The Chalet restaurant - the early days.

The Chalet restaurant - the early days.

The Polish Godfather

A story about family determination: Kitimat’s restaurant empire

By Walter Thorne

Ted Drabik and his young wife Doris arrived in Vancouver with just $20 to their name with no idea what was in store for them. They were ideal immigrants – hard working and willing to try anything.

They tried cooking, housekeeping, gardening, Ted even trying his hand at being a brewery worker before he landed a job in far off Kemano in the wilds of northwestern B.C.

Ted, originally from Poland, met Doris in post-war Germany while working for the American Army. They were soon planning a future together, to get away from Germany and start a new life in Canada.

Ted’s first job in the north was as a heavy-duty mechanic which entailed working on the tunnel and power lines for Morrison Knudsen, (the company for which MK Bay Marina is named). Initially, Doris stayed on in Vancouver worked as a door-to-door cosmetics salesperson, and then as an operator for BC Telephone.

Ted’s hard work and ambition allowed him to prosper – before long he was in Kitimat, with a new job and a home on Starling St. in the new ‘Aluminum City’. Likewise, Doris transferred in from Vancouver and carried on as a telephone operator at the telephone office in Nechako. By 1953, Karin was born and Christine – a Hospital Beach baby – followed in 1957.

Within 10 years the Drabiks had a family, two good jobs, a car, a Lakelse property and a thirst for more. They weren’t scared by the odd roadblock, including when the aluminum market crashed in 1956 and Alcan imposed large lay-offs. While the crash scared many, the Drabiks saw an opportunity.

Besides empty houses and fewer jobs the downturn meant a vacant store in Kitimat’s City Centre which Ted and Doris purchased – it was their first real venture as entrepreneurs.

They opened up Doris’ Delicatessen and never looked back. It became a great success and within two years the annual sales were topping out at over $110,000, very impressive numbers for the early 60s. The delicatessen was destined to become one of Kitimat’s longest-running businesses, open for more than five decades.

The Drabik’s were seen as a real rags-to-riches success story – model immigrants and proud Canadians – and were written up in a feature in the Vancouver Province.

Business was a success but the marriage was not. Doris and Ted separated, Ted staying in Kitimat and raising their two daughters and Doris moving to Terrace working for B.C. Telephone until her retirement near Parksville.

Ted was a dedicated father – both Karin and Christine say their dad had a vision both for himself and his town. He was a man of the community becoming a Mason and a key member of Kiwanis.

He had a dream of one day opening a restaurant, which he did when the opportunity first presented itself – the Chalet Restaurant became a reality, in stages.

Believe it or not, but Ted purchased the rehabilitated site of Kitimat’s first graveyard for Kitimat’s finest place to dine, for only $2,000. After the seven residents of the graveyard were relocated to the new cemetery at the northeastern highway entrance to the town, Ted began cementing a foundation for his restaurant.

The building was a new modular panabode which was supposed to be the clubhouse for the golf course that had been started down at the tidewater flats by the Old Anderson Farm right close to where the Eurocan causeway was later to be located.

The clubhouse went up for auction and Ted put in the highest bid, which Ted and his buddies soon began dismantling. One dark night they ended up smuggling the clubhouse across the new Haisla Bridge to its current location – the mini-golf course was added in 1966, modelled after a course Doris and Ted visited in Austria while on vacation.

After the panabode was attached to its foundation, a significant number of windows were added. When the dust settled Ted had a magnificent restaurant ready to seat up to 80 diners.

Ted searched far and wide for the best European cooks, like Tony, the first cook at the Chalet, who later became head of the culinary department at BCIT in Vancouver.

And Deitmar, a talented chef who created the International Menu which changed little over the decades and who crafted dazzling ice sculptures.

Ted became known as the ‘Polish Godfather,’ always the well-dressed gentleman promoter known for his fine suits and beaver hats who over the years successfully sponsored nearly 30 refugees from Poland and across Europe.

As the years rolled by the Chalet grew ever bigger – a coffee shop was built in an eastern addition and a larger subterranean nightclub, known as the Little Brown Jug, followed.

The nightclub operated on Friday and Saturday nights from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. There were fine times had by many, especially considering that Ted, with his Vancouver connections, was able to book live bands and exotic dancers (one renowned exotic dancer performed a risqué champagne glass special).

Ted’s ambitions had no bounds – with the Chalet Restaurant, coffee shop, cabaret and mini-golf park flourishing, Ted added a motel to the eastern portion of his property in 1974.

As a single parent for most of those years, Ted did well. He included his girls in every aspect of the food industry, starting with them folding tablecloths and napkins, and setting tables. I’ve often wondered whether Karin and Christine considered other careers, or were they ‘conscripted’ by their dad and evolved into restaurateurs?

By 1980 Ted was ready for another challenge – when the Tastee Freeze drive-in site became available on Kuldo Blvd. he went for it. He named the new restaurant Rosario’s after the original chef – the name has stuck and is still in place nearly forty years later.

While Ted took a keen interest in his third eatery, balancing all his businesses, he never stopped dreaming and continued giving to the community. He was always willing to help others even when the arrangements didn’t always work out as planned.

Amongst his business ventures over the years was a pet store called Peaches and Pets which he operated in the City Centre Mall in the mid-’80s, named partly after his pet cockatoo Peaches.

Ted always believed Kitimat had a bright future and worked tirelessly to make sure it happened. Sadly, he never got to see Kitimat’s recent industrial resurgence for which he would have been an enthusiastic cheerleader.

Ted passed away in 1989, leaving a number of properties and commitments hanging in the balance.

His daughters, who shared their father’s vision for the town, regrouped and redoubled their efforts to keep their father’s dreams alive.

Both daughters dropped what they were doing, took a crash course in business management and got right down to managing two fine restaurants. It wasn’t easy but they did it and did Kitimat proud – countless fine meals and celebrations have been enjoyed by an appreciative public.

Through it all, Ted it seems has been supervising from above. He would certainly be proud and comforted to know that the Kitimat restaurant empire that he fashioned, endures. Even though the Chalet was sold, its name and traditions of quality food lives on – the Drabik International Menu is still at the Chalet, as is the odd beer stein.

Ted never regretted coming to Kitimat. Perhaps it was destiny, but we know he would be beaming with satisfaction knowing that his girls carried the torch when he was gone.

Through the years of managing, cooking, serving and doing all that is needed to keep a restaurant business thriving, they never lost their respect for their dad and they never lost their talent and love of cooking.

Few people know that they both still love to cook and entertain, and on their days off they have taken turns trying out new recipes that could be used on the menu.

Like their dad before them, Christine and Karin see a bright future for Kitimat, complete with fine restaurants. For now, Ted’s legacy lives on at Rosario’s and at the Chalet.

If Ted was the Restaurant King then surely his two daughters are Queens.

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Ted Drabik.

Ted Drabik.

Karin and Christine Drabik continued their father’s legacy. (Photo supplied)

Karin and Christine Drabik continued their father’s legacy. (Photo supplied)