Opened in late 2021 by Alex Glogar, Empress Coffee is located on Kaiserstraße 37 in Wien, Austria. A city that elevated the humble coffee beverage into an art form, they seek to provide a coffee experience that is unashamedly quality-focused with a friendly approach.
Vienna is a city that is known for its high standard of living with rich musical history and a city centre that was even designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site after the millenium. When it comes to coffee and Vienna, it is safe to say there is a lot to be explored and discovered. In fact, it was the Viennese model of coffee house that led the way for other cities such as Prague or Budapest. Additionally, the Viennese coffee house is said to have played an important role in shaping culture in the city. Places where ‘time and space are consumed, but only coffee is on the bill’.
With some coffee professionals deeming the current era of specialty coffee as ‘The Fifth Wave’ (debatable nonetheless), for a new coffee shop owner in today’s times it can be more challenging to stand out from the crowd. As knowledge and access to cutting-edge equipment becomes more democratised and more and more consumers expect quality from their brew, it may be more important than ever to apply ‘big-picture thinking’ to the overall concept being created.
One more recent concept operating in Vienna is Empress Coffee. I spoke with the creative mind behind it—Alex Glogar—to learn more about his thinking behind the project.
In the fast-paced times of the 21st century if you don’t take risks on new opportunities and ultimately get outside your comfort zone, it can be harder to find success in your chosen field. Speaking with Alex it was interesting to hear of his initial perspective concerning the skills required to open a specialty coffee shop. He said, ‘I don’t have a barista background and I don’t think you need a barista background to open a specialty coffee shop.’ He continues, ‘Many more people obviously have access to information and many more people discover specialty coffee who aren’t in the business or who don’t know what it is.’
After first discovering good coffee whilst working in London around 2014 he referred to various different spots that have more recently caught his interest there. He said, ‘There is the WatchHouse group with nine stores—that’s where you take it corporate but to the next level. The other approach would be something like Nola coffee, a neighbourhood cafe in Peckham.’ He continues, ‘It is so interesting that there are lots of different concepts. For me I went with a more contemporary approach. I was inspired by businesses like Nola, Monocle and Three Marks (my house espresso supplier).’
Aside from the concept, as a specialty coffee shop owner, a good deal of thought also needs to be put into the choice of beans that are offered. In this case where the owner doesn’t have a barista background, it can serve them well to have a strong team to help them with decisions. When asking Alex about his team’s thought processes he said, ‘We look for a roaster that we are personally excited to present to our customers. Once a month we showcase a guest roaster alongside our house coffee and offer at least 4-5 coffees from a range. We have a special reserve menu for that—espresso and filter. For fun we called it “The Majesty’s Reserve Menu”, a nod to both the shop name and the street it is on.’
Often a factor that is an important part of the purchasing decision when it comes to roasted coffee can be the personal relationships between the people involved. Glogar mentions, ‘So far every roastery we have showcased is one that we have personally visited. For example our barista Ammar has links to Dak coffee from Amsterdam. He won a competition with one of their coffees. We also featured mazelab from Prague recently.’
Alongside the thought and effort put into the coffee menu, the look and feel of Empress Coffee is another key aspect to the space. A more minimal and contemporary approach is evident from the stripped back wooden bar and funky flooring to the striking white Eagle One espresso machine on display. From the street, custom signage is also on view featuring custom messages such as ‘Baby it’s cold outside!’ and ‘Hot coffee & steamy baristas’ possibly keeping passers-by intrigued or entertained.
As many high-profile specialty coffee shops have similar choices when it comes to equipment and approach, I asked Alex how he thinks Empress Coffee is different from other specialty shops out there. Interestingly he said, ‘At the end of the day it is specialty coffee so we are not too different.’ and, ‘It’s a coffee shop that could be in any international capital, that was more the idea behind it.’ It was interesting to hear thoughts from the shop’s current head barista Jack who also commented, ‘I don’t think we’re out here to reinvent the wheel but Empress has worked out to be a product of the differing passions of the people involved in it. Alex has an eye for design and the cafe itself has been gestating in his mind for many years before he ever considered opening the place.’
It is this planning and preparation that can often make the difference when undergoing a project of this nature. Glogar emphasises the importance of having a solid plan saying, ‘You have to be sure of yourself, have a clear concept and finance it so that everything makes sense.’ He continues, ‘You have to be 80% sure that you want to do it and that the concept is good enough.’ and, ‘Costs always explode in business, maybe 30% more of what you planned initially.’
It is interesting to note that in the 1950s many well-known Viennese coffee shops actually had to stop trading due to the rise of the modern espresso bar. Nonetheless, in more recent times a surge in interest for tradition and tourism has enabled a comeback. With more contemporary specialty coffee spots like Empress Coffee seeking to make their mark, it will be interesting to see how specialty coffee in these types of locations will grow and develop in future years.