Restaurant Awards Lifetime Achievement 2015

A keen business sense and respect for his forbears granted this year's winner his award

A keen business sense and respect for his forbears granted this year’s winner his award

“I grew up in the restaurant business,” says David Aisenstat, 58, son of the founder of the Hy’s Steakhouse chain. Upon graduation from the University of Western Ontario, he joined RJR Nabisco. After holding various corporate positions in Montreal, Toronto, and New York, he returned to the family business, becoming president of Hy’s after his father’s death in 1988.Aisenstat also served on the board of Keg Restaurants Ltd., founded in 1971 by his friend and mentor, George Tidball. In 1987, Tidball sold the company to Whitbread PLC, the British brewing and hospitality conglomerate, which wanted a beachhead in North America. For a decade, however, as the Brits tinkered with the concept, the Keg foundered. When they put it on the market in ’97, Aisenstat, with borrowed millions, bought it.At the time, there were 80 locations. With his head for business and lust for life, he returned the Keg to its roots—great meat, a solid wine list and prominent cocktail program—and doubled per-store revenue. Today, the 107 Keg locations in Canada and the U.S. generate more than half a billion dollars annually. In 2014, Aisenstat sold a 51 percent interest to Fairfax Financial for close to $100 million; he holds the remaining 49 percent and remains CEO. He also owns the Shore Club in Ottawa and Toronto, Ki in Calgary and Toronto, and Joe Fortes in Vancouver. (His brothers, Neil and John, own the Hy’s chain.)Aisenstat deeply admires restaurant pioneers—people like Tidball, Bus Fuller (Earls), Bud Kanke (Joe Fortes), and his own father. “Really,” he says, “my generation is building on what they started.” Perhaps so, but thanks to what he himself has accomplished in the past 30 years, this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award winner clearly deserves a place among them.