German flavours draw diners to Lougheed

Guinness World Record holders | Entrepreneurs offer 347 kinds of fresh pork schnitzel to Alberta foodies

LOUGHEED, Alta. — From the outside, the Lougheed Hotel looks like thousands of other hotels dotted across the Prairies — a place that may be better to drive past rather than risk the weak coffee and cardboard hamburgers.

But inside, Michael and Silke Hentschel have transformed the hotel from a dark, smelly bar and café to a high-end restaurant that attracts customers from hundreds of kilometres away for its homemade schnitzel.

The switch from a typical small town hotel to a destination restaurant has taken five years and plenty of work.

“It takes a lot of time and a lot of work, especially when you serve food that people don’t know,” said Michael.

Convincing customers to switch from hamburgers and steak to schnitzel wasn’t easy. Silke finally told customers they wouldn’t have to pay for the schnitzel if they didn’t like it, and she knew she had converted a customer when the plates came back empty.

The couple knew they would have to create a niche market if they were going to make their restaurant stand out and convince customers to drive from Calgary and Edmonton to the small community of Lougheed.

“You can get steak everywhere,” Michael said.

“We wanted to create a restaurant with one of a kind food.”

In 2009, a group of local seniors came for dinner and all 40 ordered steaks. The next time they came the seniors all ordered schnitzel.

Busloads of “schnitzel tourists” now descend on the central Alberta restaurant, especially Germans who still remember the schnitzel that their mothers and grandmothers made.

During Oktoberfest, long benches replace the chairs to turn the restaurant into an old-fashioned German beer hall.

“It’s a huge party,” said Michael.

The couple didn’t have an elaborate plan to move from Germany to small town Alberta and open a restaurant. Instead, it was an off chance remark in an email that led them to Lougheed.

In Germany, Michael sold and collected vintage Zippo lighters on the internet. He happened to mention to an American customer that he was looking for a job, and two days later the American offered to sell him the Lougheed hotel, one of three businesses he owned.

Silke said she was shocked by the hotel’s poor condition when she flew to Canada to check it out.

“Five years ago, this was a stinky old hotel. It was totally dirty,” she said.

When Michael finally saw it, he wanted to get back on the plane and return to Germany. However, he eventually realized turning the run-down hotel into an upscale restaurant would be his last, big challenge.

The walls of the old dining room were painted purple and the plastic garden chairs were cracked white. Oil in the deep fryer was still there from when it had last been used five years earlier.

“It was a mess,” said Michael.

With no bank loans available, the couple renovated the more than 100-year-old hotel one step at a time as money and time allowed.

One of the biggest changes was to amalgamate the restaurant and bar into a family restaurant.

“We lost 13 bar customers but gained 300 families,” said Silke.

The restaurant now offers 347 kinds of fresh, pan-fried schnitzel, a record recognized by Guinness World Record officials and the World Record Academy.

The original German holder of the record uses frozen schnitzel, but the Hentschels say their schnitzel is fresh Canadian pork.

“We have fresh, pan fried schnitzel,” said Michael.

He said he uses fresh Maple Leaf Foods pork loins bought from the local Killam Co-op, which he cuts and make fresh with every meal.

After five years of establishing the restaurant and making friends, the couple isn’t interested in moving to a bigger city, as do other immigrants.

“We want to prove there is more on the Prairies than cows, grain and coyotes,” said Michael, referring to a comment that an American restaurant rating agency made when the Hentschels applied for an AAA rating at their restaurant. They were told Lougheed was too isolated to consider.

Five years after opening the restaurant, the couple received the Small Business Award from Flagstaff County, which Silke said means more to her than a world record.

“People always talk about the American dream,” Michael said. “It has happened to us. We started with nothing.”