Emma Hellenstainer

* 12.04.1817 (St. Johann, Tyrol) 09.03.1904 (Merano, Italy) Austria
Fields of activity: Pioneer in the field modern tourism and gastronomy
Author: Ulrike Rahmatian

Emma Hellensteiner

At the peak of her popularity a postcard from America addressed only “Frau Emma – Europe” allegedly reached her. Even if this might be a myth, it still shows which high reputation and international esteem a rural girl, who grew up in a quiet Alpine valley, managed to acquire.


Emma - born as Emerentia Hausbacher - was the daughter of the proprietor of the inn ‘Grey Bear’ in the Tyrolean village St. Johann. Already as a young girl she helped as a waitress and in the kitchen. Her mother advocated a very strict upbringing and austere conduct – “You must never laugh”. Emma was sent to the Ursuline Sisters in Innsbruck to receive her higher education. Thereafter she learned cooking at one of the best hotels in town and, still a student, wrote her first cookbook.

When she was 20 years old, her mother inherited a brewery and Emma had to take it over.

Although the rural population did not care much about any other than solid local cuisine and she could not unfold her exquisite cooking skills, she soon managed to turn the previously run down establishment into a successful enterprise. One of the regular guests in the brewery was Joseph Hellenstainer, heir of the hotel “Black Eagle” in Niederdorf.  They married in 1842.

Joseph looked after the transport services, Emma took full responsibility for running the hotel. She did not only manage house and staff, but also garden, winery and farming. And she raised seven children, born between 1844 and 1856. She always emphasized how important it was to learn many languages and to be exposed to other cultures and educated her children accordingly.

The village Niederdorf was in a very favourable position at the time, since it was on the newly built road connecting Southern Tyrol and Carinthia and attracted many guests. Emma quickly realized the new opportunities. She modernized and upgraded the hotel and expanded the variety of food offered. Emma was not only pretty and witty, but also had a special talent to make people feel at home and cared for any individual need. There are many stories and evidences in the guestbook about tourists, who arrived bad humoured and sickly and left happy and healthy. Naturally they returned and also made promotion at home for the “Black Eagle”.

In 1858 Joseph died of kidney failure, only 50 years old. Emma now had to take charge of the transport business as well. Ingeniously she used it also to order foodstuffs, fruits and spices, which were not available in the region, to add ‘exotic’ flavours to her cuisine. Emma became even more famous as a cook, when her tea butter won a medal at the Vienna Cooking Exhibition in 1884 and was adopted in the imperial kitchen.

Consequently she started marketing some products and opened yet another business line – mail order.

Emma was the first woman to be accepted as a member in the German Alpine Association and an important co-founder of the Austrian Alpine Association. She was the first to hire mountain guides for her hotel and offered her guests guided mountain tours. This was a raving success. She was also the first to advertise in foreign newspapers. Further she founded a beautification society in the village. When the railroad was built, she achieved through her connections that the routing was slightly altered to pass by close to Niederdorf. All these activities not only benefitted her personally, but the whole region.

Over time the “Black Eagle” became a favourite holiday resort with the high aristocracy.

Even the imperial family - Emperor Franz Joseph I, Empress Sissi, Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand - took their lodgings there. Guests came from all over the world, not only because of the beautiful scenery, the refreshing air in summer and the excellent cuisine – they also came because of Frau Emma.

Despite her success she was overwhelmed and astonished when Emperor Franz Joseph I. in 1899 personally awarded the “world famous Frau Emma” the gold medal of honour.

All her children remained in the hotel business and built such famous establishments as “Grandhotel Pragser Wildsee” and “Grandhotel Emma in Merano”, where Emma spent her last years.  She died in Merano at the age of 87 in 1904.

Her offspring is still running a number of well known establishments. The “Black Eagle” was renamed “Hotel Emma” and is still operating successfully. In 1983 a large professional  vocational training school for the hotel-, restaurant- and  food-industry was named after her.




Museums- und Kulturverein St. Johann - Heimatkundliche Schriftreihe no. 6




Source: Collage made by Südtiroler Landesmuseum für Tourismus (State Museum Southern Tirol) Permission to use it given by the museum on 16.12.2013