The last 18 months have been the most interesting months of my life. Living and breathing the culinary and experience businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic has challenged me in ways that I would have never expected. I have encountered external forces beyond imagination that have affected mine and others’ daily lives and the future.
Looking back to this time, I find it important to share some of my observations and learnings. I want to share a few notes from my diary and give some insights to the times when it felt like tomorrow was only a distant dream.
I am proud to say that we did what we promised to ourselves and people around us: stuck to the plan;
- We did not change the concept of Inari a bit, only designed and executed it stronger
- We launched a delivery and take-away food experience platform that supported not only us, but half of the Michelin -star restaurants and chefs in Helsinki
- We launched Koti By Kim Mikkola -comfort food for 5€/portion enabling everyone to enjoy great real food everyday
- We launched KotKot -chicken burger street food concept that grew from a pop-up to foodtrucks and real restaurant locations
- We launched a contemporary art gallery showing the most interesting artists of our times
- We ran two charity art auctions, helping those in the weakest positions in our society
- We created tens of new jobs during the most severe times in our industry
- We kept our team employed and safe
- We kept our guests safe
- We kept innovating
Future looks brighter and I am hoping we continue on the projected vaccination path, soon looking for a more open society and normalized times!
2020 - The year of the Rat
The Rat is the first sign from the 12 animals cycle of Chinese Astrology, and for this reason, 2020 is considered a year of new beginnings and renewals.
17th of February
Michelin Star Revelation Gala, Trondheim, Norway
On Monday 17th of February 2020 excitement was in the air. We had woken up around 0600 in Helsinki to catch an early flight to Oslo, from where we headed to Trondheim. We had been invited to join the Michelin Nordic star revelation gala that was about to take place the same night.
As our complete surprise, we were noticed by the Michelin organization and were granted our first Michelin Star. I guess some of the surprise was readable from my facial expression during my short time on the stage in the gala (1:01:01), which later became more well known through the KotKot -memes :D
What a memorable experience and truly a great honor to the entire team. It marked a new beginning for restaurant Inari, something that started with an insane over 1000 reservations which were placed during that evening alone. Thank god we were (and still are) running on Tock, so no issues on performance.
Little did we know that on January 29th 2020, the first COVID-19 case in Finland was confirmed, when a Chinese tourist visiting Ivalo from Wuhan tested positive for the Coronavirus. There was about to happen a permanent change in our future, something we did not yet know anything about.
16th of March
State of emergency declared in Finland
On Monday 16th of March 2020, the Finnish Government, jointly with the President of Finland, declared a state of emergency due to COVID-19. 272 laboratory-confirmed cases caused by COVID-19 had been diagnosed in Finland. On the same day, the Government also announced that they had decided to take the most severe measures since WW2 by issuing a decree on implementing the Emergency Powers Act, including closing schools, prioritizing healthcare units and preparing to close the borders.
Having little to no understanding of the severity of the situation, other than the self-evident fact that the restaurant and experience sectors are the ones who will be forced to join forces in the fight against the novel virus and will be affected in a way no-one could have foreseen.
Only four weeks after the Michelin Star Revelation Gala in Trondheim, we were facing the most unclear and severe crisis in our history. Simultaneously it was unclear how the virus will affect our loved ones, parents, spouses, children and grandparents.
Nearly all the pre-purchased tickets to visit Restaurant Inari, which our guests had booked soon after the Michelin Star Revelation Gala announcement, were cancelled by the guests. Few to whom we will be ever grateful for, told us that they are willing to simply move the reservation forward. This small gesture was grand in the time being. It gave an important signal to our team - there will be a brighter tomorrow some day.
It was time to open the drawer and take out the old napkin drawings of new concepts and ideas. It became increasingly clear that the Year of Rat, with its new beginnings and renewals was about to accelerate big time. It was time to start shifting gears and tighten the seat belts.
20th of March
Launch of ThePlatform.Pro
On Friday 20th of March 2020, only four days after the declaration of a state emergency in Finland, we launched The Platform.Pro. First pickups of the Inari take-away experience were handed to first guests at 4PM. This happened only 4 days after the declaration of the Emergency Powers Act in Finland.
Thanks to our talented team and fast actions, we were able to give birth to this new concept in Helsinki, Finland. Our goal was to enable not only ourselves, but all active players in our industry, to bring their offerings available for take-away and delivery.
The Platform.Pro was to become the first of our long time concepts which we had been working on in our minds. Little did we know, that over the coming months, it was about to become the main reason for many other restaurants and personal brands survival.
