• Restaurant Day is celebrated four times a year. (c) Timo Santala

Restaurant Day is a carnival of food

On Restaurant Day thousands of pop-up restaurants appear throughout Helsinki – and numerous other cities in Finland and abroad. Participants simply sign up on the Restaurant Day website and get cooking – it’s that easy!

Next Restaurant Day will be celebrated on 21 May 2016.

Timo Santala, one of the founders of the event, cannot get over the enthusiasm that Restaurant Day has generated.

“One guy took a week off work in order to fish for pike and serve fresh fish & chips on Restaurant Day. Participants really put a lot of effort into their restaurants,” Santala says.

The idea behind Restaurant Day inspires locals to come up with their own ideas. And when you see all the amazing restaurants set up by others, you get even more inspiration.

“People really let their imaginations go wild, creating something that has never been tried before in terms of the food or the concept. The dedication and joy of the participants is wonderful, as is the way in which people get involved and get to know each other around the table.”, Santala continues.

One fun concept that has stayed in his mind was a sushi auction, at which hungry customers drove up the prices of individual portions while those had already eaten plenty were less eager to bid.

A legend is born

The idea behind Restaurant Day arose from frustration over all the bureaucracy involved in running a restaurant. Wouldn’t it be great if for just one day anyone could operate their own restaurant with no bureaucracy whatsoever? Three friends, Antti Tuomola, Olli Sirén and Timo Santala, came up with the solution.

“We brainstormed the idea and thought of everything Restaurant Day could be. Antti and I set up a bike bar to sell drinks and tapas, and at the same time we encouraged others to join us,” Timo Santala remembers.

The concept spread rapidly. The first Restaurant Day was held on 21 May 2011 and featured 45 popup restaurants in 13 locations around Finland. The second Restaurant Day was held the following August and featured around 200 popup restaurants in four different countries.

To date around 88,000 individuals have set up over 22,000 pop-up restaurants. An estimated 2.5 million customers in 72 countries have been served. Restaurant Day is certainly helping to boost the images of Helsinki and other cities four times a year.

City of dreams

For Santala, Restaurant Day is a fine example of how to nurture a “yes we can” feeling, which is vital for urban culture.

“Absolutely anybody can participate. Restaurant Day is a group effort. We take the city into our own hands and make it a dream place in which to live,” Timo Santala says.

Restaurant Day has inspired many other communal events, and the team spirit has helped nurture an environment in which everything is possible.

“Our role has been to light the fire, to provide the initial spark. The true heroes of this event are those who have helped set up around 3000 popup restaurants to date.”

The founders of Restaurant Day picked up the Finland Prize from Minister of Education and Culture Paavo Arhinmäki in December 2011, and on the first anniversary of the event all the people who had set up popup restaurants were likewise rewarded.

“It’s amazing that this important artistic recognition was awarded to a loose group of people who haven’t created art but a somewhat cultural food event instead,” Timo Santala remarks.

He and his partners have since received numerous plaudits, as over the years Restaurant Day has picked up over ten awards including the Finnish Travel Award and Social Media Event of the Year.

Restaurant Day opens eyes, doors and mouths

Restaurant Day continues to expand. There are still places where pop-up restaurants have yet to appear but could do on Restaurant Day!

“Restaurant Day is spreading rapidly, and I see no reason why it shouldn’t work in different environments. For some, street food has exotic appeal, while for others it is a chance to eat in the homes of strangers. On Restaurant Day you can set up a popup restaurant just about anywhere, even places that you wouldn’t normally associate with restaurants,” Timo says.

The phenomenon has been good for the restaurant business on the whole.

“Restaurant Day encourages people to go out to eat. Even on Restaurant Day itself, normal restaurants are packed! It also allows new restaurants to test their wings. For existing restaurants the event provides valuable free-of-charge market research that can’t be bought for money. It reveals what is hot and pop right now, what are people interested in, what is needed?”

Santala offers his own top tip for Restaurant Day:

“The most interesting places can often be found outside the big city centres – they have to be found – so check out what’s on offer in advance and plan your culinary outing as if you were visiting another city!”

Many individual participants in Restaurant Day have since become real restaurateurs. Find out more below!

Nghty Burger: Finland’s first “Top Chef” Akseli Herlevi tested his hamburgers for a couple of years at his pop-up restaurant on Restaurant Day. He made one type of hamburger at a time and paid close attention to customer feedback. Finally Herlevi was convinced that he had come up with the best recipe, and in November 2015 he opened his own restaurant dedicated to serving the best hamburgers in Finland!

Suvanto: The Restaurant Day project of a couple of people in the creative industries led to the opening of a new café in Vallila that the locals love. The drawn-out building project only served to enhance its popularity, and after just over a year the café has become the local gathering spot for residents of Vallila and even further afield – as well as the workplace for several employees. Suvanto serves everything from morning porridge to soup lunches and even hosts the occasional gig – all within the neighbourhood!

Powau and Ambronite:
The story of Powau is a classic example of how something can get out of hand – in a good way! An old juice-making machine from the 1970s was dusted off one Restaurant Day, because making juice is fun. But soon orders began pouring in from local companies, so bigger equipment was invested in and Powau’s juices became more widely available at local cafés and shops. All without the slightest intention of become an entrepreneur!

Ambronite in turn was a pioneer in superfood when it introduced its drinkable meal on Restaurant Day in May 2013. The popularity inspired the founders to devote themselves 100 percent to developing their organic drinkable shake mix. Meal replacement sounds silly compared to “supermeal”, which is how fans around the world describe Ambronite. Following a successful crowdfunding campaign, Ambronite is now sold in over 30 countries – just a couple of years after its debut on Restaurant Day.

Text: Mariaana Nelimarkka