“Some people think we’re crazy for doing this” – Meet the Finns opening bars and restaurants in the coronavirus era

Restrictions on occupancy, social distancing and buffet food sales turn the most profitable time of year for Finland's restaurants, bars and cafes, into one of the trickest times to do business.

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File picture of Rivoli Yard / Credit: @levalampiphotography

When bars, restaurants and cafes were allowed to re-open on 1st June, business owners rushed to ensure their premises complied with new regulations in the coronavirus era.

Restaurants can’t offer a buffet service and must restrict their occupancy to 50% maximum, all while maintaining social distancing between customers. Terraces don’t have an occupancy limit but the restrictions still mean the rules have changed for the Finland’s hospitality industry during their busiest time of the year.

Running a business in this sector is difficult at the best of times so who would willingly throw themselves into launching a brand new business? We talked with three establishments who explain why they decided to go ahead and open up this month.

File picture showing interior of Lahnajärvi / Credit: Visit Lahnajärvi

A famous rest stop renewed at Taukopaikka Lahnajärvi

When Taukopaikka Lahnajärvi rest area opened for business on 1st June the owners didn’t know how many people would come through the doors of the historic spot.

Regarded as one of Finland’s first ever motorway service stations Lahnajärvi, on the main road from Helsinki to Turku, was opened by a consortium of bus companies just in time for the 1952 summer Olympics. The operators wanted to be sure that foreign visitors would have somewhere to break their journey between sailing venues on the west coast, and the main stadium and athlete’s village in the capital.

The rebirth of the restaurant on the edge of a lake was planned long before the coronavirus lockdown, which forced a delay in the grand re-opening.

“We had no clue what would happen, and it was a challenge staff-wise as well. First we hired everybody then we told them to wait. When we finally opened we had much less staff than originally planned” explains Lahhajärvi’s Sanni Orasmaa.

Inside however, the coronavirus restrictions mean the dining experience is not what the management had planned.

“Inside there’s more distancing. We have these coloured dots on the floor that show people where to stand. We have disinfectant stations at every entrance and then where we would usually have the buffet the chef has a number system and calling out to people to come and pick up their food” Orasmaa tells News Now Finland.

File picture of Lahnajärvi lake / Credit: Visit Lahnajärvi

The large outdoor area means that in addition to regular service Lahnajärvi’s kitchen can also sell take-away meals and customers have no trouble socially distancing outside while they eat. It’s a business model that might not have happened without the Covid-19 epidemic, but it’s a revenue stream which could continue afterwards.

The venue is working on its sustainability credentials as well with a geothermal heating system taking water from the lake, and solar power as well.

“But we are sustainable in a way as well that we are involving the local people in our little store, we have local producers and organic products. The more we can do, we are striving to get deeper in that direction” says Sanni Orasmaa.

Now, the remodeled Lahhajärvi is attracting not just passing customers, but also local residents and former patrons who come back to experience some nostalgia.

“I’ve seen their faces light up and they say it’s like before. Now there is light and space and when a person comes into a place where they feel space, their inner space also expands” says Orasmaa says.

“It’s a very special rest stop in that way. Even though it’s just a minute from the motorway you can gaze on the lake, let your mind linger and you are restored immediately” she adds.

File picture of Rivoli Yard / Credit: @levalampiphotography

A city terrace plan put on hold

Summer terraces are considered prime real estate space for summer drinking in Finland and people get out there as soon as the weather even turns a little bit springlike.

But plans for a new terrace at Helsinki’s Hotel Rivoli Jardin in Kasarmikatu came to a dead stop when the the government ordered all restaurants, cafes and bars to close down in early April.

“We had planned this I think since January, we had the plans and everything, but we had to put it on hold” says Jalmari Jalasvirta, one of the entrepreneurs involves in setting up the new terrace Rivoli Yard space which is run by two family companies.

“When the government gave permission to open the terraces we built everything in a week. Basically it’s all stripped down though, we took 80% of the budget away” he tells News Now Finland.

Although there’s no restrictions to the 110-person limit for the terrace, in practice the staff have to keep people separated at tables, and there’s extra signs and more disinfectant for customers.

“Some people think we’re crazy for doing this but most people are happy the restaurants are still open and people are looking for somewhere to come and have a drink” says Jalasvirta.

“Since terraces don’t have an occupancy limit that’s why we took the risk. Hopefully our terrace will succeed. People are still partying even with the coronavirus and we’re hoping for the best” he adds.

File picture of Fat Lizard Biergarten / Credit: Fat Lizard Brewing

Brewery diversifies with new beer garden 

Summer is a busy time for festivals in Finland as well, but with most summer happenings already canceled in advance it left Espoo’s Fat Lizard Brewing with an empty calendar.

So while they can’t take their products out to customers this summer in the way they hoped, brewery staff have pivoted to running a new Biergarten instead.

“We are planning to open a full-sized tap room in the brewery in the future to have tour tastings and samples, but for now we have only opened up this terrace because of the restrictions” says self-titled “Gartenfrau” Viivi Vallius.

“Overall it’s way easier to open up a terrace than a full-sized restaurant. We use the [portable] drinks cart to serve because we’re not using it at festivals, and because we haven’t been selling too much beer to restaurants” during the weeks when everything was shut down.

Although the brewery announced their new beer garden venture at short notice there was still a good response from the Fat Lizard fans this week on opening night – and the business has plans to grow during the summer as well.

“We try to come up with music every now and them, and some kind of food trucks” says Vallius.

“This is the first week, and we’re still figuring it out.”