114 years of Hiltl: table talk.

Author:Scheuringer, Carina
Position:Business: made in switzerland
 
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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.

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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...

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