The Rex Hotel in Zermatt, Switzerland, takes on a completely new approach
Entrepreneurial couple turns their third-generation family hotel upside down
Wellness hotel, natural wine bar, farm-to-table restaurant, and sourdough bakery. The Rex in Zermatt is a place you'd expect in an urban setting like London or Berlin. Yet the contrast is stark: The Rex is nestled in one of the narrow, car-free streets of the winter sports haven Zermatt in the Swiss Alps. Most hotels here have remained unchanged for decades, but not The Rex. Behind this unique hotel concept is a young Swiss entrepreneurial couple who operate with innovation front and center. Food Inspiration spoke with them.
Perfectly tucked at the base of the iconic Matterhorn, this quaint mountain village with six thousand residents welcomes two million tourists a year. And with evidence of climate change mounting, tourists are increasingly flocking to higher-altitude ski areas to enjoy a snow-guaranteed vacation. Young hoteliers Armand Aufdenblatten and Martina Eha run The Rex, a third-generation family hotel in Zermatt, Switzerland. Leading a traditional hotel was never their life plan. In trying to do things differently they decided to transform the slightly outdated hotel into a concept they believed in, where a sourdough bakery and a Norwegian chef play a pivotal role. Their initial journey was rocky; six months into their opening, they faced a deluge of one-star reviews until locals and guests slowly began to grasp their vision.
Facts & figures
The Rex in Zermatt, Switzerland
Third-generation family owned hotel
Managed by entrepreneurs Armand Aufdenblatten and Martina Eha
Kitchen led by Chef Thomas Haugstvedt
Key concept pillars: healing environment, nature, health, wellness
Hotel The Rex
Backzeit, a sourdough bakery
Stockhorn, a grill restaurant with a woodfire oven
Summer garden restaurant Gartenkraut
Natural wine bar Weinzeit
Spa & Wellness
How did your adventure at The Rex begin?
Aufdenblatten: "I was never keen on taking over the hotel. I went to boarding school, traveled a lot, lived and worked abroad. I never contemplated returning to manage the family hotel, even though I chose hotel school studies. The Rex was built by my grandfather and later managed by my parents for many years. It was a traditional family hotel with 80 to 90% returning guests. They came for the known experience and the hospitality of my parents, who knew every returning guest by name."
"When my father passed away unexpectedly in 2019, everything changed. I decided if I could reshape the family hotel into something true to myself, I would go for it. Viewing it as a project, not just a hotel, energizes me. It's much more than a hotel - it's multiple concepts combined. I still have many ideas to add to the project but lack the time to implement them all. That's why I love rapid iterations: we try something, learn from it, and adjust."
What changes did you implement after taking over?
Aufdenblatten: "The first change was to introduce contemporary food and beverage offerings. I wanted to explore how I could bring healthy living and natural eating to the menu, as those are values dear to me. It was essential to include this in the concept. To test my culinary vision, we first launched a pop-up restaurant with the artist collective ONA. It was instantly successful. Through this collaboration, I met Thomas Haugstvedt, a Norwegian chef and baker with extensive experience in French kitchens. He's now our lead chef for the restaurants, and the head baker in our sourdough bakery. I've visited many hotels worldwide, but I've never tasted bread as delicious as Thomas'. Together with Martina and Thomas, we designed the three pillars for the new concept: food and drink, wellness, and healing nature. We started the sourdough bakery, modernized the rooms, shifted to a more exclusive service and higher price point, and purchased the neighboring restaurant."
How did you adjust the restaurant?
Aufdenblatten: "When the grill restaurant Stockhorn across the street went up for sale, we immediately bought it. The previous owner had been in business for thirty years and relied heavily on convenience products. The best-selling dish was the meat classic, Chateaubriand. We removed that first and transitioned to a 100% grill restaurant with organic meats, including unique cuts like beef tongue. Long-time patrons were baffled. The local community thought we were crazy to drastically change a successful concept. The initial six months were challenging, especially for our wait staff. They faced daily disgruntled and complaining guests. We received more one-star reviews in those six months than the previous owner had in all his years. But we believed in our concept and stood our ground."
How would you summarize The Rex's new concept?
Aufdenblatten: "It's truly a multi-concept. In addition to the Stockhorn grill restaurant, we have the Gartenkraut summer garden restaurant. We also have a natural wine bar and the sourdough bakery, Backzeit. Our wine bar focuses on natural and regional wines. Natural wine wasn't well-known here, and many guests didn't understand its taste profile. We select our wines based on quality and flavor. And of course, as with other wines, there are good and bad natural wines. Gartenkraut is our testing ground in the summer. We experiment a lot with ingredients and preparations. The garden restaurant serves seasonal cocktails. Once elderflower season ends, for example, the Hugo cocktail is removed from the menu."
Haugstvedt: "The ingredients we purchase are 95% organic, seasonal, and local, with an emphasis on freshness and health. We utilize the entire animal, including the less popular parts. Instead of serving baguette with butter, we offer our own baked sourdough with chicken liver parfait. There are also unique regional products on our menu, such as locally-grown saffron produced in our village, and traditional red polenta from Ticino, which is a staple in many of our dishes. We prefer simple dishes made with special local ingredients. My dream is to run our own garden and farm, growing our own products, especially the old Swiss varieties that are almost forgotten and rarely produced. Then, we could truly be a farm-to-table restaurant."
