114 years of Hiltl: table talk.
It takes a pioneer to map out a new path, but it takes a true visionary to transform this path into a profitable and sustainable business. Where others saw only barriers, Ambrosius Hiltl sensed potential. He was a naturally gifted businessman with a "healthy share of self confidence" and he would become the father of Europe's oldest vegetarian restaurant.
The unintentional vegetarian
A farmer's son from Bavaria, Hiltl came to Switzerland as a journeyman tailor at the end of the 19th century. At the time, it was custom for young artisans to gain experience abroad following their apprenticeship, and they received a small payment from their local trade union for every kilometre they travelled. After stints in Basel, Jura, Geneva, Liestal, Herisau and Interlaken, Hiltl settled in Zurich. Merely 20 years old, he fell ill with gout--"probably from drinking too much beer and eating unhealthy food," speculates his great-grandson Rolf over a cup of fresh herbal tea. The doctor's prognosis was sobering--Hiltl would face a premature death, should he not completely change his lifestyle and become a vegetarian.
And so the young man became a member of a small community that was mocked for their eccentricity--the so-called Grasfresser (grass-eaters). Hiltl found a new home in Vegetarierheim, a small vegetarian and teetotaller cafe derogatively referred to as 'Wurzelbunker' (root cellar), which had opened in 1898. Within a few months, the tailor was cured from his illness and was a converted vegetarian.
The natural businessman and the born chef
When the struggling restaurant offered him a position in management, Hiltl was quick to accept--even though he couldn't cook and knew absolutely nothing about gastronomy. Maybe amour played a part too, for the young man fell in love with Head Chef Martha Gneupel from Saxony. As a successful partnership, the couple took over the business in 1904 and married shortly afterwards.
In 1907, the Hiltls were presented with the opportunity to buy the building that housed their restaurant. '"Don't do it,' was the advice people gave my great-grandfather. 'It's too far out of town!'" Rolf laughs heartily. It is hard to imagine a more central location than Sihlstrasse today. However, back then, there was no bustling Bahnhofstrasse around the corner, just the 'frog ditch', a forest, a chapel and a cemetery. Fortunately, Hiltl was undeterred by such details.
The restaurant quickly shed its 'Wurzelbunker'-image and became a trendy meeting place for the who-is-who in Switzerland. "My great-grandfather was a man full of joie de vivre. He succeeded in creating an atmosphere, which attracted people and made them feel at home--particularly artists, politicians and intellectuals, including Nobel Prize winners," says Rolf. And so the first generation of Hiltls laid the foundation for the establishment that is a Zurich institution today.
The tinkerer and the culinary visionary
The couple's eldest son, Leonhard, continued in the spirit of his father, and "each generation added their own bit of innovation while remaining true to their roots," says Rolf, who is currently writing the fourth chapter of Hiltl history. His grandfather was "the tinkerer of the family," an architect at heart, who became a pastry chef only in the interest of the family business. "His natural architectural talent shone through, when he refurbished the restaurant in 1931 and created additional dining space on the first floor. But what really caused a stir was the kitchen--it was the very first fully electric kitchen in all of Zurich."
Leonhard's wife, Margrith, liked to tinker too, but her playground was in the kitchen. After a visit to India as the Swiss Delegate to the World Vegetarian Congress in 1951, she returned with a bag full of spices and recipes. However, despite its already cosmopolitan nature, Zurich wasn't quite ready for her visionary ideas. "My great-uncle, who ran the kitchen, told her to forget it nobody would eat such foreign stuff," Rolf recalls. "But she simply started to cook Indian food in her own little guerrilla kitchen upstairs and then brought the dishes down to let the guests try them!" Rolf's face beams as it lights up with little lines of laughter.
