By vocation

A hands-on restaurateur: Primo Semadeni

A hands-on restaurateur: Primo Semadeni - By vocation

His workplace is where others go on holiday, take time out or simply admire the scenery: Alp Grüm, the popular stopover on the Bernina Line between Pontresina and Tirano. And he also runs a second restaurant: the Ospizio Bernina station buffet right at the summit. The two establishments have been keeping Primo Semadeni on his toes – for eight years now.

Where has Primo got to? It's 10:15 – and there's no sign of our host at Ospizio Bernina. "Don't worry, he'll be here shortly. He just popped down to Alp Grüm and is taking the train now. He'll be here in seven minutes," the friendly lady at the counter explains. And indeed: the station bell rings. "The Bernina Express to Tirano will shortly be arriving at platform two," the loudspeaker announces. And there he is, the man who runs not one, but two restaurants. Constantly on the go between the Alp Grüm restaurant with its amazing views – known in insider circles as the only restaurant to only be accessible by railway – and the station buffet at the top of the Bernina pass. He's already travelled between the two stations three times today.

«Just try getting hold of a repairman at the weekend! You're in for a nice surprise.»
Primo Semadeni

Monday means it's all go

"Buon giorno – and sorry I'm a little bit late. But I had urgent business to attend to in Grüm. Monday is waste disposal day. It's always a bit crazy," Primo explains. And the dishwasher is currently causing him problems. It would have to be at the weekend, when visitor numbers are at their highest and with a large group wanting to order Puschlav spaghetti, that the machine decided to pack up. There was nothing else to do but to roll up his sleeves and do the dishes by hand. And with up to 200 meals a day being served, they soon mount up! "Just try getting hold of a repairman at the weekend! You're in for a nice surprise – it can take up to four or five hours before he turns up."

Logistics is the key issue

"I once even had to call out the helicopter. The deep fat fryer broke – naturally at the height of the season, on the busiest day of the weekend. The new appliance arrived within two hours and we were able to start making large batches of chips again." On another occasion, Primo and his team were horrified to discover one Sunday afternoon that the water had suddenly run out. Once again salvation came from the air: 1,000 litres of water were flow in – all down to Primo's good relations with Swiss Helikopter AG. 

Planning is therefore half the battle. "Up here, we can't just run across the street or to the nearest shopping centre to fetch something. If we don't have it in the cellar, that's it. It's even worse if we forget to unload something. Once the train has gone, we've had our chance." Primo has just sent three palettes of empty bottles to Pontresina and is waiting for the next delivery of drinks. Bread is delivered fresh each day, deep frozen products on Fridays. Additional large-scale deliveries are made each spring and autumn: 17 palettes of 32 crates on a goods wagon, which stands on the siding at Grüm for a few hours until everything has been transferred to the cellar.

Innovations galore

"In our business, you can't afford to stand still," is Primo's firm belief. And success has proved him right. In the summer of 2013 for example, he seized the initiative and launched the first mobile ice-cream sales on board the trains. Two school kids from Puschlav, who wanted to earn some pocket money, went into action three times a day. One of them carried a cool box on his back while the other offered passengers a variety of ice creams, selling more than 700 cones in July alone. And the two boys had to work fast to serve all the main railcars between Alp Grüm and Ospizio Bernina in just eight minutes, then the rest of the train as far as the Bernina Lagalb Station, before changing to the train in the opposite direction – and starting all over again. "People love it. What could be nicer than to enjoy an ice cream while looking out over real ice," says Primo, the entrepreneur, with a smile.

Renovated with care

And while we're on the subject: since December 2013, Primo can offer his guests newly renovated rooms – both at Ospizio Bernina and at Alp Grüm. Dormitories and communal showers have given way to Alpine charm with wet cells in the oak-clad rooms. Nine doubles and one single at Alp Grüm and four doubles at Ospizio Bernina await guests who are looking to get away from it all. What's more, they can relax and enjoy a good bottle of wine here. Because no one has to go anywhere – except Primo, who drives every evening to Bever, where he has lived for 13 years, in the station building of course. As a young man he actually wanted to join the border police, but it all took too long. So he trained for two years to become a waiter, subsequently climbing the ladder of success in grand hotels from Basel to Pontresina. On 1 October 1992, he took over the station buffet at Samedan, which he ran for ten years. In 2001, he bought the station buffet at Bever, which the RhB had scheduled for closure. His partner now runs that establishment under the name of 'Da Primo'. He then acquired Alp Grüm in 2006 and Ospizio Bernina in 2011. And so Primo Semadeni is now in charge of three restaurants with a total staff of 23, all guaranteed to keep him on his toes.

Ospizio Bernina and Alp Grüm: Freshly renovated

Ospizio Bernina and Alp Grüm: Freshly renovated

Following extensive conversion and renovation work, the two inns on the RhB's Bernina Line, Ospizio Bernina and Alp Grüm, now greet their guests with Alpine charm.