At Kitchener hot spot, Oktoberfest spirit never ends

Cat from Edelweiss Tavern

Cat is one of the cheery staff members working at the Edelweiss Tavern.

KITCHENER, ONTARIO — Thousands gather each fall in this city formerly called Berlin for the largest Oktoberfest celebration outside of Munich. At the Edelweiss Tavern, though, the good times go all year, thanks to owner Lorne Miller and his insistence on generous customer service.

Here are Miller’s keys to success:

  • Spend all your marketing money on the client. That means no advertising in newspapers or on television, and more than the odd free beer for the regulars. “I have seven managers and all of them have a budget to buy customers beer or food. And they have to spend it. I insist that they spend it on the customers.”
  • Have a blast. “All of the waitresses here, I tell them, ‘You have to have fun. It’s part of your job.’”
  • Own up to your mistakes. “If we have a screw-up, we’ll pay for it. If your order doesn’t come out right, if there’s a complaint about the food and it’s our fault, we’ll make it right.”
  • Don’t be greedy. “Every year I spend $100,000 somewhere on the property. We were the first bar in the area to have 50-inch TV screens. Others in the business just put the money in their pocket.”
  • Be there. Miller says he’s at the bar every day, overseeing the operations that employ 76 people and can host up to 750.

Miller is 65 and has owned the bar for 39 years. What makes his longevity so astounding is the Edelweiss’s appearance. It’s in a strip mall that looks like the setting for “Clerks” and the tavern’s exterior is drab, grey-green wood shingles that Miller admits needs updating. The interior lighting is dark, like most of the old German bars in Kitchener, and the carpeting is also gloomy.

The first impression is that’s not a welcoming place. Then you meet the staff and Miller, and you realize that looks are not only deceiving, they’re unimportant to a lot of people. Miller manages to fill the Edelweiss despite bad economic conditions, the closing of nearby factories and the introduction of competitors to the market.

Lorne Miller of Edelweiss Tavern

Lorne Miller knows how to keep the customers happy.

“This business isn’t hard,” he declares. “It’s simple, really. You come here, you work hard, you treat the customers right and they’ll come back. I have some people who are in here every day. They’ll bring their family. We’ll buy them drinks, we’ll buy them dinner.”

It’s a local hangout, but one that has welcomed more than its share of Torontonians. Miller says he’s often hosted Pat Quinn, the Maple Leafs’ former coach and general manager, and even had the entire NHL team come in one year. Bands such as Blue Rodeo and the Barenaked Ladies have played in the Edelweiss’s largest banquet hall, and the kitchen operation does a brisk catering business, churning out more than 50 pounds of its delicious German potato salad a day.

The Edelweiss isn’t part of the official Oktoberfest celebrations, which in 2011 will be held in 13 halls throughout Kitchener-Waterloo, but it does feature a special menu for the two-week event that includes probably the best cabbage rolls you’ll find in Ontario and tasty sausages, pork schnitzel and sauerkraut.

“Some of the items are on the regular menu but we really have a lot of demand for the pigtails and cabbage rolls and sauerkraut during Oktoberfest,” Miller says.

Even though you won’t be collecting the president’s pins and may not see dirndls and lederhosen on display at the Edelweiss like you would at the official festhalls, the Oktoberfest spirit is alive year round in Miller’s joint.

Edelweiss Tavern Oktoberfest platter

Pork schnitzel, sausages, cabbage rolls, sauerkraut and potato salad — that's an Oktoberfest platter.

To tell you the truth, when I walked into the Edelweiss I wondered if the Waterloo Tourism Board had made a mistake in suggesting I visit. On first glance, I didn’t think it would be a place I would feel invited or one I would find unique. Miller, though, lived up to his reputation as a great host. He was comical, warm, exceedingly generous and genuine. You can tell he’s the type of host who likes to put on a big show but also wants to engender a collegial atmosphere — one people will speak well about. That’s probably why the Edelweiss’s 26-person kitchen churns out food that’s much better than the typical pub grub. It’s not German; Miller changed the tavern’s menu to be more mainstream years ago. It offers chicken wings, nachos and the other usual suspects, along with European-centric entrees. With its dependable, inexpensive food and happy staff and customers, it’s easy to see why you should put the Edelweiss on your list of places to drop into next time you’re in Kitchener-Waterloo. I’ll be back, and sooner than I might have thought upon opening the door.

DIRECTIONS: From Toronto, take Hwy 401 West to Exit 275 (Homer Watson Boulevard). After exiting, turn left onto Doon Village Road. The Edelweiss Tavern is in a strip mall on the left at 600 Doon Village Road. Tele: 519-748-0221; Email: Hours: Monday-Wednesday and Sunday 9 a.m.-midnight; Thursday 9 a.m.-1 a.m.; Friday and Saturday 9 a.m.-2 a.m.

NOTE: Copyrighted photos by Julia Pelish Photography; written material copyrighted by Adrian Brijbassi

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