The results of our “Alberta’s Best Barbecue” bracket surprised us here at Alberta Venture. The Bruce Hotel beat out 31 other restaurants from around the province, hands-down, despite being the only joint in the running with almost no social media presence (apart from an unofficial Facebook group). But if the Bruce, Alberta gem appeared to us the underdog, it’s only because we hadn’t had their steak yet. For those in the know, the Bruce Hotel’s sell-out, buffet-style dinners are unforgettable.

Owners Debbie Boyd and Karl Pickup feed about 200 people nearly every Friday night — most from Edmonton — with Boyd cooking all the steaks herself on her dual grill. During the rest of the week, they do prep work for the buffet of countless salads and desserts.

It’s not a particularly profitable enterprise, but for Boyd and Pickup, the Bruce Hotel isn’t about money — it’s about love.

In 1998, the couple decided they wanted to spend more time together, so they quit their day jobs and bought the old hotel in the hamlet of Bruce, population 71.

“We wanted to build something together and that’s what we did,” Boyd says.

But the Bruce Hotel is proving to be more than just a lifestyle — it’s a lifeline. When Pickup was diagnosed with cancer two years ago, Boyd says the business helped keep the couple grounded through the trial of chemotherapy, tests, and doctor and hospital visits.

“When we were going through all those treatments, people would ask, ‘Why don’t you guys just quit [the restaurant]? Why do you keep going?’” Boyd says. “And both of us said, ‘That’s what happens to people. A partner gets sick and they get so wrapped up in the illness that they forget about living.’”

Pickup is doing well now, but the couple have decided to slow down a bit and take more vacation time. “After this happened, we said, ‘Life is short.’ You don’t realize it until something like that happens. Now every time we [get the all-clear from] the doctors … we do the happy dance and book a holiday.”