Hy Aisenstat (pronounced eye–zen–stat) was born in Alberta in 1923, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. Hy’s family was like most new immigrant families: relatively poor, sometimes prosperous, and like most immigrants, Hy worked hard. He was admitted to the University of British Columbia as a pre–law student, but when his father was killed in a level crossing accident, Hy had to return to Calgary to support his family. Hy tried various professions and even owned a small oil company that did relatively well.
In the early ’50s, friends of Hy’s opened one of Alberta’s first full service steakhouses called The Steak Loft, in Edmonton. Hy saw an opportunity in Calgary’s underdeveloped restaurant market, and at the urging of his good friend Peter Bronfman, he took it. Hy found a location, raised about $20,000 and opened the first Hy’s Steakhouse over a women’s clothing store in 1955.
Succeeding on Personality
Hy knew next to nothing about running a restaurant. But with the help of his girlfriend, Barbara Mathewson, who soon became his wife, and Chef Fritz Dobernig, Hy’s succeeded slowly but surely. The very first night, there was only a party of four. The next night, there were 8 customers, and it grew from there.
Barbara would later say that it was her husband’s charming and gregarious personality that made up for the restaurant’s early shortcomings, like burlap–covered chairs that necessitated low lighting. “People just loved to see him,” she would always say. With nothing more than word of mouth marketing, the first Hy’s was a success. The business Hy thought would be a sideline to his profession as a stockbroker became his calling for the next 33 years.
The Business and the Family Expand
By 1958, Hy opened a branch in Winnipeg in collaboration with his friends at The Steak Loft. In 1960, Hy and Barbara moved the family to Vancouver and opened the first Vancouver location, Hy’s at the Sands in the city’s West End neighbourhood. A few years later they expanded to Hy’s Encore Steakhouse in downtown Vancouver, which was the first Hy’s to open for lunch. The Encore is still at the same location today. Though it has been updated, it retains much of its original décor from the early ’60s as designed by Arthur Fishman.
Many more locations opened across Canada and in the United States between the ’60s and ’80s: Lethbridge, Victoria, Saskatoon, Regina, two locations in Toronto, Chicago, Ottawa and Beverly Hills; there was even a pub and a prime rib restaurant. Hy’s was publicly traded for about ten years on the Vancouver and Toronto stock exchanges and for a while, offered a Hy’s credit card.
Business was so good that by the early ’70s, when Barbara returned to work after having raised sons David, Neil and John, Hy launched Hy’s Fine Foods Ltd, which produced coffee, sauces and seasonings. Much of Hy’s and Barbara’s family joined in to help the enterprise, running locations and working the front and back of the restaurants.
Hy’s also invested in a casual dining steakhouse chain founded by Hy’s friend George Tidball. In 1971, it was called The Keg and Cleaver but it’s known today as The Keg.
The Changing of the Guard
When Hy passed in 1988, the business was restructured with Barbara and Hy’s three sons as sole owners, and David, Hy’s oldest son, as President and CEO.
The three Aisenstat brothers continued to focus on the Canadian market, having sold the US locations. They opened a location in Whistler, relocated Hy’s Winnipeg, and spectacularly redesigned the Toronto location to reinterpret the tradition of rich steakhouse décor.
When Barbara passed in 2008, the business was owned equally by the Aisenstat sons. Today, Neil as President and John as Executive Vice President run the business together with their partner Rob Macdonald.
A Family Business Continues
Hy’s has always been about family, but that doesn’t only mean the Aisenstats. The Hy’s family includes everyone who has ever worked at Hy’s, and all our loyal customers. The staff of Hy’s love what they do and tend to stay for a while. Our customers are part of the family too — with many being the third or fourth generation to dine with us.