James Liong and his wife Jenni Law run Restaurant China in Helsinki’s Annankatu

The popularity of ethnic restaurants in Finland continues to grow swiftly.

Ethnic restaurants seem to be gradually taking over Finland’s dining scene, especially within the Capital Region. Statistics Finland reveals that one in five restaurants across the whole country is ethnic, and the ratio in the Capital Region is as high as one to four. This becomes evident when simply observing the cityscape: the restaurants in sight are increasingly more exotic and focused on ethnic specialties.

“Statistics on companies with foreign backgrounds have only been compiled from 2008 to 2010, but even that time range shows that the number of these companies is increasing rapidly,” says Head of Information Services at Statistics Finland Jouko Rajaniemi, who also wrote an article on ethnic restaurants taking over the restaurant business, published in Statistics Finland’s Wellbeing Survey in 2011. “Companies in the restaurant business amounted to 1,389 in 2008 and 1,589 in 2010, pointing to a growth of 14.4 per cent. These companies had 1,607 places of business, i.e. restaurants, in 2010.” According to Rajamäki, each Finnish region has at least one ethnic restaurant.

Statistics reveal that in 2009 over 1,400 foreign restaurants operated in Finland, with 500 of these located in the Capital Region alone. This number represents a third of all the ethnic restaurants in the country. Turkish restaurants make up the largest group in all regions of Finland: in the Capital Region they amount to a quarter of all restaurants, and elsewhere in Finland the percentage is as high as 44. 13 per cent of those living in Finland with a Turkish background of working age were entrepreneurs in the restaurant business that year.

“The number of Turkish restaurant is almost incredible when placing them in proportion to the Turkish-based population,” Rajamäki states. “Nearly 13 per cent of those living in Finland with a Turkish background of working age were entrepreneurs in the restaurant business that year. If the share of Finnish restaurant entrepreneurs was as large as this, we would have a quarter of a million restaurants.”

Doron Karavani is bringing authentic falafel to Helsinki‘s streets

Turkish restaurants continue to reign

Turkish restaurant Antiokia Atabar on Eerikinkatu has been in business for 20 years. Co-owner of the restaurant Remzi Berktas came to Finland 25 years ago from Ankara. “I was sitting in a restaurant in Ankara, and a Turkish fellow was sitting next to me,” he recalls. “He told me that he lives in Finland. He owned a restaurant in Oulunkylä, Ravintola Vega. He asked if I would come to Finland. I had never heard of it, but he sent me all the visas and I thought about for almost a year. I came in the autumn, it was very cold then. The language was a problem, of course, as I couldn’t speak it.”

Berktas worked at Vega for nine months, after which the company went bankrupt. As it was the depression era, the employment situation was difficult. Out of work for a couple of months, he then went to work as a chef in one of the first Chinese Oriental restaurants in Finland, Fen Kuan. “The atmosphere was nice, I learned things quickly, and I also learned Finnish,” Berktas says. After two years he proceeded to work in Kaivoksela, and finally ended up working in Antiokia Atabar.

Kerim Balibey, co-owner of Antiokia Atabar, also worked in Restaurant Vega. “That was a difficult time as it was the depression. I worked there for two years, though not at the same time as Remzi. We got to know each other there, but we went our separate ways after that,” Balibay says. He co-founded a restaurant in Tuusula and worked there for seven years, after which he purchased Pizza Service on Albertinkatu. “I was not far from Remzi; we visited each other occasionally. Remzi worked here in Antiokia alone, which is not easy. He asked if I would come and work here and I thought why not.”

“We are happy with the business,” Balibey continues. “In Finland and elsewhere also, emphasis is placed on service and quality. As this is a small country, here it is especially important. Even today there are some problems with workers sometimes. We are here everyday to take care of things. We never know when we have a day off, but we are pleased.”

The second largest group of ethnic restaurants in Finland serve Chinese cuisine, which made up 7.5 per cent of all in the country. James Liong, one of the owners of Restaurant China on Helsinki’s Annankatu, was born in Hong Kong. He moved to Finland in 2010 to raise his child in a better environment and also because he has family here.

“Our family has been running this business for nearly 30 years,” Liong says. “My in-laws would like my wife and I to take over and continue with the business. The upside of becoming your own boss is that you can earn a bit more. On the other hand you give up your free time and personal life. You are on 24/7 standby with the business, controlling your staff and bringing in new ideas for the restaurant etc.”

Lack of free-time seems to be the biggest issue for restaurant owners, though it has been accepted as part of the job. Language seems to be an issue at first, but many acquire it over the years, actively working through it with the aid of courses or simply just speaking it.

Himalaya’s Kamala Kharel (waitress), Manju Sharma (owner), Deepak Aryal (waiter).

Fast food culinary experiences

“From a foreigner’s point of view, when you come to a country like Finland, it’s very tricky,” says Doron Karavani, owner of Restaurant Fafa’s. “You have two options in order to survive and make money. One option is to go to school and learn the language and study; the other is to just be creative and do things you want to do and find a way of doing it.”

