From root bunker to gourmet temple
The Hiltl saga, or how the world's first vegetarian restaurant was founded in Zurich.
Ambrosius Hiltl (1877-1969) loved all beautiful things – the opera, nature, fine paintings, furniture, clothes, nature and traveling. He was an open-minded man with an entrepreneurial spirit, self-confidence and an appetite for adventure.
He grew up as the son of a farmer in Neumarkt, Bavaria, and learned a trade – at that period the saying was that trades were the foundation for one’s future. He traveled from town to town, offering his services as a tailor. It was part of a craftsman’s education to adapt to different regions, depending on the hospitality of his clients. Traveling craftsmen were also supported by tailors’ guilds with a 5 pence per mile travel allowance. Ambrosius Hiltl’s travels led him to Switzerland several times. With his needles, thread, scissors and thimble, he earned his living in Basel, the Jura, Geneva, Liestal, Herisau and Interlaken, until he settled in Zurich in autumn 1897 at the age of 20.
In 1898, the "Vegetarian Home and Abstinence Café" opened in Zurich. Due to an inconvenient location, it moved very soon from Stockerstrasse to 28 Sihlstrasse. It was still tough to get going, however, because of mismanagement and also because vegetarians were ridiculed at that time. Moreover, it was difficult to find suitable kitchen staff. In 1901 the journeyman tailor Ambrosius Hiltl became ill with rheumatoid arthritis, and his doctor predicted an early death unless he immediately changed his diet to one completely without meat.
Tasty and varied meatless meals were difficult to organize for a single journeyman tailor at that time, so Ambrosius Hiltl came through a friend's recommendation to the "Vegetarian Home". The Sunday roast was then considered the highest culinary experience, demonstrating that one had well succeeded in life and was therefore able to afford meat. Vegetarians used to be mocked as "grazers" and the Vegetarian Home was jokingly nicknamed "the root bunker".
Ambrosius Hiltl was impressed by the vegetarian diet, especially as it led him to a startlingly rapid recovery. Which is why, when the struggling vegetarian restaurant was looking for a managing director in 1903, he didn’t need to be asked twice. What a challenge for the tailor from Neumarkt! The daily turnover at the Vegetarian Home was a full 35 francs at that time – and from that of course, the staff had to be paid (two kitchen maids, a waitress and a cook). The cook Martha Gneupel had grown up in a strictly vegetarian family in Saxony. She ran the kitchen and helped with the service. Thanks to rising sales Ambrosius Hiltl eventually took over operations in 1904. Shortly afterwards he married Martha Gneupel and they had two sons and a daughter. In 1907 Ambrosius Hiltl bought the property at 28 Sihlstrasse, much to the surprise of friends who asked why he was buying a building outside the city (the area between the Bahnhofstrasse and Sihlstrasse was then a small forest, and there was an old cemetery and the St-Anna Chapel in front of the building). By 1909 the Hiltl family had attained citizen’s rights in Zurich, and in 1925 the restaurant was redesigned for the first time.
It is interesting that almost simultaneously with Hiltl’s discovery of vegetarian cuisine, Dr. Max Bircher-Benner opened a clinic at Zurichberg, curing patients with a meatless diet. Both Bircher-Benner and Hiltl understood food not as something separate in itself but in the context of culture and lifestyle. So Ambrosius Hiltl was in no way opposed to the pleasures of good food. This is testified Dr. Ralph Bircher, the son of Max Bircher-Benner who wrote the following on Ambrosius Hiltl’s 90th birthday: "Here stands the ninety-year-old pioneer of vegetarian hospitality. Ambrosius Hiltl, and he is the exact opposite of how the world might like to describe such people; robust, vital and jovial like no one of his age, a successful man of the world, and anything but a pale, narrow-chested and humorless misfit."
"My grandfather was a cosmopolitan and a man of many interests," Heinz Hiltl recalled. "He liked to travel, mingled with the guests and knew how to create an atmosphere in which artists, politicians and intellectuals felt comfortable and inspired." This tradition has been preserved – celebrities of all kinds are to be found in the restaurant at Sihlstrasse.
In 1926, exactly on her twentieth birthday, Margrith Rubli started work as a service employee at the Hiltl family restaurant. On the occasion of her eightieth birthday, Margrith still remembered the exact working conditions of that time. She used to be at the restaurant every day from 7am to 9.30pm, with an unpaid 1 ½ hour afternoon break halfway through her shift. Free time consisted of half a day per week. The monthly wage was 60 francs plus room and board. For holidays, one had five days per year - and although a regular coffee only cost only 25 cents, one couldn’t have gone very far on that salary!
In 1931 the restaurant was rebuilt and extended to the first floor. Leonhard Hiltl (son of Ambrosius Hiltl and who later became Margrith Rubli’s husband) drew the plans for the renovation. Though he would rather have become an architect, he completed a pastry chef apprenticeship for the sake of the family business. It was due to his initiative that Hiltl established the first all-electric commercial kitchen in Zurich in the same year - a sensation that made the headlines not only among Swiss culinary experts. At the same time his brother Walter joined the company as a chef, where he worked for 40 years. Cooking was done mostly according to the recipes of mother Martha Hiltl. Vegetarians were still regarded with skepticism at the time and were even ridiculed as being nutcases: He who ate no meat was not a real man.
