Menus to go from private home windows, a living room restaurant where you bid on sushi, a small food market in a city park: Restaurant Day, a festival that has already attracted more than 2.3 million guests in just four years, has become a worldwide phenomenon. Join our friends from Pop-Up City in the city where it all began, Helsinki, for an interview with Restaurant Day co-founder Timo Santala.

The idea for Restaurant Day was born out of desperation. While opening their own restaurant sounded like tons of fun, Timo Santala and his friends Antti Tuomola and Olli Sirén soon ran into red tape during the early planning stages. Too much bureaucracy promised to turn their culinary dream into a pipe dream – but instead of giving up, they opted for a different approach to fine dining and started a one-day food festival.

Initially, the friends approached bars and restaurants across the city to take part in the festival, but they soon realized that it would be more exciting to involve people who are not already in the food business, says Santala.

“The idea of a social community event where people meet through food sounded more interesting. A day that encourages citizens of Helsinki to be creative and start their own pop-up food initiative – without barriers and without worrying about legislation.”

A food carnival with no limits to the imagination

One month later, on 21 May 2011, the first Restaurant Day was held in Helsinki. “We had three cargo bikes and cycled around the city to sell wine, tapas, gin&tonic, and rum&coke,” says Santala. Back then, the organizers didn’t have any expectations. “Initially, we thought – if ten Helsinkians start a pop-up restaurant, that would be fantastic.”

But even without any PR or advertising budget, word spread very quickly. Before their next Restaurant Day, three of Finland’s main TV channels already wanted to interview Santala and his friends.

Since then, Restaurant Day has stayed true to its roots — it remains a food festival with no limits to the imagination. People’s homes and backyards, even public urban spaces, change into pop-up restaurants. Santala explains that “people invest a lot of energy. To give you an idea: There was one guy who took a whole week off from work because he wanted to go fishing to be able to serve his very own fresh fish and chips at his pop-up restaurant.”

Restaurant Day in Helsinki food carnival
Restaurant Day has stayed true to its roots — it remains a food festival with no limits to the imagination.
Photo: Mariella Ruusunen

From buddy project to worldwide movement

Yet sometimes a great, new idea can strain established structures. Since Restaurant Day won’t fit any event category, the founders receive no funding – although the city has few urban initiatives as deserving. ”Restaurant Day has no physical space or business model,“ adds Santala. “Sponsorship would be nice, but we can’t force people to put up advertising posters in their homes. There’s not even space for ads on our website, At the same time, I think that the general lack of funding allows us to do stuff we couldn’t do otherwise.”

Together with friends, they even organized a few public workshops to develop a website function that would help Restaurant Day participants pin-point their pop-up restaurant on the map. Later, a handy smartphone app was added, featuring an interactive map that shows all participating restaurants, opening times, and what’s on the menu.

By now, Restaurant Day has grown into a nationwide food festival in Finland and beyond — there are Restaurant Days in 72 countries, listing more than 22,000 pop-up restaurants. To date, 2.3 million people have visited at least one eatery during Restaurant Day.

Restaurant Day Food Happiness
Photo: Roy Bäckström
Restaurant Day street food
Photo: Tuomas Sarparanta
Restaurant Day in Helsinki on the street
Photo: Roy Bäckström
Restaurant Day streetfood
Photo: Hulda Sif Ásmundsdóttir
Restaurant Day pop-up restaurant at home
Photo: Roy Bäckström
Restaurant Day in Helsinki
Photo: Heidi Uutela
Restaurant Day in Helsinki streetfood community
Photo: Tuomas Sarparanta

Santala is Helsinki’s “Food Culture Strategist”

Restaurant Day has also set the agenda for a more innovative food policy in the City of Helsinki: The initiative has helped to relax restaurant regulations as well as parking rules for food trucks.

“When you give people freedom, they are more than willing to take responsibility. Everyone who joins Restaurant Day shows us how to turn the no man’s land that urban space mostly is into everyone’s land.”

Fortunately, Santala now knows all of his city’s relevant bureaucrats, allowing him to build communities through the mutual love of food: In 2014, Santala was appointed Head of the City of Helsinki’s Food Culture Strategy.

Restaurant Day in Helsinki streetfood cue
Restaurant Day has already attracted more than 2.3 million guests in just four years.
Photo: Tuomas Sarparanta

Header image: Roy Bäckström