Sascha Hillebrand outside Whiskey Jack’s on Hudson Bay Mountain. (Marisca Bakker photo)

Restaurant owner talks ups and downs of the hospitality industry

Sascha Hillebrand came to the Bulkley Valley and changed the way locals eat

It has been a long, hard road to success. But it’s one that Smithers restaurant owner Sascha Hillebrand credits for the rewards that have come with celebrating his 10th year in business.

Hillebrand and his husband and business partner, Jeremy Roth, bought the Alpenhorn on Main Street in 2010.

Hillebrand was born in Austria and his family faced many challenges running and operating a community grocery store during his childhood. He started learning the business at a very young age and contributed daily to its operations. His father had early conversations about the hopes he had for his son to apprentice in the industry. Hillebrand knew even at a young age that he was passionate about food and wanted to be a chef, so when the grocery store closed, he went to work in Kitzbuhel, a world-famous downhill ski resort in Austria. During his time in the mountains, he learned the operations of a full-service resort and spent four years apprenticing as a hotelier and chef before pursuing his chef’s certification.

“My dad actually wanted to come to Canada to live, but he was already 50 years old at this time, and the only way to get your immigration papers was to buy a business,” he explained. “The Hummingbird in Hazelton was for sale, and Tom and Shelley Zec owned it, but of course we didn’t have any money so they actually financed it for us. We made the monthly payments and my dad got the immigration papers.” Hillebrand’s dad came to assist for a number of months before returning home to Austria.

“The Hummingbird did really well, but I still wanted to get back home because I didn’t want to live in Canada, so my brother Robert (Brandstetter) came in 2000 to help me for one more summer season, and then we decided we’d sell.”

But by that time, Hillebrand’s love for Canada had grown stronger.

“In August, two months before I was supposed to leave, he (Robert) says ‘can we please stay’? So I was, like, whatever, let’s stay another year. That’s the story there.”

He then bought the Rainbow Alley in Smithers which was on the corner of Broadway and Main Street but it was lost to a fire in 2001.

After opening two unsuccessful restaurants in Vancouver and Kamloops, Hillebrand grew increasingly frustrated and disheartened by the industry. Facing bankruptcy, the brothers returned to Hazelton where they worked seven days a week for two and a half years to dig themselves out of financial ruin. Their series of bad luck continued when the Hummingbird burned down in 2005.

He wanted to go back to Austria after that, but the Bear Claw in Kispiox needed a chef.

“I was cooking out there for about three months, and meanwhile, Al [McCreary, co-owner of the Hudson Bay Lodge with his wife Bonnie] told me he had some problems in the kitchen at the Lodge,” he said. “So then for six weeks, I got up at two in the morning in Kispiox, cooked breakfast for those guys, then made them lunch, jumped in the car, drove to Smithers, did lunch here, set them up for dinner, jumped in the car, went back out there and cooked the dinner. I did this for six weeks. And then I was ready to go home.”

However, his time in Canada wasn’t yet up. McCreary approached him to run the kitchen at Hudson Bay Lodge full-time, which he agreed to do. After working day and night for four years and restoring his credit, Hillebrand took another leap of faith by accepting Al’s assistance to purchase his home in Ecklands Place. In 2010 he would purchase the Alpenhorn with his husband.

His long-time friend and business partner, Bonnie McCreary, says that Hillebrand was always willing to go the extra mile. She remembers busy weekends where he would cater a 300-person event on a Friday night, switch over the banquet room for another event on the Saturday, and then switch it around for Santa’s Breakfast on the Sunday. Never shying away from hard work, McCreary says that Hillebrand changed the food industry in Smithers.

“He certainly brought it up from where it was. He is just an excellent chef. I can remember a Chinese couple coming in and wanting a Chinese wedding and Asian food. I asked him if he could do it and he said of course. And he pulled it off. No matter what the client wanted he was always able to come to the table and produce. I gained so much respect for him for being able to have those skills and do that in the community,” she said. McCreary adds that her volunteer spirit and community-minded mentality have also rubbed off on Hillebrand, and she’s proud of him for that.

In 2015 the Hudson Bay Lodge sold to Prestige Hotels and Resorts, a family-owned chain of hotels and resorts with locations in 12 communities across BC. When the McCreary’s sold the hotel, Hillebrand gave the Alpenhorn his undivided attention. But his time at the Lodge wasn’t over.

About a year and a half later, Prestige owner and CEO Joe Huber visited the Alpenhorn and was impressed with its continued success within the community. Huber soon reached out to Hillebrand with the proposal of returning to the hotel to take over Don Cherry’s Sports Grill, the catering of the convention and event spaces, and most exciting: the development of a brand-new restaurant concept which they would name Noir Kitchen and Bar.

Hillebrand says he enjoys working with Prestige as an independent operator within the hotel. He has creative control but also a team alongside to support the efforts. “Prestige is amazing to us in a way that I have never had with another company,” he said. “I have my own business but they’re just like family. Seriously, I never experienced a company out there that’s as great as they are.”

On top of working with Prestige in Smithers and now also with his trusted business partner/ brother in Cranbrook, Hillebrand and Roth continue to own and operate the Alpenhorn and the rental suites above it, as well as Whisky Jacks on the ski hill, and are co-owners of the Smithers Brewery Co.

Hillebrand is French-trained and loves to cook and eat real food. His ‘Schnitzel Night’ at the Alpenhorn is a huge hit, and he credits the people in Smithers for being appreciative of a quality dining experience.

“People have changed. People want to know what they are eating and where it is coming from. I think the generation of fast food is gone. People go into restaurants and they want to know where their pork comes from and how it is fed. Eggs – are they free-range or organic? These questions come up. People are more educated about food now in Smithers,” he says.

And with that change has come more restaurateurs offering a range of haute cuisine. Hillebrand said he welcomes the competition in town as it pushes him to serve high quality food.

“I think we have such great restaurants in Smithers,” he says. “Healthy competition is good competition. It keeps you on your toes.”

With 120 staff members working for him, Hillebrand says he’s conscious to ensure each business is thriving. He credits his trust-worthy, hard-working staff for helping him find success, and hopes to expand his portfolio of restaurants in the near future.

So does he still find himself longing to move back to his home country of Austria? “I don’t want to leave,” he said. “It’s nice to go away for a couple weeks, but wherever we travel, we always say…let’s go home. Smithers is home. You know – the people, our clients, our customers – they make it all happen. I really love this place.”

—with files from Marisca Bakker and Grant Harris

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