If you experiment a lot, there must be failures. What idea did you abandon?
Aufdenblatten: "We were exploring an outdoor concept, given our beautiful garden. Initially, we wanted to serve smaller dishes and shared dining. This resulted in our garden filled with Aperol Spritz-drinking guests who complained about the small portions. Guests didn't appreciate the shared dining concept in a garden setting. We didn't want to become just another Aperol Spritz terrace, like you see everywhere. So we changed the concept. We ditched the Aperol Spritz from our beverage menu and introduced an open fire pit in the garden where we roast vegetables. We now serve simple comfort food dishes with our homemade seasonal cocktails."
"You're responsible for both the good and the bad experiences."
What is the bakery's role in your concept?
Aufdenblatten: “The bakery supplies sourdough products to all our dining venues and also delivers to seven other hotels in the village. It was the failed quest for healthy, tasty bread that led us to start Backzeit. It wasn't an end in itself; if we could have bought fresh, quality bread locally, we wouldn't have started the bakery. It's become an unexpected success. We hadn't anticipated the marketing power of our small bakery. Everyone loves good bread, so they follow their noses to our place and then step right into the hotel. Once we explain why we have a bakery, guests immediately grasp our concept. Financially, the hotel is our money-maker, but the bakery is our marketing star."
What were the biggest challenges in the early years?
Haugstvedt: "Getting suppliers on board with our mission, along with retraining and educating, was my biggest challenge. When I started the restaurant, I wanted to use and serve the entire animal, which means both prime cuts and unconventional parts. In France, we called these ‘butcher-cuts.’ The local butcher didn’t know how to assist, as he was used to supplying steaks, tenderloins, and filets. The rest of the animal was turned into minced meat. Local craftsmen initially didn’t know how to handle our unusual requests. I found this wasn’t unique to our region, but that these products were hardly available throughout Switzerland. In the end, I showed the butcher exactly what cuts I wanted and how I needed certain parts prepared. It was a very intensive process."
Eha: "In the beginning, it was difficult to stay true to our vision and support our staff through the negative feedback. It's nerve-wracking to start a new concept based on your beliefs. When you constantly receive negative comments from guests, it's incredibly hard to persevere and keep your staff motivated. There were days we doubted ourselves. We could have taken the easy route, but Armand was convinced we should keep trying. I'm glad we stood our ground because now our persistence is paying off."
Aufdenblatten: "An important task for me was also creating a concept that didn’t solely rely on us as business owners. My parents were truly at the heart of the hotel. Everyone knew them by name, and guests came in part for them. Looking at how I want to run things, and considering a healthy business model, that approach doesn’t work for me. So, we choose to have structured processes that allow for excellent service that doesn’t depend on us. This means we invest a lot in training our staff because they are crucial to the five-star service we aim to provide. But that takes time."
How do you find staff that aligns with your mission?
Eha: "So far, finding staff for The Rex hasn’t been an issue. I think it’s because our concept is different. Our network of natural winemakers, farmers, and sourdough baker friends bring us many potential hires who apply to The Rex. Our employees genuinely choose us; they’re inspired by the concept and our focus on natural ingredients. Before joining us, many have already initiated their own projects in this area. We give them space for their creativity. For instance, a natural winemaker’s daughter now works in our bakery. We hire based on character, not work experience. Typically, the first interview is with Armand, and he mainly looks for a shared energy. If there's a match, we can train them and teach them the required skills."
"We hire based on character, not on work experience."
Aufdenblatten: "The most significant challenge is finding housing for our staff. The rise of Airbnb has resulted in an extreme shortage of studio apartments for our staff. I spend a lot of time speaking with locals who own property, trying to find rooms and studios. It’s incredibly time-consuming, almost a full-time job."
What's it like doing business in a tourist town like Zermatt?
Aufdenblatten: "It's a small world, so you have to maintain a good relationship with everyone. Fortunately, my parents treated every supplier, partner, and service provider with great respect, and that pays off even today. A vivid example is how they always prepared a sandwich for the mail carrier who came by early in the morning. After we took over the business, the mail carrier admitted that he often didn't eat the sandwiches, but greatly appreciated the gesture. It showcased their immense dedication to the people they worked with. We still benefit from how well they treated the construction workers in our village. In a ski resort town like ours, all renovations and major maintenance must always happen between seasons. Everyone's doing it at the same time. It's invaluable to have an edge so you can get the work done on time. A lot of my time goes into building partnerships."
What is your dream for the hotel project?
Aufdenblatten: "I have so many ideas. We'd love to make the hotel more sustainable in terms of energy consumption. By insulating the roof last year, we're on the right track. Being a seasonal business, working towards our sustainability goals can be quite a challenge. We only have a limited time each year to earn money, and similarly, a limited time to work on such projects. Moreover, the costs to switch to heat pumps for heating are extremely high in this mountainous environment. Still, I continue to reinvest all the money we make back into the hotel, to make these kinds of dreams a reality."
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