Former Swissair cook Walter Mittler has devised an unusual but simple recipe for success that keeps American tourists flocking to his alpine hotel.
Be grumpy, make lots of rules, serve the same food over and over again, and offer rooms with some of the best views in the Alps.
A sign prominently displayed inside the Hotel Mittaghorn says breakfast is served between 7.30am and 9am - not a minute earlier or later.
Dinner is at 7.30pm precisely and alternates between chicken with rice and spaghetti – take it or leave it.
As for showers, the hotel has just one. It takes SFr1 coins to operate but not, as the sign warns, “20 or 50 centimes pieces”.
Walter, as the 79-year-old man is known to his guests, sets the menu and cooks the food, cleans the rooms and makes all the rules at the hotel, located in the sleepy Bernese Oberland village of Gimmelwald.
“He seems to be a bit grumpy when you first go in,” says Victor Wilcocks, a middle-aged American traveller, “but he’s quite kind when you get to know him.”
Walter and his hotel became an instant hit with Americans when, a decade or so ago, the celebrated travel writer Rick Steves decided to promote Gimmelwald in his “Europe: Through the Back Door” series (see related item).
Steves described the hotel as a “classic, creaky, alpine-style place with memorable beds, ancient down comforters and a million-dollar view of the Jungfrau Alps”.
Walter is, according to Steves, “a perfect Swiss gentleman” who is “careful not to let his place get too hectic or big”.
Such praise has given Walter cult status among his guests and lets him get away with anything - even serving spaghetti and chicken every night.
Even though Walter is a man of few words, his guests all agree that the quirky atmosphere at the hotel is one reason why they keep coming back.
“When I first came here I saw the sign saying ‘today chicken’ and ‘tomorrow spaghetti’,” says a young American woman, remembering her first visit.
“Then I noticed he just flips the sign over and on the other side it says ‘today spaghetti’ and ‘tomorrow chicken’.”
“When people ask us if we just got here, we tell them we’ve had 70 spaghettis and 70 chickens,” laughs retired engineer Ed Meyer. “Walter refers to us as the Americans who won’t go home.”
“Walter is a perfect gentleman and after you get to know him you begin to appreciate how knowledgeable he is about a lot of things,” Meyer adds, while waiting for his 71st plate of spaghetti. “We’re here because of Walter, mostly.”
A British software engineer, who is helping Walter in the kitchen, also touches on the “congenial” atmosphere of the Hotel Mittaghorn.
Tim Knight comes to Gimmelwald every year, often staying the entire summer, to paraglide and hike. He’s been a regular at Walter’s for 18 years.
“It’s an ideal location,” he explains, while piling another plate high with spaghetti. “I can fly off the hill behind the hotel and land down in the valley.”
Room and board at the Hotel Mittaghorn is not expensive, costing about SFr50 ($37) per person for bed, breakfast and dinner.
However, even at these modest prices, Walter is able to turn a handsome profit, most of which he gives to charity.
Over the past 15 years, he has donated almost $300,000 to development aid projects in Ecuador.
“I pay my taxes and I give what’s leftover directly to projects in an Indio community in Ecuador,” he explains.
As he sees it, the money comes from America, so he wants it to go back to the Americas to aid people less fortunate than his guests.
Walter’s money has helped build roads in the Indian community, set up a carpentry shop and radio station, and delivered clean drinking water.
Newspaper clippings about the development projects line the staircase leading up to the spartan rooms, but none of the guests stay at Walter’s out of a sense of charity.
“I really wanted to visit another place in Switzerland this time, but I came back here,” says the young American. “I just liked it so much the first time.”
swissinfo, Dale Bechtel in Gimmelwald
The Hotel Mittaghorn is owned and operated by 79-year-old Walter Mittler.
It is one of a handful of small inns and bed and breakfast-style accommodation in Gimmelwald.
Gimmelwald and the hotel were put on the map by the American travel writer, Rick Steves.
The hotel has double rooms, triples, family size rooms and a loft used as a dormitory.
Price per person is around SFr35 ($26), including breakfast. Dinner (spaghetti or chicken) is optional at SFr15 ($11).
In compliance with the JTI standards