Date and place of birth: 16 February 1980. Nelson, New Zealand.
Antipodean culture has been the key to successfully settling in Finland for Bejay Visser.
IT’S early on a Thursday morning: 9 am. Too early, in fact, one would think to meet a bar owner for an interview. Though when greeted by New Zealander Bejay Visser at the door of his phenomenally successful Aussie Bar, his warm handshake and friendly demeanour suggests nothing but deep reserves of energy.
Having opened six years ago in the shadow of the newly constructed Kamppi shopping centre, the bar has become a haven for those seeking a taste of the Antipodean lifestyle, both locals and expats, offering service by “descendents of criminals” in a rustic setting.
However, Visser’s well of enthusiasm has been pushed to the limit in recent times, as he prepares for the official launch party of both Aussie Bar Turku and completing construction of the forthcoming Club Aussie Bar in Helsinki.
Offering me a cup of coffee before taking a seat in the corner booth, Visser puts down his things, turns and asks with a smile, “So, what do you want to know?”
Can you settle a bet for me, who drinks more – Finns or Australians/New Zealanders?
Ooh. Okay. If you were going to talk about volume I would say it’s very, very equal. The only unfortunate thing about many Finns is that they drink not for social reasons, but they drink to get pissed. But if you were to say the time in which it is consumed, I would say that Finns would win hands down. But they will be down, as they drop very quickly.
Tell me about your path to the Aussie Bar. What was life like when you first came here to Finland?
For me, it was the same as every other foreigner: you struggle getting work as you can’t speak the lingo. I came for the first time in 2000 and moved here in 2001. At the start I really, really hated it. I swear to God I thought I was the only foreigner living in Finland. I lived out in Kilo. At that time I didn’t go out much, I didn’t have any money. I got myself into massive debt; couldn’t get a job.
Then I met an Australian community in 2001. I walked into a bar in Sörnäinen and there were Kiwis and Aussies sitting there for Australia Day, about 30 of them.
After a while I got pretty sick and tired of not being able to work properly as I was working as a cleaner. I thought, ‘Shit, what am I going to do for a real job?’ Nobody wants to employ me. I didn’t have any degrees; I left school at 16. At the end of the day I just thought I’d set up my own company teaching conversational English. I did that and made a bit of coin – a lot of coin actually. Enough to set up something like his.
Meanwhile I met a musician called Sakke Järvenpää from the Leningrad Cowboys. One of his producers found me on the golf course and I said I could sing. One thing led to another and soon I’m in a recording studio with Sani from Aikakone for the Eurovision. We missed the YLE thing, however, but it was a good mix. It would have sold well – okay, maybe only to my mum and my missus. [laughs]
Anyway, Sakke asked me to set up an Australian bar on the other side of town called The Outback. Basically it was a bit like this, but not as good. It was every cliché under the sun. I had some experience with starting an 800-seat club nightclub when I was in London at 21, but he didn’t really listen to me.
We did this Outback thing for a few months with Australian Peter Gallagher, whom I had met back at the pub in Sörnäinen. But Saki and I didn’t see eye to eye. I needed to do things my own way. Then I met an Australian guy called Scott Fraser. He had always wanted to have an Australian bar, but he wasn’t the guy to do it. He was able to build it, but I had the experience and the clout. I said, ‘Let’s just do it’.
So, why would you want to set up an Aussie bar here in the far north of the world?
The funny thing is that I’m a Kiwi, as you may have noticed, and the thing is that Finnish people relate Kiwis, which is a New Zealander, as a fruit. So you don’t want to a have a Kiwi Bar, a ‘fruit bar’, which never goes down too well. [laughs]
I really wanted to set up an Aussie bar. At first I got criticized a lot about the size of the place, but we’ve done really well. I’m proud of my staff, who are 80 per cent Australian and New Zealanders.
Why has it been a success?
We are authentic. Many Australians, Kiwis and ex-pats have told us that sure it’s got all the clichés and it’s a bit over the top, but at the same time it’s real. There can be just one customer in here and you working behind the bar and there’s still an atmosphere. It has been open for going on six years, which is a pretty good feat for any bar in Helsinki.
Mainly it’s the location and especially the staff. We’ve got the terrace, we’ve got our own marketing, we do all our own producing, we select our own bands; we are completely self-contained. I import all our beers myself. Alko wants our beers but we wont give them to them. You have to come to the Aussie Bar for them as I have the contract for Scandinavia.
I understand that you are expanding the idea. What’s been happening for you recently in Turku?
My brother left the New Zealand police force and moved up here and we decided that we are going to buy a ship. We bought one of the Turku riverboats. We spent two months building this boat, Aussie Bar Turku. It has a sports terrace with 100 square metres of real grass, and there’s sand on the floor of the beach club. We are also just getting an engineer’s report for getting a Jacuzzi set up there. This is on a boat! There’s a nightclub downstairs.
The thing abut our pubs is that we designed them and built them ourselves; we did it all ourselves. Head down, bum up. It’s brilliant. My wife is the marketing director for the franchise. I’m so proud, I feel amazing, especially since coming from being a cleaner, when I first arrived in Finland. Like most foreigners I had to take a bullet and I was cleaning toilets. I don’t have any degrees. I got up by myself and did it.
And what about this new Aussie nightclub opening in June?