In 1933 Leonhard Hiltl married the service employee Margrith Rubli and together they led the vegetarian restaurant with commitment. In 1951 Margrith Hiltl traveled as an official Swiss delegate to the World Vegetarian Congress in Delhi. Indians would always return to Hiltl, for in conventional Swiss gastronomy they were faced with a poor choice of dishes. In most restaurants, hash browns or vegetable platters were always the same plain alternatives to meat. Hiltl must have seemed to them like an oasis, as Margrith Hiltl advised the foreign guests. No wonder friendly relations also developed from these exchanges. In this way, Margrith Hiltl gained insight into the fascinating and diverse world of Indian cuisine, whilst visiting acquaintances in India.
Full of enthusiasm, Margrith returned from India. What could be more natural than to transform her discoveries into actions? She decided guests should also be able to order Indian food at Hiltl. From the start, Margrith Hiltl knew this would be a welcome enhancement and expansion to the menu. However, curry, coriander, turmeric, jeera and cardamom were not so easy to find in Zurich in the 1950s. Therefore, Indian friends brought exotic spices and ingredients with them on their trips to Switzerland. But these Indian dishes found no favor with the kitchen staff at first. Nobody would eat such foreign substances, they mocked, and simply refused to cook it. But Margrith Hiltl didn’t let this stop her. In her private kitchen she prepared the Indian specialties until one of her female cooks took over their preparation. Initially, Indian food was only made by special order. But as more and more Indian guests returned to Hiltl and as Swissair asked if Hiltl could also provide food for Indian passengers, resistance was finally overcome among the staff.
When Leonhard Hiltl died in 1959 at the age of only 53, Margrith Hiltl took over the management of the business. She was actively supported by her son Heinz. "For my mother, the restaurant became a substitute family. She was like a mother to her employees," Heinz Hiltl recalled. Margrith Hiltl was still interested in the business at the age of eighty and looked in on it every day. "But she always let me run things and didn’t interfere in my management, and for that I am grateful," said her son.
"It was very difficult for me to retreat to the second rank and let my son contribute more and more to the company’s management. As Rolf entered into our business, I was only 53," commented Heinz Hiltl (1937-2001) regarding the handover to his son Rolf. And he can be taken at his word, since he had kept suggesting innovations in the industry until the very transition. But for once a senior advisor was able to release his grasp without any unnecessary turbulence. "If you have a successor charging forward, then one cannot put the brakes on him without having him run out of steam."
Years of learning and traveling, as his son Rolf had done after completion of his training, remained topics of wishful thinking for Heinz Hiltl. After the early death of his father (Heinz was then just 22 years old), Heinz was expected to immediately support his mother in business after his hotelier management training. There are a few interesting parallels: Heinz first wanted to know – as Rolf did thirty years later – who, when and why people start to prefer vegetarian food. The study revealed that people under thirty are most willing to change their eating habits. As a young man, Heinz Hiltl was convinced of the ability to appeal to a younger audience and if possible, get rid of ideological heavy weight.
Between 1968 and 1969, Heinz Hiltl visited the first entrepreneurial seminars of the Swiss Hotel Association. "It was tremendously exciting. I met a lot of interesting people. The seminar incredibly inspired me and I was full of enthusiasm," he enthused. The city had continually expanded around the restaurant in recent decades. Though it was once located on the outskirts of the city, the restaurant was now in the centre. The guests continued to come from all directions, but many also worked in the office buildings nearby. Reason enough for Heinz Hiltl to implement his vision.
In 1973 after a spectacular renovation he opened the new "Hiltl Vegi". Especially attractive and new for Zurich's dining scene, there was now a salad bar and a wide range of natural juices. The "Indian Tea and Ravaya Corner" on the first floor was a son’s tribute to his mother, who had defied the odds and introduced Indian dishes to Hiltl, which had initially only been successful amongst Indians visiting Zurich, but which were later successfully adopted by the domestic audience. These new concepts paved the way for a wider audience. Hiltl Vegi had become a restaurant that was no different from others dining establishments except that it served only vegetarian dishes and was ahead of its time.
"I consciously avoided maximizing profits, deciding to optimize them instead. I always made sure my personal commitment within the company remained in accordance to my moral values. It was also important to me that business decisions were accepted by our family and that I could stand by my responsibilities before God about the manner my employees are treated. Because commercial success was only one of my personal goals in life," Heinz Hiltl recalled. As someone who cared not only about his own affairs, Heinz Hiltl was also actively involved in various committees and hospitality organizations. "These engagements took time, but they also gave me new impetus and I met many people in the industry,” he said.
