In the centre of Vienna, a small commercial space is trying to make a difference working with a social and sustainable oriented mission. Ois In An is a restaurant combining the inclusion of migrant women in the workplace and the promotion of sustainable food products in a warm and cosy environment. We visited Ois In An in September 2021 in Lerchenfelder Straße, when the restaurant was enjoying a busy moment between different national lockdowns, and met with its managers Montserrat Romero, and Barbara Pöll.
A holistic approach for a change
“We have a sustainable business, we have a seasonal menu, we only use regional products and we have a pop-up stall supporting local businesses and a seminar room. It is “Ois in an” (“all in one”), using an Austrian dialect phrase understood all over the country, that illustrates the project’s holistic approach to sustainability. Within this restaurant, Barbara and Montserrat are also supporting girls with a refugee background through education, helping them to access the labour market. Ois In An is a real inclusion programme: “We want to integrate girls into society. We don’t want society to see them as foreigners, but as an active part of Austrian society. We are all in one.”
Ois In An’s origins
Ois In An is a project of the NGO “Free Girls Movement” founded in 2015, when the refugee crisis exploded in Austria, by Montserrat, Barbara, and their colleague Miriam Baghdady. The NGO’s mission is clear and simple: to offer disadvantaged women with a refugee/migration background the opportunity to actively integrate into the Austrian labour market, gain initial work experience and thus build an independent future in Austria. One of the NGO’s main projects, “Girls Help Girls” started with a low-threshold German language-learning workshop programme for girls.
Supported by the City of Vienna, the project aimed to empower girls, helping them obtain language certificates as most of them couldn’t afford to pay for classes. After the girls completed the programme, besides the participation and language certificate, their “skills profile” was assessed to see what kind of jobs would fit them. Once they completed this workshop programme, the girls went through coaching on how to continue their education and how to apply for a job, write a CV, and prepare for a job interview. Girls Help Girls focus strongly on integration through language, as well as on connecting refugee girls with a network of the local communities, including students and professional workers.
Through this experience, Montserrat and Barbara found out that despite all their efforts, numerous graduates, motivated young women, have limited chances on the job market. The reasons for this include having officially unrecognised educational paths or some type of cultural barriers. Graduates of the project Girls Help Girls can join the restaurant and acquire qualifications in various areas such as services, accounting or management.
The restaurant’s composition clearly represents the mission of the NGO Free Girls Movement. “We have seven to eight girls working here with a great diversity of backgrounds: girls from Somalia, Afghanistan, Mexico, and from upper Austria, we are a colourful team.” Barbara and Montserrat are in charge of the administration; Barbara supports the more day-to-day issues of the restaurant while Montserrat is responsible for organisational tasks. The rest of the work is carried out by the girls who learn to cook in the kitchen and gain experiences in the connected services.
The reason why Barbara and Montserrat chose a restaurant as a tool for integration was straight-forward: “Most girls here are not qualified to work with computers, they don’t have experience in office work so we were trying to find an easy way for them to enter into the labour market; this easy way was a restaurant.” Although not all girls are interested in working in the restaurant industry, and the place may not be able to offer many jobs, the girls still manage to gain the right professional experience, and Ois In An’s managers are confident that they’ll be able to offer further positions.
While Ois In An does not have a strong hierarchical management style, Barbara and Montserrat prepare the girls for working in a real-life environment and manage and train them accordingly.
Moreover, within Ois In An, regionality and sustainability go hand in hand with social values: “We cannot be a human rights organisation but forget about local providers. For example avocado needs a lot of water, a lot of resources, it is taken from people who need it and it travels throughout the whole world. That is not sustainable food production. If we do something, we need to do it right.” With this in mind, Barbara and Montserrat decided to serve only regionally sourced food. It was a challenging task at the beginning to find local suppliers. However, the organisation managed to find a solution through the “Biogast” platform that collects all the organic producers in Austria. Ois In An has now a silver certification, a recognised “Biolokal” status, and it even serves wines sourced from women producers in Austria.
Challenges and Highlights
This inspiring story of social commitment went through a hard time as it opened first in the middle of a pandemic. The restaurant opened in May 2020, a challenging time which required everyone to be creative and patient.
The difficult situation and the small budget did not stop the project: renovation works were carried out by Free Girls Movement members and friends. Barbara and Montserrat themselves worked non-stop every day, sometimes even for 16 hours, and without a single day break. “It has been a difficult but rewarding year. But now we can see that we are going into a stable situation.”
Working in restaurants can be stressful. But for girls gaining experience here, the dimensions of the restaurant are perfect: they can learn in a friendly and not too busy environment. Considering the small terrace at the street level, Ois In An can serve around 40 customers.
Though the City of Vienna financed the work of the Girls Help Girls programme, Barbara and Montserrat could not count on public funding for the restaurant but succeeded in receiving a grant from a recently established philanthropic organisation, the Laudes Foundation.
Between 2019 and 2020 the foundation supported the NGO when Ois In An was in an early stage of development, and the project had a different name: “Project Cycle”. At that stage, Barbara and Montserrat wanted to expand the NGO’s activities but they did not have a well-defined project. With time, Ois In An was established and they could use the support provided by the foundation to open the restaurant. A crowdfunding campaign was set up to collect additional resources and, surprisingly, it worked out really well: Respekt.net, the oldest platform for social projects in Austria was used for this task. Finally, a small loan from a bank completed the project’s financial set-up.
Barbara and Montserrat confessed that in earlier phases of the project, everything felt risky and intense for them, but at the moment they are trying to use all resources in an efficient way: “On the one hand, all income from the restaurant goes directly to the employed women in the form of salaries and social security and, on the other hand, it finances the other projects of our association Free Girls Movement”.
In the future, Ois In An managers would like to cooperate with supermarkets and bigger organisations and spread the idea that social and ecological businesses can succeed. They want to prove that a holistic approach works well and that this is the right way to do things. “This model is difficult to find elsewhere, this is a new model and I believe we are on the right track. We want to stay true to ourselves and keep offering something sustainable”.
At the moment, Barbara and Montserrat are also working on a series of training programmes that will be recognised by the government so the girls can flourish in any work environment in the Austrian labour market.
How can people support the association?
There is always a place for people who want to help achieve the goals of the association. The Free Girls Movement is always welcoming students, volunteers, and people who want to work as mentors with the organisation for two-three months. Helping the activities of the association and the cultural integration of the girls is a way to contribute to the NGO’s efforts and become a member. It is also possible to support the work of the Free Girls Movement through donations – in exchange you receive the newsletter and get invited to team nights and special activities.
As Ois In An did not manage to get a public support during the lockdown in autumn 2021, the association had to stop their restaurant project. However, The Free Girls Movement NGO survived and will be back with new projects after recovering from the current pandemic. For this, donations are always welcome!
Interview by Jorge Mosquera.