“In Finland, the scariest moment was the 18th of March,” says Sasu Laukkonen, on the phone from Helsinki. Little did the chef know back then, but by the end of that week his 17-square-foot restaurant would no longer be serving its ten-course tasting menu, but instead shifting thousands of pieces of sushi out of the restaurant’s front window.
Overnight, Ora restaurant would be invaded by industrial rice cookers, dozens of kilos of fresh fish and mounds of eco packaging, transforming his minimalist Michelin-star restaurant into the Sasu Sushi pop-up, pounding out 250 boxes of takeout sushi per day, and turning Sasu himself into the pin-up success story of a nation.
When Sasu’s bookings plummeted from 95 to just 15 that fateful week, the fear of coronavirus and its related safety procedures meant he had to act, and fast. Although restaurants weren’t officially closed and lockdown was not yet imposed, he was already ahead of the game. “Guys, this is not gonna fly," he told his team.
Making what he calls an “intuitive decision” he had an idea. “We're going to start a little tiny sushi place tomorrow as a pop-up,” he informed his perplexed team. A bold move, considering this was a highly-skilled art, which Sasu only ever practiced at home as a fun hobby with his ten year old daughter.
He admits with hindsight, he should have employed the services of a sushi expert, to avoid wasting valuable time and energy. However, after some carefully considered research, he pitched his new product at the middle of the market, and decided to sell a box of 14 pieces of sushi for 15 euros. A chocolate mousse dessert at three euros made an easy tag on.
Before long, the team had merged the restaurant's philosophy of foraging and local Finnish ingredients with the art of sushi making. "Finnish fish honoured in a Japanese way," as Sasu calls it. "We did ceviche with redcurrant and really funny stuff - dried raspberries and locally-foraged roses. It was odd and peculiar and it somehow worked and clicked," he says, before recalling his favourite roll fondly: Jamaican okonomiyaki made with minced fish and homemade teriyaki sauce, topped with katsuobushi flakes and rolled inside an uramaki roll.
With the season for wild herbs, fish, citrus fruits and herbs upon him, he was back in his foraging element. "The effect of Sasu Sushi was to open the doors and eyes for everyone to realise that sushi can be more inspired," he says. The ultimate accolade came from Japanese customers, who informed the team that the sushi reminded them of the sushi they could get back home. "It was a generous uplift to the self confidence,” says Sasu.
Slicing up 35kg of salmon in a week has got to improve the old knife skills, we joke. And so he recalls one of the "funniest things" that happened to him in middle of all of this. He managed to meet a guy who makes Japanese knives just 20 minutes outside Helsinki. “It’s such a beautiful knife, it’s so handy in making sushi, without that knife I don't think that sushi pop-up would have been the same,” he says. Much like the sushi, it's a hybrid of Japan and Finland, with a Japanese blade and a Finnish beech wood handle.
Within a month, they’d gone from a team of four, working a four-day-week, to a team of five, working fifteen hours a day, six days a week. Understandably, they were exhausted just trying to keep pace with the huge demand. As the news spread like wildfire, Sasu also began supplying other independent outlets and private customers. Finnish media also reported on his story in the middle of the panic, describing how he was changing into something super-inspiring in the middle of all the madness. "Every time I had my face in the paper, we sold 100 boxes more than a normal day," he laughs.
Sasu is also adamant his business model worked because of the human contact. Pick-up only not only meant he avoided exorbitant delivery costs, it also helped them keep in contact with customers, bringing a little light on dark days. “We could kind of show how much sunlight we had in our hearts when we were doing this for people. Because we were doing it for people, we weren’t doing it for ourselves,” he explains. Whether it was feeding a bachelor party in the park, or returning Japanese customers, there was something very human about it at such a time when people felt so disconnected.
Sasu's business later expanded even further, as he developed a dinner-for-two menu and a picnic-in-the-park menu, and took on an extra team member. But as he point out, it’s not all a “princess story.” By downscaling from their usual 94 euro-a-head menu, to an average spend of 15 to 30 euros "imagine how many people you have to serve so you can pay all of your monthly costs."
In fact, as the time of speaking, Sasu's restaurant is shut for a summer break, but he’s already excited to re-open Ora on 22 July, when it will revert to the 10-course dinner and wine pairing. “We’re going back to normal no matter what,” he says.
Nevertheless, the moment has forced an evolution in the restaurant. Ora will evolve into a one service deal, with everyone dining at the same time with a simultaneous service. “We are really really excited to go into something where we can be lifting the bar for ourselves, so we can deliver better,” he says.
As for the new menu, they’re waiting for mother nature to grow what she wants, depending on what's available from the nearby 2-hectare organic farm in Helsinki.
Which only leaves one question: will there be sushi on the menu? "There’s absolutely no space for sushi in the 'normal'. Not that I’m sick of it,” he laughs. In fact, he admits, he’s not going to forget about sushi just yet.
"It could be a smart move to keep sushi hidden for a while and see what’s going to happen. But if there’s a beautiful little space for a sushi bar in Helsinki that’s open for rent in two months' time, who knows? A lot of people came to tell me I cannot stop making that sushi, it’s unlike anything else.”
Watch this space.