Rolf Hiltl (born 1965) was interested in the family business even as a child, but he absolutely did not want to enter into his father’s business using the easy and more direct route. This is why he completed a culinary training at the Grand Hotel Dolder in Zurich, where fine French cuisine according to the grand master Escoffier was meticulously prepared – including meat of course. He wasn’t an overly zealous vegetarian anyways, but he still had to put up with significant teasing from his classmates due to his parents’ business.
After apprenticeship at the Dolder, he continued on to a hotellery school in Lausanne and travelled to San Francisco, Acapulco and Paris. Rolf Hiltl was full of plans and what he would have wished the most would have been to open a restaurant with a bar in San Francisco. But meanwhile the Hiltl Vegi on Sihlstrasse had become a bit inactive, although nevertheless popular. It needed some new ideas and a fresh breeze. His father Heinz Hiltl, who had shocked the professional world with his renovation in the early 1970s, specifically wanted to make new plans in cooperation with his successors.
Heinz’s daughter Sonja became a kindergarten teacher, but it was his son Rolf who gave up his international plans. "I think my father had trouble with me sometimes, because I was constantly changing things and always trying something new," he grins. "But for us Swiss, everything always takes so long." Rolf Hiltl's motto is quite American: trial and error, the name of the game is to make attempts and to constantly improve.
Actually, the great-grandson of founder Ambrosius Hiltl could have relied on his intuition: A study was conducted in 1990 which confirmed his suspicion that the public concept of vegetarianism had fundamentally changed. The image of heroic restraint was replaced by the idea of lustful denial and eating little or no meat was now “in style”. But meatless eating is neither joyless nor dull - on the contrary: the modern ‘part-time’ vegetarian is a foodie who combines healthy eating with enjoyment. This trend fully supports the current Hiltl concept. Fine wines and spirits, aromatic teas and coffee are of course also included on the menu. In 1993 Rolf Hiltl’s bistro style reconstruction signaled the new importance of vegetarian cuisine.
Nowadays, one can go out in the evening and eat refined, fresh and delicious cuisine in a vegetarian restaurant - this pleasure was almost unthinkable until recently. Today it is taken for granted. Of all the guests that are served in Hiltl, about two-thirds are women. "Women have always been conscious of their eating habits and more open to new things," cites Rolf Hiltl in his study of the future. "For us it was therefore an important goal to increase the proportion of men to women.” This has been partially achieved, as more and more men from nearby offices come to enjoy lunch at Hiltl.
On 1 January 1998 – one hundred years after the founding of the first vegetarian restaurant in the world – Rolf Hiltl took over the company and thus full responsibility over its operations from his parents. He probably could not have imagined at the time how quickly popularity for meatless cuisine would rise. Accordingly, repeated requests for further Hiltl enterprises from home and abroad were made. In 2000, together with their business partners, the Frei brothers, Hiltl opened the first “tibits by Hiltl” by the Zurich Opera House. Meanwhile, four more "tibits" were developed in Switzerland (Zurich Seefeld, Winterthur, Bern and Basel), all of which enjoy great popularity (www.tibits.ch). In addition to these, a first branch abroad was opened in London (www.tibits.co.uk).
Since 1898, Haus Hiltl has been personally maintained and cared for by the Hiltl family and will continue to be so for many years to come. Thanks to great popular reception, Rolf Hiltl continuously deals with the improvement and expansion of the parent company.
In the spring of 2007, Hiltl was reopened after a year of reconstruction and temporary location at Paradeplatz.
In 2016 a Hiltl establishment including a coffee shop, casual dining, takeaway and lounge bar with 100 indoor seats, as well as an outdoor seating area will open in the Sihlpost, by Zurich’s main station, on 250 square-meter premises. The interior will be characterized by original counters and post office boxes from its days as a post office in the 1930s, which were acquired by Hiltl over 15 years ago, in the hope that such historical pieces could one day return to their original location.
Meanwhile, and five years after the renovations of 2007, the restaurant was again upgraded and expanded. Haus Hiltl now invites you in for healthy enjoyment from early morning until late at night. In addition to a full-service restaurant, self-service and takeaway, lounge bar, club, cooking studio and shop, seminar rooms have now been added. Outside of the headquarters, homemade specialties are available at events and unique takeaway locations catered by Hiltl. And what’s the next expansion? It’s written in the stars, but Marielle and Rolf Hiltl have three children, and with Céline, Léna and Téo the possibilities of Hiltl’s fifth-generation remain intact...
Hiltl Ancestry Wall - Our Museum
As an honor to our ancestors, we have created a 15-meter long mosaic with more than 1500 photos from Hiltl’s 116 year history on the first floor of Haus Hiltl. The Hiltl ancestry wall is an extensive collection of images from the four generations of the Hiltl family.
Here together for the first time are the most memorable moments and personalities from 1898 to the present day. Stories, impressions, milestones and highlights are presented as an embroidered tapestry to ensure they’ll never be forgotten.
Augmented reality is a combination of perceived and computer-generated reality. The Hiltl ancestry wall features selected images with augmented reality content. By scanning the corresponding images using a free app (ex. Junaio), the information becomes visible on your device’s display. The ancestry wall is constantly enriched with new content and therefore remains interesting on a long-term basis for the viewer.