After nearly 40 years of cooking comfort food in the corner unit of a Surrey strip mall, Walter Wolff isn’t ready to slow down just yet.
“That’s my one day off,” Wolff said with a laugh as he toured the Now-Leader through the self-serve diner he began setting up in 1980, before Whalley became the heart of a large city.
“I liked Surrey, which was like a little city but it grows all the time,” Wolff recalled. “At the time I came here, I said it was small but I will grow with the city, and it worked out this way.”
Originally from Germany, Wolff moved to Montreal to be a chef during Expo 67 before a trip west to Edmonton. By 1970 he opened the first Fresgo Inn in Vancouver’s West End, but sold it eight years ago to focus on his Surrey location.
Off King George Boulevard, the deceptively large, 12,000-square-foot space is where he and his staff make and bake most things in-house – bread, buns, hamburger patties, cakes, Shepherd’s pie, cabbage rolls and more.
The mountainous mushroom burger is “legend,” Wolff agrees, but another dish is the top-seller at a joint where dieters probably find it difficult to order.
“The things we make, they are individual, you know,” Wolff explained. “Nobody makes cabbage rolls, or liver. Nobody sells that any more, but we do – it’s a big seller! My top seller is schnitzel. For 30 years I didn’t put it on (the menu), but now you can’t find it anywhere else. I sell Shepherd’s pie, I sell stew – comfort food, yeah, and people come in for a coffee or a big meal, we treat them the same.”
Lately, COVID-19 has soured business at Fresgo Inn and other B.C. restaurants, due to provincial health orders that prevent groups of non-“bubble” people from gathering for a meal, according to Wolff.
His diner was closed for three months last spring, in the early days of the pandemic, and reopened in June.
“The business was not bad in the summer, but now with the new regulations it’s taken a dive down,” Wolff said on a late-November afternoon. “Right now you cannot associate with friends in a restaurant, only relatives. And you see, that cuts 50 per cent down. Most of the time you go to a restaurant with friends, to socialize.
“I had good times, but now is a little bit of a tough time, harder,” he added. “It’s like the high sea, you don’t know when the wave will hit.”
The cooking bug bit Wolff at age 14 when he began training in the culinary arts. His journey from Germany to Montreal in the ’60s opened a door to Canada that later involved work at the airport in Richmond, with Cara Operations, now known as Recipe Unlimited.
“I decided to go on my own, my own restaurant, and that was Fresgo,” he recalled, “but it was very small. I had only 12 chairs and three tables when I started out (in the West End).”
The restaurant name combined the words “fresh” and “go,” Wolff noted.
A North Vancouver resident, he’s OK with the daily drive to Whalley because it’s against traffic. “Just 30 minutes, nothing,” Wolff said.
His wife has passed, and his kids aren’t interested in the restaurant business.
“You have to be a stupid immigrant, then it’s good,” Wolff said with a laugh.
“It’s in your blood, the restaurant business,” he added. “If you don’t like it, you better go out of it right away, because there is no big money – only the people. You know, the people you talk to, they’re all like friends, most of them – 99 per cent.… I have lots of regulars, and they keep me alive, now in the bad time.”
Three of his employees were with him for close to 40 years, but all retired over the past couple of years.
“But I have good people, the staff,” he said. “Like anything else, 98 per cent of people are good, but there’s always that two per cent, you know.”
Asked about his own retirement plans, Wolff gets cagey.
“I’m getting older, up there too, and you can only do so much,” he said. “I turn 77 pretty soon, still frisky.
“I’ve got no plan for the retirement,” he added. “My customers always ask me, but as long as I feel good, healthy, I like to come here. If I get sick or something, then that’s another story. I like to do it, especially now that this is a new challenge. I couldn’t sell it – who’s gonna buy a restaurant?”
Wolff laughed some more.
“Til I’m dead I like to do this.”