By today, The Platform.Pro has had more Michelin -chef designed take-away and delivered menus from one platform than any other in the region. Restaurants and people involved were Restaurant Inari with yours truly, Restaurant Ora with Chef Sasu Laukkonen, Restaurant Grön with Chef Toni Kostian, Chef Markus Aremo, Chef Toni Toivanen and Chef Jaakko Impiö. From the six Michelin Star restaurants in Helsinki, three had been on The Platform.Pro.
We wanted to create something that would have its roots in the heart of the award winning Chefs’ kitchens while being served at home. These meals were designed to ensure the continuity of the work of our industry people while serving our guests with unforgettable experiences at the convenience of their homes.
During the past 18 months, we have secured jobs of tens of industry professionals and served tens of thousands of experiences for people during the most difficult times. We could not be more proud for the efforts and flexibility this all required from our team. Special thanks for this project goes to our friends at Koski Syväri and Agency Leroy, without whom we would not have been able to go live so fast and furious!
6th of May
Launch of the KotKot
On Wednesday 6th of May our dear friends from Koski Syväri posted the news about our pop-up opening the coming weekend, serving the first version of the mouth watering chicken slider to people.
We had long discussed and tried several different versions of the fried chicken slider in our restaurant kitchen. My personal goal had long been to be able to one day have enough time to try out how my vision of a fried chicken slider would fit the mouths of Finns.
My business partner Aleksi raised the question that was about to change a lot of things moving forward; what if we would design the entire product with the price first? What if the product would not cost more than 5€? This question got a ridiculous laughter and ridicule reply with a lot of FUs and Get Out Of Here’s shouted.
After the immediate reaction we started to design the concept. What if indeed we were to design the product so that it would become something delicious, made from real ingredients, a-la-minute and it would be available for everyone. Pushing the price as low as 5€ obviously meant that it would need to be a high volume product.
The first pop-up was convincing. It took us 8 minutes to sell out, with two table fryers and products sold through a window.
Soon after we got a hold of our first food truck, a 420.000 km driven Iveco. It was empty and needed to be designed and equipped from scratch. It turned out that designing a kitchen in a van is not that much different from building one indoors. We were bringing to life something that would have a huge impact on the street food culture in Helsinki and beyond.
2nd of June
Restaurant Inari Re-Opening
The Finnish Government was convinced that the Covid-19 virus had started to show signs of weakening. The daily new cases had decreased dramatically, making it possible to consider lowering some of the restrictions put in place earlier the same year. This included lowering restrictions on the restaurant industry and we were able to start serving guests indoors.
The summer of 2020 turned out to be the busiest time in our restaurant’s history. That was the case also for most of the restaurants in Helsinki.
Sadly we were not aware what was to come, when the first signals of a second wave of the Covid-19 were starting to show-up.
Soon after, the second wave of the pandemic erupted in Finland, with new restrictions taking place.
8th of July
The Kotvan gets new paint
Thanks to our dear friend EGS and his friend Noi5on3 we got our beautiful food truck in operation with a fresh paint and image. The truck started to operate from Wednesday to Sunday with a daily changing location. Soon we learned the places that had enough people and word of mouth grew rapidly.
With zero marketing budget, we decided to concentrate on a weekly changing meme-theme. Every week a different theme would be chosen and a set of memes would be designed around it. Something that would never change is my face, that would be in each post. That’s the same face one can find from the Michelin Star Revelation gala from February 2020. It is a screenshot from that event and has been now in more than 300 different memes :D
The queues started to grow and production capacity was on its limits on a daily basis. We sold out practically every day as the follower base grew and restaurant limitations increased the demand simultaneously.
Last week of July
Gordon Ramsay: Uncharted shoot
Last week of July was a very inspiring and refreshing change in the middle of the dark pandemic times. I received a call from the US, telling me that an episode of a widely followed travel/cooking show was about to get shot in Finland. Assuming it would be technically possible given the limitations and restrictions.
Without hesitation, I signed up for the production and joined Gordon Ramsay with his terrific crew in Lapland, shooting the upcoming finale episode of Gordon’s series Uncharted on National Geographic TV.
Little did I know that the episode would take 15 months from the shooting to get aired, but at that time it did not matter. What mattered the most was to get to join such a beautifully executed production in the middle of pandemic and to get to talk to a more senior professional from my industry. Gordon gave me very important insights on how to deal with these insanely stressful times, something I will be grateful for the rest of my life.
