Cafe Democracy


What’s the connection between the independence referendum, pop up cafes and Helsinki? Bear with me.

Restaurants and cafes are rarely seen as centres of radical thought these days. Even though Camille Desmoulins chose the Café de Foy to rouse his countrymen in July 1789 – two days before the fall of the Bastille and the start of the French revolution. In fact, coffee-houses were already information exchanges for writers, politicians, businessmen and ordinary people. In the words of a 17th century London writer and café regular; “So great a Universitie, I think there ne’er was any. In which you may a Scholar be, for spending of a Penny.”

These days though Starbucks rules the roost and facilitates community action about as much as it pays tax. Restaurants appear even less socially conscious. It’s true that some modern chefs have exercised clout– Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall fight against dumping fish through discards and Jamie Oliver’s school dinners campaign spring to mind.

But for the majority of Scots restaurants are a luxury. And for the majority of serious political types an irrelevance. In Scotland, “real politics” focuses on the independence referendum, employment and wages. “Real life” outside work (still) revolves around football. Real food, real local control, real relaxation and real fun figure almost nowhere in our earnest, political plans. And yet we know a poor quality of life produces early mortality, under-performance and passivity. Poor Scotia.

Almost 250 years ago, the wit and bon viveur Samuel Johnson toured the Inner Hebrides with his Scottish companion James Boswell. After just a few days travel he made an observation that cut to the heart of Scottishness. A stern Presbyterian culture with no messing, no fripperies and no time or tolerance for folk fiddling with choice, daintiness or taste;

The Scots have attained the liberal without the manual arts. They have excelled in ornamental knowledge [without] the conveniences of common life. They are more accustomed to endure little wants than to remove them.

Of course poverty explained almost all of that behaviour. But when incomes started to rise the quality of the Scots diet generally didn’t. Quite the opposite. Our feudal and uniquely concentrated system of land ownership made it hard for even farm workers to grow their own food. City workers in casual employment and poverty wages simply fuelled up – disconnected from the land and its bounty. Now that disconnect is a fixed part of our urban culture. What else is the largely mythical Fried Mars Bar and the very real fish supper fixation than a collective two fingers to the Pollyanna types who believe food can be home grown, home-made, affordable, nutritious and fun? Government research shows Scots consume more sweets, soft drinks, pies and processed meats and eat less fruit, veg, fish, milk, yogurt and cheese than folk in any other part of the UK.

If what you eat is what you are, Scots are in bad shape. And what could be more important to change than that?

But how? Three friends in the Finnish capital Helsinki may have stumbled across a novel solution.

The idea came when Antti Tuomola tried to set up a restaurant in the archipelago of Helsinki. Stringent regulations stopped the idea getting off the ground, so Tuomola called upon friends Olli Sirén and Timo Santala for help. They discovered restrictions didn’t apply to “pop-up” restaurants which opened for one day only. Restaurant Day was born.

After a brainstorming session, Facebook page, and social media campaign that captured imaginations 21st May 2011 became the first Restaurant Day with 40 one-day restaurants in towns and cities across Finland. On street corners, in public parks and in private homes, even on the beach, everyday folks set up restaurants, cafes and bars selling everything and anything, from gourmet hamburgers to exotic delicacies. There were no permissions, no requests, no barriers, no asking what is possible or what is allowed. And there was no trouble.

City officials wisely decided not to interfere and the idea spread. Now Restaurant Day is the world’s biggest food carnival and takes place in 55 countries, four times a year for 24 glorious, unregulated hours.

And according to Timo Santala, it really is glorious.

People used attics, basements, boats, wine cellars and unused railways tracks. Streets were filled with people talking to one another. Liquorice herring, mars bar cheesecakes and even grasshoppers were on sale. The creative energy released was amazing. There was a sushi auction where you had to bid to get the food. Blinis in a basket were lowered from a third floor window. One guy took a week off work to catch fish for his pop up restaurant. There was a finger food restaurant for babies, a restaurant for dogs, a hot chocolate moustache café, champagne tasting on a hot air balloon, a Viking menu in a tattoo shop, hangover pizzas complete with painkillers and a traditional Somali dinner served in a Somali home.