The club’s about four times the size of this. We are moving right around Australia with the concept of it. There are different zones with the outback, the shearing shed and the New Zealand rainforests. The beers are the same, the staff is the same, the ambiance is the same.
We have a terrace with a Jacuzzi on it, which is called the great Australian hot tub, and we’re going to have lifesavers sitting out on the terrace with grass and a big barbeque. The terrace is in a courtyard with nobody living upstairs, and a four o’clock license. We have the same kitchen as Turku with fish and chips, kangaroo burgers and meat pies. It opens on 8 June.
What happens to this site here at Kamppi?
Aussie Bar Kamppi is not moving anywhere, we are just getting bigger and we’re going clubbing. We are hoping to open in Tampere after Christmas and New Years. Also we are starting to franchise the Aussie Bar concept. We can offer the whole package, a turnkey operation. We’ve got massive interest to set up Aussie Bars in Cape Town and Johannesburg, also in Holland and Germany.
Looking back six years ago, could you have imagined this success? What did you intend when you started it?
I wanted to prove something to myself, my parents and to everybody else. Just because you are a foreigner here, it is possible. Finland’s the sort of place that it doesn’t matter if you have a PhD in astrophysics or whatever you are, a plastic surgeon – it doesn’t matter – it’s who you know. So, in my first year I helped 72 people get jobs. I counted them. Not just positions working here, but by introducing people to one another. I worked behind the bar up until six months ago. I don’t know many owners in central Helsinki that do that.
It’s quite rare for a bar owner to be so publically involved here in Finland. You have also been heavily involved with marketing, with your face used with the Aussie Bar campaign. Why is that?
I have to be honest, with the original marketing with the sheep thief and the others, that actual idea was RSCG Helsinki. They wanted to do it; I wasn’t too up for it at the time. It was a brilliant idea.
The public responds when they see someone who is chirpy and trying their hardest to make everybody happy. This is a bar where you can come in and say ‘G’day, how are you going?’, instead of just ‘Moi, olut’. A bar where a carpet is rolled out to you and you are welcomed with a ‘G’day mate, how’s your day been? Shit? Well, talk to me about it’’. To have me as an owner as the face behind the bar has really worked well.
The only downside to all of this is that there hasn’t been much time for me to sit back and enjoy it. I have worked long and hard, especially with the franchise. My goal is to end up in Sydney, Darling Harbour in 2020. We have a plan to open 35-45 bars in 15 countries in nine years. Very optimistic, but very achievable.
The only thing that I’m getting concerned about is that I need to slow myself down sometimes. I’m 32 years old, and I have to say that I’ve done a bit in that time, but at the same time I don’t want to do this for the next eight years, because I do struggle. Especially doing 20-hour days, 7 days a week. It’s not good for your health, or your relationship. But at the end of the day, look at the results. At the moment it really is a three-man show. Of course I have my fantastic managers and staff, but the actual foundation of that is wearing a bit thin. So I’d better look after that a bit more.
Having now lived here for nearly 12 years, how do you see the Finnish culture?
Four years ago, I stopped and all I could think about was going home. I couldn’t stand Finland. To like Finland you’ve got to understand and respect the culture; you have to also let the culture embrace you. We all know what the Finns are like. I’ve always described them as a walnut – hard on the outside and soft in the middle. You give them a beer or two and it cracks them open.
About four or five years ago I started falling in love with Finland; I started enjoying life again. Now I can sit back and enjoy the true Finnish summer cottages, juhannus and crab parties. I have a wonderful Finnish family; I’m married now so I’m one of the family. They are all amazing. They are a big family and have all embraced me. When you start letting go and lowering your defences, okay a little bit of success does help, but all of this does not happen if you just sit back and want to hate Finland.
Do you get a lot of complaining from your foreign customers, dissatisfied with life here?
Yes, everyday. At the end of the day, we are here to listen to that. I try to encourage my staff not to go along with them, not to challenge them, but to be an ear for them, or a shoulder to cry on. Trust me it happens. I’ve had married men crying on my shoulders, in the bar, saying that they want to leave their wives because they can’t deal with Finland anymore. Then them telling me that because of this bar, what I’ve done here, and what my staff has done, they have stuck with their wives and their relationship has never been so good. And now they have kids and love Finland. I’m not just talking about one or two. I’ve got goosebumps just talking about it.
Maybe that’s another area of business for you to go into!
[laughs] I’m the new male Oprah, that’s brilliant. I feel really good about it. Those sort of things are the rewards. It used to be about the money. Absolutely, of course it did. Now it’s not.
Being as all the service is in English at Aussie Bar, how have the Finns responded to this idea?
Very well. 99.9 percent of the people who come in here speak English. Of course we get our problems now and then, like any other place. The staff knows enough basic Finnish to get by. I think that has attracted a lot of Finns to come to us thinking that ‘I can go to the Aussie Bar and get an English lesson’.
Everybody knows that Finns will refuse to speak English if they are tired or concentrating on something else. But if you give them a beer you cannot shut them up. [laughs] That side of it has worked really well. We’ve brought a lot of authenticity here to Finland with the expats.
In fact, very soon I’d like to apply to become the New Zealand consulate here in Finland, personally, and my business partner Scott is applying for the Australian one. And the office will be right here. [laughs] We are seriously going to apply for that. Whether or not they are going to accept us is another thing.
Text James O’Sullivan, Photo Tomas Whitehouse