20th of November
The Platform Gallery opens with The November Sandstorm
Year 2020 has been a year of a lot of uncertainty, lockdowns, sad stories of people losing their health and most severely their lives. I wanted to lift the spirits and bring to life something that would not only bring joy to people’s lives, but more importantly, help people very dear to me in the art industry that were in growing amounts of trouble due to increasing amount of restrictions in gallery opening hours and museums closing their doors from the public.
In late November we started our first exhibition in our new modern art gallery “The Platform Gallery”. Our dear friends EGS and Jaakko Mattila produced a joint exhibition, The November Sandstorm, where they designed a space that allowed both of their work to complement each other in a way I had never seen before. The energy and positive reactions the show produced gave us the boost to pursue the art gallery vision further.
Rasmus Sorsa, appointed gallerist, signed rapidly some of the most interesting artists from Finland and abroad to join us for the coming year. Soon after EGS and Jaakko Mattila show ended, we exhibited Noora Geagea video works and paintings with mixed media. Eugenio Merino with his Tax Heaven show from Madrid, Spain visited us in Helsinki followed by one of the most internationally followed Finnish artists Sami Korkiakoski. Later in 2021 we would then have the largest solo show ever from J-P Metsävainio, whose works were not able to take a world tour due to the pandemic.
16th of December
The first charity Auction
The number of people in need has grown tremendously during the pandemic. Many have been surprised how the bread lines have grown also here in Helsinki, Finland. We have been very proud of our society being able to take care of those in need. Unfortunately the pandemic has set those with the lowest income and most vulnerable situations in life to a very tight spot. We felt this group of people needed all hands on deck to be supported.
Together with artist Jaakko Mattila and Restaurant Aki run by Toni Toivanen, we auctioned a unique piece of Jaakko Mattila for charity. These auction proceedings were directed to an association (Hursti) concentrated to help those in real need, providing food and other daily necessities for people who cannot afford them otherwise.
The total amount collected was 5500€, something that had a great impact on the upcoming Christmas support given by the association to those in need.
August - December
Securing the wellbeing of our team and guests
One of the most important changes during the summer and fall was the new hybrid strategy that the Finnish government started to implement. For our industry and practical arrangement of work it became increasingly complicated to plan ahead with the new two week sequence of decisions. Every second week there was the unsecure moment of whether or not the restrictions needed to be increased or not.
Despite the immense stress and fear for our team’s and guests’ health, we managed to keep our restaurant open for the rest of the year, following the constantly changing restrictions.
Our main goal was to continue serving our guests following the given guidelines and limitations. Obviously the number of guests decreased over time following the increasing number of Covid-19 cases in Finland. In addition, the negative public opinion towards restaurants keeping their doors open increased rapidly.
I am very proud that we managed to keep our doors open and serve our guests with the level of service expected from us by ourselves. At the same time, during the entire year 2020, we managed to keep our staff employed, something that we have always kept as our core value.
2021 - The Year of The Ox
The Ox is the second sign from the 12 animals cycle of Chinese Astrology, and for this reason, this year is going to be lucky and also perfect to focus on relationships, whether we are talking about friendships or love.
Second full lockdown
12th of January
Short stint of hope
We resumed our service at Restaurant Inari on the 12th of January after a short vacation. It became clear very soon that the Covid-19 cases were on the rise, and the society in large started to expect new limitations and restrictions to take place. Little did we know about the gravity and the following uncertainty.
16th of February
February I got a call from a project, working with young people with different backgrounds in the risk of falling through safety nets. I joined their program, sharing my learnings and how I managed to keep going despite the world has not always felt supportive. I feel these difficult times it is all of ours responsibility to try to support those in need. Sharing your personal history can have a big impact to many - something I got confirmation from through multiple young students contacting me privately, thanking for the inspiring story.
1st of March
Preparation for lockdown
It was announced that there has been a new law that will allow the government to set restaurants in full lockdown and that it will take place starting from the second week of March and is expected to end by the end of March 2021.
6th of March
Last service and spring reservations cancelled
We had our last service before the lockdown. Prior to this day, most of our guests cancelled all their reservations for the entire spring. This left us with no visibility to the future whatsoever. It became completely unclear when the service would be able to resume normally. Many got laid off and an even larger group of people decided to change the industry due to a highly insecure future.
