Boiling Point: How Helsinki’s Restaurant Industry Overcooked

Helsinki's food scene has been bubbling over in recent years, but can too many cooks spoil the broth?

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Carrots and yolk cream / Credit: Juho Vuohelainen / Restaurant Nolla

Helsinki’s push to turn itself into a city of foodies has lead to a cut-throat market for rental space, driven by demand for an unsustainable number of new restaurants every year; as amateur cooks and established kitchen stars alike try to turn themselves into restaurateurs.

When Albert Franch came to Finland from Barcelona five years ago, he paid his dues in famed fine dining establishments Chez Dominique and Olo. But like many chefs before him, he dreamed of owning his own restaurant.

Albert Franch (R) and co-owners at a pop-up event for Restaurant Nolla / Credit: Carolina Mobarac / Restaurant Nolla

So with friends from Portugal and Serbia that he knew from the local food scene, Franch decided to open a restaurant with a unique selling point – zero food waste. Restaurant Nolla was an instant success, snatching some great media notices from critics who sampled the food – and loved the concept – featured at a handful of pop-up events.

“Local and organic products will be the building block of our menus all year round […] with focus on sustainability” says their website, alongside stylish photographs of delicious-looking plates.

The only problem is, Restaurant Nolla doesn’t exist.

“After we did two pop-ups, we were searching to open a location” explains Albert Franch in a phone interview. “We had a location to start with and because of our inexperience, we spoke to only one location […] and when everything was ready they said no, because the building doesn’t want to have a restaurant that is open in the evening”.

So now, months after the initial hype, Franch and his friends are still looking. Maybe one place will be ready next month. Another could be ready in the spring. Another possibly a year from now. The options, they discovered, are extremely limited.

You might think it’s an easy task to find a space for a restaurant in a city like Helsinki. But so does everyone else.

According to city officials, in the last year some 200 restaurants opened up in the capital. Even with around 70 restaurants closing, there’s a net gain of 130 new restaurants each year.

“That’s still a hundred restaurants too many” says Pasi Hassinen, co-owner of the Street Gastro brand.

By comparison, less than 20 new restaurants open every year in Turku.

“So many new restaurants are coming up all the time that even though your product is good, your restaurant is good, you have a good location, I think it’s still not enough” says Hassinen, who recounts a recent summer weekend visit to Helsinki’s Kamppi Kortteli mezzanine level, where he estimates there were a mere 35 diners in seven restaurants. “It used to be packed in there when it first opened” he says.

File Photo / Credit: Street Gastro

Four years ago, Hassinen and business partner Pertti Kallioinen were serving their gourmet sandwiches out the side of a food truck at the harbour end of Sofiankatu. Now they’ve got ten restaurants including six properties in the Street Gastro chain; two more Mad Wok outlets; Blägä restaurant at the Laguuni water park in Keilaniemi; and Beerger – a new ‘craft beer and burger deck’ in Telekkaranta. They’ve mostly stayed away from the city centre area, and opened in locations like Kallio, Tapiola, Iso Omena and Vantaa.

“I think every year there are more and more people who are dining out, but not enough to keep all the new restaurants in business” says Hassinen.

So who is opening all the restaurants that Helsinki may, or may not, need?

“A lot of people are opening restaurants, young people, people with different backgrounds and it encourages more people to do so” explains Hassinen. “There’s young chefs who worked in Michelin star restaurants overseas and want to do their own thing and get some money together” he says.

There are also of course many Helsinki restaurants owned by large companies with vast turnovers and plenty of resources to afford the high prices being demanded for rental space. Companies like Royal Ravintola (Holiday, Salutorget, Hanko Sushi, The Cock et al); or Kotipizza (Chalupa, Kotipizza); and S Group (Amarillo, Rosso).

And there’s now a new wave of restaurateurs who got their start at Ravintolapäivä or Restaurant Day, a foodie phenomenon launched by Timo Santala in Helsinki, which encouraged people to try their hand at running their own restaurant for a day, without all the burden of red tape and health inspections.

Daddy Green’s pizza bar in Töölö – Pasi Hassinen calls it “the best pizza at the moment in Helsinki, so authentic” – is a good example. The owners started out at Ravintolapäivä and wanted to do more.

Mikael Uhtio’s prototype La Soupe on the streets of Helsinki, August 2014 / Credit: News Now Finland

Mikael Uhtio took the same path, from selling bowls of soup on the street across from the Central Railway Station in 2014, to opening La Soupe in Eerikinkatu a year later. Now, he’s got a branch at Iso Omena shopping centre, and another to come in Kalasatama in September 2018.

“Lack of time was the biggest problem to deal with the bureaucracy, and unhelpful service from different departments” says Uhtio, between serving customers.

“In a restaurant, you have a waiter and he is doing a service, he is moving, he is bringing the plates. But it’s not like that in Finland [with bureaucrats] They don’t help, it’s not really a service. They are just saying things that can be written on a website. Generic advice. Nothing case-specific”.

Milla Visuri knows that feeling. She worked at Helsinki City Hall as the Head of Food Culture Strategy, a position championed by the previous mayor, but discontinued when Jan Vapavuori (NCP) took office this spring.

“The truth is […] there are so may people who don’t open doors, they just close them. There’s a lot of that in this city organisation. There’s a lot of closed doors. There’s a lot of people who just don’t think it’s their responsibility” she says.

But Visuri also wants to mention some of the positive sides of instilling a sense of food culture throughout the city’s various departments. Ánd one initiative could help prospective restaurateurs find the spaces they need.

“One thing they that did right is that they put all this city-owned real estate that is available for rent onto the Oikotie website. So it’s no longer on the city system” where people found it hard to discover. “There are so many good things going on” she stresses.

That resource hasn’t yet helped Albert Franch and his friends pin down the perfect spot for Restaurant Nolla and it’s zero-waste dining concept.

“Our biggest problem is not even financial, it’s how much are you ready to pay for something that is not worth it?”

Franch has found a huge disparity in prices of similar-sized spaces suitable for restaurants, even in the same street. Lease holders, owners and developers know that demand for restaurant space is so high, they can ask whatever they like, or hold onto the property and wait for the price to go up.

“We are asking ourselves, until what point can we play that game? Paying €200,000 for a lease, and then €200,000 more for renovating the space, all the hygiene requirements […] It’s just a free-for-all market. There is no regulation”