There's a bubbling new movement gathering momentum in Finland's capital city, with a growing group of passionate Finnish restaurateurs calling themselves Raising HEL. Not only do they want Helsinki's restaurants to survive this year's industry crisis, they want them to come out of it swinging.
Tired of sitting on their hands and watching their businesses crumble under ever-changing coronavirus restrictions, this dynamic group decided it was time to band together, along with the city council, and take back control. "One of the key points of Raising HEL was to stop complaining and start looking at the future," says one of the movement's three founders, Saku Tuominen.
Within just a couple of weeks of having the idea, 12 passionate restaurateurs banded together to create the seed of the movement, launching their first initiative, a restaurant gift-card scheme. The venture includes some of the city's leading restaurants - like Sasu Laukkonen's Ora - and it has one simple goal: that each and every person in Helsinki buy one gift card, for one restaurant.
Photo credit @koskisyvari
Delivering the project with energy and enthusiasm, their collective voices were soon heard. So far the scheme has seen a great response from both the industry and customers and, as Tuominen says: "it’s exceeding expectations by far".
Over 100 of the city's restaurants have now signed up to the free scheme, which promotes the restaurant industry as a whole. "There was a sense of community before, but now it’s stronger than ever," he explains.
Customers have been quick to respond, as well as local businesses, buying up the gift cards in lieu of this year's cancelled Christmas parties. Even a local truck company has offered free advertising for Helsinki's restaurants on the side of its lorries. "It’s a small detail but seeing your trucks driving around the city it’s almost an emotional moment. And you go, actually this is quite cool," says Tuominen.
Photo: courtesy of City of Helsinki
But this is just the start of the collective's ongoing plans. Other initiatives will roll on from the momentum of this one, all designed to strengthen the city's restaurant scene. And in a place where there's already a positive working relationship with the mayor, combined with comparatively mild coronavirus measures, the creative wheels are already turning. "It’s not one action - but a series of small steps that together help us to improve Helsinki as a dynamic, vibrant, gastronomic destination,” says Tuominen.
The master plan is to turn the capital city into a gastronomic destination, making a name for itself like some of its Nordic rivals. "Let's make Helsinki the new Copenhagen, we all love Copenhagen," says Tuominen. "Our goal is that the city that comes out of Covid is more buzzy and exciting than it was before Covid."
This summer they created a stunning outdoor dining terrace in Senate Square, and it's something they plan to repeat next summer. Working to create the biggest terrace in Scandinavia, while serving food from some of the city's most interesting restaurants, a selection of 34 tightly-curated restaurants will pop up in the open-plan dining space, offering everything from artisanal Mexican food to fine dining.
In the true spirit of Raising HEL, Tuominen is positive about the future after the pandemic. "Let’s see something good in it and let’s concentrate on how life will look in the fall of 2021 when we are coming out,” he says.
The idea for the movement is a simple one, and one that Tuominen and the team are willing and ready to replicate and share with other cities around the world. But come the lifting of travel bans, Helsinki looks like it will be leading the charge, as the city prepares to raise its culinary flag and tackle the Nordic culinary giants head on.