An Interview with Katha Schinkinger about Habibi & Hawara

This week I sat down with Katha Schinkinger, director and shareholder of Habibi & Hawara. Habibi & Hawara is a restaurant and catering business in the heart of Vienna that serves Austrian Oriental cuisine. Their mission is to hire staff with refugee and migrant backgrounds to train them with the relevant skills to become successful entrepreneurs of their own. They are 2018 finalists of the found! program.

Deloitte, photo by Cochic Photography
Katha Schinkinger, director and shareholder of Habibi & Hawara. Photo credit: Deloitte, photo by Cochic Photography

What does “Habibi & Hawara” mean?

Habibi means “friend” in Arabic and Hawara means “friend” in Viennese slang. Both words are meant to have the same origin, so it’s a handshake in itself.

What inspired you to start Habibi & Hawara?

The idea came up in summer 2015 when Europe, and especially Austria, were confronted with a huge amount of refugees seeking asylum in Austria. Some friends and I started an initiative called “Hosten Statt Posten,” which means “hosting instead of social media posting.” We invited refugees from nearby camps like Traiskirchen (which were really overwhelmingly full at this time, making a very bad situation for the people living there) to Stadtflucht Bergmühle, which is a club countryside in the north of Vienna where you can eat very well and enjoy yourself in nature. It was meant to happen once or maybe twice, but we got into a little routine and ended up hosting more than 1,300 refugees, from summertime until autumn. Through this we got to know a lot of people.

We saw a lot of entrepreneurial potential in the people that were coming at this time. We asked ourselves how long it would take for well-educated people, from Syria or Iraq for example, to open their own businesses. As we know from some studies such as those from OECD or the European Union, the average time it takes for a refugee to just find a job is about 4 to 5 years. That means it would take even longer for them to open their own branches or businesses.

So, our idea was to build up a business that serves as an incubator for entrepreneurs. Since food is a common universal language, the logical step was to think of a restaurant.

What are some of the challenges you’ve had to overcome to get where you are now?

I think all challenges every startup has to face and then special challenges concerning gastronomy. Although it was an easy step to think of a restaurant, it was actually a weird idea because gastronomy is one of the hardest businesses — especially in Austria and Vienna, because we have so many good restaurants. So it’s pretty hard to be successful.

My background is in marketing and PR, which is not unimportant in this field. So I think the brand is strong and doing well, but (laughs) it would have helped to have some ideas about gastronomy in the beginning…

That meant we had to change a lot only in the first year. After making a few changes, it became more and more successful. We started with around 16 people, and now we have 24. 16 of these people have a refugee or migration background. The restaurant is now 2 years old – pretty young, we’re still in the toddler age, but it’s doing quite well.

What do you think are some of the main challenges refugees face when they come to a new country?

The biggest barrier is definitely the language, so that’s why we came up with the idea to offer a certificate in language courses. We’ve offered it since January this year. We have a certified language teacher coming in once a week, and our staff can join. They just don’t learn common German but also gastronomy-specific vocabulary which helps them to establish their skills.

Another challenge is the image of a refugee in Austria. With the right-wing parties in Austria and other European countries, it’s hard for people seeking asylum facing challenges like this here in Austria, especially after dealing with so much in their home cities already. And of course, resettling and restarting their lives is quite a challenge.

What impact would you like to see Habibi & Hawara have? What’s next for Habibi & Hawara?

Our goal is to offer as many jobs as we can. We want to not only give jobs, but our staff should also grow and develop together with us. Our vision is to open branches, such as small takeaways. Our employees should become their own CEOs. Although we’ve been talking about restaurants and gastronomy, we are quite open-minded for other kinds of businesses as well.

How can members of Impact Hub help you with your mission?

Please be our guest and book us for caterings! Telling others about us via word of mouth will help, too.


Hannah Myott
Hannah Myott Hannah is a student and freelance writer from Minnesota. If she's not writing then she's probably bouldering, playing board games, throwing a frisbee, playing soccer, or drinking craft beer.

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