therefore, to look for a traditional Beisl, hopefully with a couple of good wines, and to have a leisurely lunch, as we often find that lunch gets neglected to a certain extent – in my wife’s case she is often having a quick sandwich between classes when teaching all day. And we decided not to go for the fullest places (they can’t only be full from people cashing in vouchers). So we settled on an old school Beisl in the 18th district, and walked up an appetite with a good walk to get to it. We were welcomed in by the owner and checked that we could use the Gutschein – not a problem, but did we know what it covered and what not? I replied in what I thought was a rather good flurry of terms and conditions that I had remembered from actually looking at the website as well as an article one of my twitter followers had written in English. The owner seemed impressed – and remarked that I was about the first person who did know how it worked.
It must be soul-destroying when punters don’t support you because you’re accepting the vouchers, or don’t support you because you don’t take them, or when there is a problem in the execution of the scheme that means you wait for your money from Stadt Wien, which arrives long after your customers have long since digested their lunch and maybe walked off never to be seen again. The problem has to be in part due to the denomination. Five € 10 vouchers for us would have been fantastic – we would have had two or three meals out, parted with more cash than handling over our Mayor Ludwig golden ticket (it’s not actually golden, á la Willy Wonka!) and probably helped several places to enjoy some custom.
On another table within earshot a brouhaha erupted, as the diners thought they would get the change back, having therefore popped in for a soup lunch, in order to hopefully return home with the best part of nearly €40 in change (had their plan actually worked out as they intended and not the scheme). Another couple asked whether the tip could be paid with the voucher – and were flatly declined. The experience was somewhat indicative of the whole way things are going, with people always trying to get one over the system (and of course being stymied by the smallprint). I saw a stare from the owner of “good riddance” once they left, as they hadn’t tipped very generously, their noses clearly out of joint that they might have to tip in cash, rather than leave a tip on Mayor Ludwig. We are not sure if we really heard someone say that Mayor Häupl would have allowed a liquid lunch, but it was not beyond the realms of fantasy to have expected to hear it.
We enjoyed ourselves, and think we did the voucher in “good spirit” – we ordered the full whammy, starter, mains, a dessert and had some wine with it – and enjoyed it, and made sure that we nearly left as much over the value of the voucher as subsidised by Stadt Wien’s magnanimity. We got smiles, thanks, and a cheery wave from the owner, who clearly was happy not to be being taken for a “free lunch”. And what is more, we said we would be back and last evening returned for dinner at the Beisl. We wondered if it is lunch that attracts strange elements, but there were still people trying to avoid digging into their own pocket. We popped out this time with my sister-in-law – we’re felt we owed her a dinner or two, so invited her, and she’ll go back there again – even if it isn’t quite the “Wirtshaus nebenan”. On our way back to the Schnellbahn, we went past various cafes, all advertising that they accept the voucher, and they were struggling. One swallow doesn’t make a summer, and so it was clear that a gastro voucher doesn’t seem to revive flagging fortunes of little local Beisls. What does seem to be a trend is now for people to congregate on grassy areas and to enjoy cans of beer in the open air, of course paying supermarket prices. The Donaukanal is apparently home to spivs selling supermarket-bought beer for slightly less than sausage stand prices, with chancy entrepreneurism giving a deft V-sign to the owners of canal-side bars, who again look through their fingers at dwindling takings.
From my fellow Stammtisch pals, there were some creative and imaginative ideas about how to use it. One was going to take his 90+ father out for a trip to his favourite Beisl and arrange for his 88 year old uncle to join. The operation required to do so would probably outweigh the actual experience but as the brothers hadn’t seen each other since Christmas, it was essential to press ahead. Others were using the opportunity to catch up with family (children and grandchildren), who in some cases they had only as much as seen through the window of their flats during lockdown. I’d been invited to chaperone my neighbour for coffee and cake to a participating Kaffeehaus, as thanks for shopping and checking from a safe distance that everything was well, so I was getting a second bite of the cherry.
My contacts through twitter, with whom I engage in conversations most days seem to have their own admirable plans. One was going to the nearby family-run Asian restaurant for a veritable feast with his wife. Another had been to the Dorfwirt, close to him in the 10th and had a good feed. Another plans to get his father-in-law to babysit and have a dinner out with his wife, or otherwise to have a lunch while their young children are at Kindergarten. Mercifully none were going to have to try and plough through €50 worth of cake and bad coffee (as Robert Barratt mentioned in the second part of his Ghost Town blog posts). Another reported that he had found a wonderful steak restaurant and had dinner with a friend, proving also the social aspect that is also essential for such a scheme. For those living alone, the scheme might permit them to go out with a friend, where otherwise they would not be able to – a social lifeline.
And now that we have used our voucher, and the parliamentary enquiry into Ibiza also goes on holiday, I start to wonder where I should go, or more like whether I perhaps choose a staycation in the Dahamas. The Sommerloch could prove very long, especially if the spike in new infections continues to rise. Stay safe and hope you can enjoy the summer somehow! Maybe comet spotting might prove a highlight for this summer of this strange year.