These days, Jens Pillat favours a simple life.
The 46-year-old used to be a firefighter in Germany before coming to B.C. to earn his helicopter pilot’s licence. After several years of flying choppers, mostly in forestry, Pillat stepped away from that career to spend more time with his two daughters, who are 8 and 11 years old.
“As a pilot, you’re always in camp. You’re always gone,” he told The Terrace Standard.
Now Pillat owns and operates the Papa Jens donair truck, which can usually be found parked next to Kal Tire in Terrace. Pillat spent months renovating an old motor home to accommodate the donair business, which officially opened on Sept. 1.
Pillat explained that donairs in Germany are usually different from donairs in Canada, and he wanted to bring that German style to Terrace.
“Over here it’s usually a wrap,” he said. “[But] I bake my own bread, so it’s more like a fluffy big sandwich.”
Pillat said he’s not a professional cook.
“I’m not a chef, but I can make donairs I guess,” he joked. “I like to cook at home, but nothing fancy, more down to earth, like stew and schnitzel. My girls like it.”
Pillat said he likes to joke, though his German sense of humour might not always jive with Canadian senses of humour. He’s already drawing plenty of laughs on social media for his outrageous, informal posts advertising the food truck. One such post featured a risque calendar photo of a muscled, shirtless firefighter — the post implied that you too could have such a body if you ate at the donair truck daily.
But Pillat said he takes his work in the food truck very seriously.
“Anything hygiene I don’t joke around. I want everything clean and quality. That’s my worst fear, like to put a bad donair out,” he said.
Pillat grew up in a small village near Frankfurt, Germany and he was a bit of a rascal as a teenager, he said. He started his working life as an apprentice cabinet maker. Then, he did a year of military service, which was compulsory for young German men at the time.
While most wanted to fail the military intake medical exam, Pillat was eager to pass it and serve as a paratrooper. He aced the medical exam, but was promptly stationed in front of a typewriter for the logistics department. That was baffling to him, he said, because growing up he was always a handy guy who enjoyed wrenching and that type of work.
“What do they do? They put me in an office and give me a typewriter … Just put me on a truck or something, or a forklift,” he said. “And the other guys that were really smart and knew all that [typing stuff], they [were] put on the trucks and on the forklifts.”
“But that’s typical military.”
He went on to work as a professional firefighter in Frankfurt for eight years. During that period, he took a year off and traveled around the world on his BMW motorcycle. The trip was inspired by an old tradition where young German journeymen take an epic hitchhiking journey, equipped with little more than the clothes on their backs, to visit different places to learn more about their trade.
Pillat rode his motorbike through the Sahara desert, Russia, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States, Norway and other places, visiting fire stations all along the way. He said he learned a lot during that trip and had plenty of wild experiences.
In Australia, he reached into a fire hydrant to clear out some debris just like he would have done in Germany.
“I did that in Australia, I just wanted to reach in with my bare hands, and the other [firefighter] just kicked me out. ‘There’s a spider in there!’”
In Nevada, he had a rough time with the desert heat while he was bundled up in motorcycle riding gear, and the Las Vegas fire department took pity on him.
“I spent three days there in Death Valley, and I come out just like a hillbilly, you know, not shaved, like I’m done. And I knock on the door of the Las Vegas fire station [saying] ‘Uhhh yeah, I’m a German fireman …’” he said with a chuckle.
“They looked at me and said ‘Come on in. We’ll get you a shower and some food to eat.’”
He first arrived in Canada after visiting New Zealand. His motorcycle was being shipped by boat and wouldn’t arrive for weeks, so he spent that time hitchhiking around Vancouver Island.
“The first impression is simply the size,” he said of Canada. “For Germans or Europeans, we can’t imagine the size.”
After his bike arrived and he traveled to northern B.C., he began to appreciate the freedom that the open spaces allow. He could simply park his bike and camp next to a creek somewhere.
“You wouldn’t even be allowed to do that in Germany. Everything would be private property,” he said.
In Alaska, he met a German helicopter pilot who let him stay in the hangar for a night. The next day, the pilot took Pillat out for a spin in the helicopter. That’s when Pillat became interested in piloting helicopters. He thought it was achievable because the German pilot he’d met was previously a police officer in Germany.
When he returned to Frankfurt and his firefighter job, he began plotting how he would get his pilot’s licence.
“I actually took all my vacation that I had in one year, took it all at once, and I told the flight school in Prince George ‘I need to get it done in two and a half months,’” he said. “[They said] ‘Okay, that’s doable if you study.’ So I did it and then went back to my job.”
Pillat made a buddy in flight school who was from Terrace, so once the immigration process was sorted, Pillat came here in search of work.
From then on, he has spent most of his time between Terrace and Germany.
Now, he says, he’s content to run the donair truck and spent as much time as possible with his girls.
“My girls, they wanted a pony. I said ‘once we sell one million donairs,’” he laughed. “Now they are counting. ‘How many did you sell today?’”