Eventually, the lady of the house got her way and Indian food became a staple part of the menu. Indian guests flocked to the family establishment and the Hiltls struck a deal with airline Swissair to supply food for Indian passengers (a nice parallel to today, when some vegetarian menus at SWISS are also by Hiltl). Margrith Hiltl's legacy continues to live on to this day, when "about a quarter of the recipes on our Indian buffet are still hers," confirms Rolf proudly.
The young entrepreneur and the globetrotter
After his father's death in 1959 (aged only 53), 22-year-old Heinz took over at the helm. One of his first actions--as would also be that of his son Rolf some 30 years later--was to commission a survey on who ate vegetarian food and why. The results were to forever shape the face of Hiltl and would lead to today's hybrid concept.
The study indicated that it was predominately people aged under 30, who would be willing to change their eating habits. Hiltl's daring renovation project in the early 1970s broke with old traditions (both in aesthetics and concept), with a view of attracting just this young clientele. A bakery and buffet loosened the rigorous typical restaurant hours (12 to 2 p.m. and 6 to 10 p.m.) and widened the appeal of the establishment. Added to this was an ever-increasing variety of gourmet vegetarian fare and, finally, a break from the teetotaller's concept.
Son Rolf, who was born in 1965, remembers the early days of his childhood with a smile. He often visited his father, cooked with him, helped in the kitchen or sampled the chefs' latest creations. Aged five, the young boy was asked what profession he would like to have one day--and he simply pointed to his father's chair. Some things you simply know.
Yet, Roll didn't want a ready-made position; he wanted to earn it in his own right. And so he served as an apprentice at Dolder Grand and then attended the Hotel School in Lausanne to become a master of the trade himself. Travelling around the world opened his eyes to new foods as well as different ways of working. Having lived in America, he would later adopt a rather 'americanised' approach of 'trial and error'.
The fourth instalment
Since taking over in 1998, Rolf Hiltl too has brought innovation and Zeitgeist to the family business--just as the generations before him. Today, the 114-year-old establishment, which is mentioned in the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest vegetarian restaurant in Europe, caters to people of all ages and walks of life. Its many facets--restaurant, cafe, bar, club, cooking studio, etc.--mean that it has made a name for itself far beyond its home city.
Many times, the family have been asked to replicate their business elsewhere, but some things can never be replicated like the soul of a place, which has been run by one and the same family for generations, with each generation adding their touch to create something that is truly unique. Some elements--like the food and recipes--can travel to some extent and Hiltl has invested in cookbooks, cooking classes and a shared international business venture called 'Tibits by Hiltl' (a vegetarian fast food chain run in collaboration with the brothers Frei), but there will only be one and unique 'Haus Hiltl'.
"And that's good," adds Rolf. "After all, there is always plenty to do, if you want to stay at the pulse of time. We are a people business and we are here because we like people and want to cater to their needs and wishes." And it takes just one look at the charismatic entrepreneur--with his laughing eyes, his zest for life and passion for change--to know that there is plenty more to come for Hiltl. This summer, for instance, the Haus will see further renovations and additions, including seminar rooms, a second buffet and a bigger club.
Let's just hope the fifth generation--if they choose to follow in their ancestor's footsteps--will be able to live up to the benchmark set before them!
044 227 70 00
Opening hours Monday and Wednesday: 6 a.m. to midnight Tuesday: 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. Thursday to Saturday: 6 a.m. until late Sunday: 8 a.m. until late Free W-LAN Wheelchair accessible
* "Don't do as I say, but do as I do." It is important to Roll Hiltl that guests can feel and not read--the company's philosophy. This is why he doesn't believe in publishing a mission statement
* Rolf Hiltl too remembers the wonderful regional staples his mother used to make and knows that guests don't want to miss out on traditional dishes, just because they are vegetarian. Try Hiltl's Tartar, Cordon Bleu or Zurcher Geschnetzeltes
* Children are allowed to paint onto all of the window glass panets at Hiltl
* Watch Hiltl's 30 chefs work in their large open-plan kitchen through the large glass panels, or arrange a personal tour