“I did not have money, but I had good ideas,” Karavani says. “I’ve always been in business where you sell a product, and I like retail business. I also want to work for myself.” He first got into the restaurant business by establishing Gastronautti with a two others, a company that delivers food for other restaurants. He eventually quit there as they did not have enough orders. After that he worked in marketing for an asset management company for four years.

“I realised I want to work for myself; I’ve always been in business where you sell a product, and I wanted to get into retail business where people would buy the product,” Karavani says. Before Fafa’s, Karavani established Ben & Jerry’s at Esplanadi. The idea for Fafa’s came from Karavani, and he established it with three friends.

Fafa’s is a fairly recent enterprise, dating back a year. In December Fafa’s opened up a second establishment in Kallio’s Vilhonvuorenkatu. A location in Töölö is also on the horizon for next summer. “I realised there was a big demand for good, properly made fast food. I’m born in Israel, and this is the food I’ve been growing up with. I wanted to do it properly, make the food from scratch. Everything is chopped by hand, only fresh ingredients are used.”

“We started out and worked long days and talked to our customers. Very quickly the place got a positive vibe, which I am very happy about.” Karavani plans to keep the upcoming establishments small-sized as well to maintain coziness. “I am very happy to be able to provide this food for everyone, and I am happy that people are also happy.”

Karavani believes that in a certain sense foreigners make good employers, because they are not used to the state supporting the unemployed on such a scale as Finland does. Fafa’s has a multinational staff, including people from Australia, Wales and Scotland. “We don’t hire only foreigners, though. Having an international atmosphere is wonderful. Some like it; some don’t,” he says. He states that not speaking Finnish has not really been a problem for him during all these years as almost everyone here speaks English.

Wide variety of ethnic countries represented in Finland

The largest groups of ethnic restaurants here, after Turkey and China, originate from Iraq, Iran and Vietnam. In 2010 restaurants in the Capital Region with foreign backgrounds amounted to 18.6 per cent of all restaurant industry’s places of business, and on a national level 26 per cent of restaurants were operated by foreigners. The Capital Region boasts most of Finland’s Bangladeshi, Indian, and over half of Vietnamese restaurants of the country, Rajaniemi reports.

Nepalese restaurant Himalaya was established in Helsinki in 1993, making it the oldest Nepalese restaurants in Finland. It was established by Devi Sharma, and it is currently owned by his wife Manju Sharma. She came to Finland in 1989, and worked as a cleaner in a construction company for a year before becoming a waitress in Restaurant Himalaya. She has been the owner of Himalaya for almost 15 years.

Sharma’s husband came to Finland from India and wanted to establish a Nepalese restaurant here. At first he established one in Hakaniemi. It did not take off too well in the beginning, as it was smaller and quieter. It is no longer operating. Business for Restaurant Himalaya is steady though, and Sharma is satisfied with her situation in Finland in general as well as the restaurant.

“I am happy,” she states. “I haven’t experienced any real problems working here. Something’s always broken, such as the freezer. Sometimes there are problems with customers, but these are small issues. Finland is a really good country, I like it here. Winter is a little tricky, but other than that I’m pleased.”

An owner of another Nepalese restaurant is Rijal Khadananda, or Razu. He is one of the three owners of Restaurant Gurans in Ruskeasuo, which was opened this summer. He came to Finland over nine years ago. Razu was not in the restaurant business in Nepal, where he studied, although his parents were involved in the industry. He moved to Finland to work, and because he had friends here.

Razu worked in a Nepalese restaurant in Helsinki first as a kitchen assistant and later as a waiter and chef. “I saved money every month, and I had thought about establishing a business for a long time, and I had acquired all the skills necessary for doing so. I also had friends who wanted to do the same,” he says.

He says that he has not encountered major problems during his work in Finland. At first it was difficult to find a location, which delayed the venture somewhat. Razu took courses in Finnish at Helsinki’s Työväenopisto. “We are happy with the business,” he says. “Finland is a nice and calm place.” As with other restaurant owners, he says days off are rare, and often short, which is difficult.

All interviewees had established some kind of family in Finland, though not necessarily with native Finns. Ethnic restaurants are often run by friends or family members, and many establishments have long-standing ties in the ethnic minorities they represent. The problems in running these restaurants seem to revolve around the same issues, despite different backgrounds.

Problems for restaurant entrepreneurs

Bureaucracy has been mentioned as one issue besides the long working hours. “I meet many foreigners and I see that they struggle. Some of them look for a job and can’t get it because of language skills or the colour of their skin,” Karavani says. “But from a foreigner’s point of view, everything is there, including the starttiraha (Finnish benefit for budding entrepreneurs). Finland is an easy place to start.”

According to Rajaniemi foreign-run restaurants in Finland are small when compared to their Finnish counterparts. On average, the largest ethnic restaurant businesses can be found in Lapland and the Åland Islands.

As these restaurants consume the culinary landscape of Finland, they are also becoming more diverse and specialised in certain regions or foods. Most restaurants aim to please European customers by offering varied versions of the original food of their native countries. Tradition does not simply refer to the food, but also the atmosphere and language. Even today, with what seems to be an oversupply of foreign restaurants, they are still popular and maintain their customer base even throughout decades.

Annika Rautakoura
Photos: Emil Chalhoub