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A legacy of supporting hospitality workers

Hy Aisenstat
Photo: Hy Aisenstat

Long before the success of his quintessential steakhouse chain, Hy Aisenstat tried his hand at various professions before opening the first Hy’s restaurant above a women’s clothing store in Calgary in 1955. By 1960, the family had expanded to Vancouver, where the iconic Hornby Street establishment recently celebrated its 60th anniversary.

For Hy, who came from a poor immigrant family and knew next to nothing about running a restaurant, launching the steakhouse was intended to simply be a means to an end. Neil Aisenstat, president and CEO of Hy’s and son of the restaurant tycoon, recalls that his father originally started the restaurant to pay for journalism school at the University of Chicago—little did Hy know that this side business would become his calling for the next three decades until his passing in 1988. 

To honour Hy’s incredible legacy, the Hy Aisenstat Memorial Scholarship was created at SFU through the generosity of his family, friends and colleagues. Since 1991, the scholarship has supported more than 100 people from the hospitality industry returning to school to pursue an SFU education. Spearheaded by close friends Sam Belzberg, who was instrumental in helping build the university’s downtown campus in Vancouver, and Ted Turton, the meaningful gift is a nod to Hy’s own journey of joining the hospitality workforce to finance his postsecondary education.

For Karlie Tessmer (BA ’20), who was a pastry chef for 10 years before shifting gears to pursue an undergraduate degree in sociology and anthropology at SFU, the scholarship was significant in alleviating stress around tuition. Karlie is now continuing her studies as a master’s student in sociology at the university, where she focuses on the impact of social housing during times of crisis. 

This scholarship was so rewarding given the many years I dedicated to the food and beverage industry. I love to bake; however, a life in academia has beaconed.

Another recipient, Talya Perla (BA ’22), worked as a server before and while completing her psychology degree, and now combines her passion for people and food in a talent acquisition role for a well-known restaurant group. While the scholarship supports an SFU student in any discipline, Neil notes that it’s especially gratifying to see talented people like Talya who help build the hospitality sector in different ways than they might have imagined. 

“The hospitality industry is a great place to meet amazing people and learn very valuable, transferrable skills,” says Talya. “It was inspiring to see a scholarship recognize hospitality workers specifically, as this is an often-overlooked sector in education.”

The Canadian hospitality industry has undoubtedly undergone major shifts over time, and the COVID-19 pandemic only posed new challenges. For Neil, this underlines the importance of investing in people through awards like the Hy Aisenstat Memorial Scholarship. 

“Hospitality workers are always taking care of others,” he says. “Our hope with this scholarship is to give some of that support back to them.”