We decided to fight against this trend and launch an entirely new food concept, something that would not disrupt or change Restaurant Inari’s concept but instead serve the public with an affordable, yet delicious meal offering.
9th of March
Finland goes to full closure of restaurants. No restaurant was allowed to serve their guests anymore.
16th of March
Launch of Koti By Kim Mikkola
After one week of preparation following the full lockdown of restaurants, we launched our new concept aimed to serve the public with delicious comfort food meals that rooted to the Finnish traditional kitchen and eating habits. Obviously taking some international spins and refreshing new dishes.
We started to sell with a first-come-first serve basis a daily changing set of comfort food dishes for as low as 5€. With our learnings from the KotKot, we knew that the price point will attract people and that we need to reach certain volumes to make it financially viable.
We did not expect the concept to blow-up. The queues were tens of meters long, some days half a block. The guests ranged from elderly people who had no opportunity to cook Pike Wallenberg and potato puree only for themselves to families struggling to find time and energy to cook for the entire family daily while homeschooling their children.
It became clear very fast that the demand is immense and we were not able to produce as many portions as needed to fulfill the entire demand. We were onto something.
7th of May
Restaurants were given the right to stay open with new limitations and restrictions. It was set that restaurants serving not only alcohol as their product, can be open until 1900 and to serve alcohol to their guests until 1700. All this with respecting the set limitation of 50% of total capacity. In public, it was commonly discussed that the restrictions should continue over summer to ensure no new full lockdowns would be needed to be put in place.
Unfortunately we were not able to serve our guests the level of dinner experience our concept at Restaurant Inari was designed for without changing the concept completely and so we were forced to keep our doors closed given the government set restrictions.
For us it has always been very important to continue with consistency and deliver the level of service we have set standards for and respect the expectations of our guests.
Summer of decisions
23rd of June
The government decided that immediately on 24th of June, restaurants serving not only alcohol can serve 75% of their guest capacity and serve alcohol until Midnight. It was noted that the restrictions will be monitored over the coming week and affect new Covid-19 cases.
29th of June
Light at the end of the tunnel
The government continued the earlier restrictions, noting that the restaurants can continue serving their guests until 2400, starting on 1st of July. This decision was meant to be in use until 15th of September. That turned out not to be the case. Unfortunately viruses are very hard to predict.
Holidays and renovation of Inari
Given the already agreed summer vacations for July and the great amount of flexibility our team had already provided during the very difficult times, allowing us to launch multiple new ventures securing people’s jobs and wellbeing, we were not able to jump on this opportunity. It started to become clear that decisions on the restrictions are made on a very short notice period and therefore using the new allowances would become impossible.
We decided that our long awaited renovation at restaurant Inari would now take place, when there was a communicated timeline for the allowances. Unfortunately having a renovation team in the middle of summer holiday season became very hard and we needed to postpone the major parts of the renovation to a later date in August-September - earliest possible time.
Right after the restrictions and limitations were lowered, the new Covid-19 cases started to climb very rapidly. When the daily new cases on the 23rd of June were only 107, they climbed to 1322 per day by 8th of August.
Given the earlier logic of industry restrictions and limitations, it was widely expected that there would be new severe limitations set to the industry. This was purely logical given that the new daily cases climbed higher than ever before during the entire pandemic.
21st of August
Announcement of re-opening of Inari
After following the state of the pandemic and the amount of new cases in Finland for two weeks, we decided to announce the re-opening of Restaurant Inari on the 1st of October. The reactions were overwhelmingly positive and we received a lot of positive feedback from our guests and friends.
We announced our long planned new level of culinary experience, a 15 -course tasting menu designed by yours truly with our extended new team. Together with the menu, there will be newly designed beverage pairings available, all possible to purchase beforehand, making the evening a truly hassle free experience.
There would only be one seating in our new intimate seven table venue, with guests arriving at 7pm and 7.30pm.
We were excited to start planning full speed ahead with our extended international career team.
We had managed to convince Lucas Ophorst, who worked with us in early 2020 to return to Finland from Holland. Lucas has previously worked at Michelin -star restaurants at WereldMuseum, Restaurant Millen and Restaurant Parkheuvel. Juho Saralehto, who before joining us has worked at multiple Michelin -star restaurants such as Three Michelin Star restaurant De Librije in Zwolle, Holland and as Head Chef in Michelin starred restaurant Ask, Helsinki, would continue with us taking a larger role in the kitchen.
Most recently we also signed two completely new team members, who would join us for the re-opening.
