Sundridge and area residents had a chance to bid farewell to the former owner of the popular Steirerhut Restaurant.
About 50 of Wilfried Eska's former customers met and showered him with gifts at the Sundridge Royal Canadian Legion branch after the restaurant was forced to close in September.
The building is owned by the Non-Profit Organization for Almaguin Highlands (NOAH).
Eska told The Nugget he was informed by NOAH Sept. 10 that due to a leaking sewage pipe in the basement, no one could be allowed in the building for health and safety reasons.
Eska also told The Nugget when he offered to cover the repairs, he was instructed by NOAH that he was not allowed to do anything to the building without the organization's written permission.
The Nugget reached out to NOAH for comment and the organization's chair, Bill Atkinson, said he would not be able to comment on the matter just yet.
Eska, who is 65, decided then to retire from the restaurant business.
The Steirerhut Restaurant's exterior resembles a castle.
Records show it was built in 1881 and may be the oldest building in Sundridge.
Council is attempting to get a Heritage Designation for the building.
The building has seen numerous uses during the 140 years that it's been around, including serving as one of the area's go-to restaurants for a unique food experience under Eska.
Eska is originally from Austria.
He and his now ex-wife arrived in Sundridge from Austria in late 2003 because his former spouse's parents lived in Sundridge at the time.
From the moment the Eskas arrived they began working on opening the Steirerhut Restaurant and the outlet opened for business in February, 2004.
Eska had no experience prior to the opening on how to run a restaurant.
As a young man he sold paint, wallpaper and curtains in his native country and then took over the family tobacco business after his dad passed away and his mother retired.
He sold tobacco for 25 years but Eska said it became boring.
“You saw the same people every day,” Eska recalled.
“You saw their faces and knew exactly what they would want and what they would talk about. I decided then, I wanted to do something else.”
The Eskas decided to make the move to Sundridge with the goal of opening a restaurant.
Up to this point Eska's only restaurant-related experience was helping a friend who owned an Irish pub in Austria by occasionally cooking meals for his customers.
Eska loves to cook and wasn't intimidated that he had no knowledge about the inner workings of a restaurant and that he may be embarking on a risky venture.
“When you want to do something, you don't think about the risk, you just do it,” Eska said.
And that's exactly what he did, learning about the business on the run.
“I learn by doing,” he said.
“If you put a book in front of me, I can't learn. But let me do it and I get it.”
However, Eska did have something valuable to fall back on when it came to the types of dishes he would serve.
His grandmother was a cook in a restaurant and over the years she wrote down her recipes in a book.
Eska acquired the hand-written recipes and is proud to say that every meal the Steirerhut served was homemade with no industrial prepared food.
Over the years, the word spread that this small restaurant in Sundridge was a unique experience.
Eska's customers were not only from the Almaguin Highlands.
People also came from the Parry Sound region, Magnetawan, Huntsville, Bracebridge, Barrie, North Bay, Sudbury and the Temagami area.
Eska said he was surprised by NOAH's decision that he would have to close the restaurant and he was disappointed he wasn't given the chance to carry out the repair work.
After getting the closure notice, he began to sell off the restaurant equipment he owned and added he lost money as a result of the closure.
Eska became emotional at his farewell party because he got to know many of his customers over the years and Sundridge became his second home.
Eska plans to return to Austria to spend some time with his mother.
However, he told well-wishers at his farewell party he would return to Sundridge, although he wasn't sure exactly when.
East Parry Sound Community Support Services organized Eska's going away party.
This organization provides a number of services throughout the area and one of them is a seniors subsidized luncheon.
Community Support Services has regularly held a number of luncheons across the region but by far the seniors’ luncheon at the Steirerhut Restaurant dominated because of the huge number of people it could accommodate.
The program coordinator for Community Support Services, Leslie Price, says the closure of the Steirerhut is going to have an impact on the area.
The Steirerhut continued the seniors luncheons during the COVID-19 lockdowns by switching to a take-out style service making it the only facility that continued to provide the lunch for seniors.
Price notes the closure of the Steirerhut will have another effect on seniors.
The restaurant was the meal provider for Community Support Services' Meals-On-Wheels program for the Sundridge-South River area.
Now it becomes necessary to see if it's possible to find a replacement provider.
Price says Eska went above and beyond when catering the needs of the area seniors.
She says Eska made sure they didn't go hungry and that their nutritional needs were met.
Rocco Frangione is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the North Bay Nugget. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.
Rocco Frangione, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The North Bay Nugget