Kim Päivästö, who has worked at Michelin restaurants in Finland and abroad, most recently as the Head Chef of Demo in Helsinki, Petrus by Gordon Ramsay and Hertog Jan will be joining us as the Chef de Cuisine. Karoliina Jaakkola, who has also worked most recently as Pastry Chef at restaurant Demo in Helsinki, would join to complement our kitchen team with her experience.
With this stronger team and our beautiful new venue we are ready to shift gears and accelerate towards the next level we have been eagerly waiting to move towards since February 2020.
26th of August
Unfortunately right after our announcement, the government decided to increase the restrictions and limitations. Now the restaurants opening hours were restricted to 2300 with serving alcohol having to stop latest by 2200. Capacity is limited to 75% of seats.
Luckily our new layout allows us to deliver a safe and unforgettable experience to our guests within the set time frame and seat amount.
This new set of limitations was continued on the 2nd of September and later on 9th of September.
29th of August
Gordon Ramsay: Uncharted airs
National Geographic shows the Gordon Ramsay: Uncharted episode, filmed in summer 2020. What a long time ago it was, and how much has changed since then. It was great to look back at that time and realize what kind of a great episode we were able to build, despite the very severe Covid-19 situation back then.
The episode brought a lot of positive feedback and it was heartwarming to hear how Finland was seen in a positive and interesting way internationally. We have a lot to give and with this type of international awareness I believe we can continue to build our great brand and attract more visitors over the coming years.
1st of September
The keys to the new place
We received the keys to our first sit-down KotKot restaurant in Helsinki. Prior to this, we had been serving our fans with delivery or pickup/take-away from our food truck or our pickup window. The long awaited renovation project could start with the aim to open by 6th of September. Insane schedule by insane people.
6th of September
Opening of KotKot Restaurant in Helsinki
We opened our very first KotKot restaurant in Helsinki. Probably the fastest flip in history, the old kebab pizzeria serving in the location earlier for >15 years turned into our very own concept in record time.
Against all expectations, we continue to serve our guests with the insane bargain price point of 5€/burger and 5€/wings. This we want to do to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to experience what high quality chicken products can taste like.
As the first restaurant in Helsinki, we decided to go public with our salary levels. We decided to break the old patterns and look at people in the most fair way. To us the entire team is important, every role and individual is what makes the team deliver the quality our guests expect. We believe that by treating all our team members with respect will pay back in quality and commitment. This is why we decided to pay all our people 15€/hour. This is more than the highest hourly salary set in the hourly salary table by the unions in Finland for the restaurant industry.
We wanted to create an environment where everyone regardless of their ethnicity, language, sex or background would feel equal and respected. We wanted to create an opportunity for all to succeed and feel respected. This is the only way we believe we can prosper.
9th of September
The second charity auction
The Covid-19 pandemic has left a sadly large number of children and young people with none to very low support on their mental health issues. With this growing pain in mind, we joined forces with the Kummit -association in Finland to organize a fundraiser at our art gallery. The recent exhibition artist Sami Korkiakoski donated one of his beautiful new pieces for charity auction and we designed the food and beverage experience to support the cause.
Together, we managed to raise a whopping 10.500 euros to support the great cause. The entire amount will be donated to the association and will be supporting their day-to-day activities with children and youth.
13th of September
When writing this post I feel the most proud for our entire team and extended network of active players who have made it possible for us to pursue our goals during the past 18 months.
It would not have been possible to invent, build and scale multiple new culinary concepts during the worst economic and humanitarian crisis we have been forced to live through after WW2.
Together we have been able to secure the living and safety of our team members, serve an extended group of people not only with fine dining experiences, but with comfort food and street food. We have created an art gallery, serving soul food to a wide group of people regardless of their background and most recently, raised significant amounts of money for Children and Youth mental wellbeing through our charity auction.
With this energy and perseverance we are looking very positively towards the 1st of October, reopening Restaurant Inari, continuing to expand Koti By Kim Mikkola and the KotKot street food concepts together with our art gallery The Platform Gallery.
The Year of The Ox has been and will continue to be mostly about focusing on our relationships, in the broadest sense of the word. We have designed, built and distributed wellbeing and positive experiences in the forms of food, arts and charity to a larger network of people than ever before. This I hold as something that I can proudly look back at over the years to come and say we did something as a team during these difficult times that helped many to survive and stay positive.
“To cook is to care about others. To cook is to think, more than to do”.
Thank you all for the continuous support - LET’S GO!