As Timo points out there is no better way of meeting new people or integrating into a new place as an immigrant than round a shared dinner table because food brings people together in a way official projects sometimes don’t.

Opening up your own restaurant is a very common shared dream. On Restaurant Day you don’t need to be professional – you don’t even have to know how to cook. Most participants are normal people who don’t take part to make money. Prices are usually just enough to cover costs or donate profits to charity. In Finland one artist accepted old used toys which she used as artwork. The energy is also infectious. One couple strolled around Helsinki’s Restaurant Day and came home at 4pm. Most inspired customers wait until the next Day to get going but they started straight away. They put soup on at 5pm signed in on our website and at 6pm I was one of their first customers. There was glitter make up on the tables and you got a one euro discount if you wore it.

But how did the “official” restaurant trade react?

“Chefs of the two Michelin starred restaurants in Helsinki came to serve hamburgers for free. It was Michelin star hamburgers in a park. One pop up café is now a full-time restaurant – and perhaps the whole thing has challenged restaurants to liven up their thinking. Last Restaurant Day the first North Korean restaurant opened outside N Korea with a Facebook campaign which had the Great leader Kim Jong-il inspecting the restaurant and awarding it four Michelin stars. Beat that for imagination.”

There have also been plaudits not brickbats from officialdom.

According to Jussi Pajunen, the Mayor of Helsinki; “Restaurant Day is exactly the sort of project that will define our future. Restaurant Day has inspired the city’s population to question how things are run and to experiment and put forward new ideas of how daily life might be improved in the future.

After Timo and his fellow organisers were awarded the prestigious Finland Prize in 2011, Johanna Mäkelä, professor of Food Culture at the University of Helsinki said; Restaurant Day is a prime example of how food can give birth to a new type of communality.”

Perhaps that was most vividly demonstrated by the media. Even though the corrosive negativity and cynicism of British tabloids is mercifully absent from most Nordic societies, Restaurant Day organisers still feared the press might pounce on any hint of chaos, disorganisation or mismanagement — and of course ahead of one Restaurant Day there were problems with the website.

“A reporter from the largest newspaper in Finland Helsingin Sanomat was straight on the phone. But they were offering to help and ended up putting all the information about cafes and registration on their website for us, free of charge. It was amazing.”

But has Restaurant Day in Helsinki changed anything permanently?

“True democracy is built through participation and interaction. It asks “what if” and it has the guts to question how things are done. Restaurant Day inspired people to put forward new ideas of how things might be run in the future. It created a feeling that the city belongs to the people. That we have the power to change our living environment and prove something about freedom, trust, participation and change. Restaurant Day offered a concrete example of what could happen if we just trusted people and common sense. When people are given freedom people also assume responsibility.”


So could something that gloriously anarchic, food-worshipping, grassroots and community-building happen here in Scotland this year?

Changes to the everyday routine by everyday people on their own doorsteps can generate powerful feelings of optimism about social and political change. Watching other “special” people excel generally doesn’t. Passivity induced by top-down governance is the enemy of just about everything in Scotland – and the independence referendum is no exception. Somehow the Scottish Government believes that organised razzamatazz and a welter of top-down initiatives will inspire doubters to vote yes on September 18th. Instead, they could let go of the reins and let something genuinely spontaneous take place. Like a Scottish Restaurant Day – if we are up for it.

Of course, some might argue the Finns are a special case Scots cannot hope to copy.

Helsinki is already one of the world’s most popular cities amongst residents – perhaps they feel it’s a society worth fighting for. The city council owns more than three quarters of its land – and has been quietly redeveloping with affordable housing, local architects and excellent public transport links for the last twenty years (all pushed through by a conservative-led council). Ironically though, the Finns highly successful model of urban living may have helped fuel the desire of younger citizens for spontaneous action — everyday life is highly planned, designed and structured. Their equal society means poverty is almost unknown, food is generally high quality and Finns have weekend huts, a regular connection with nature and a knowledge of life beyond the city confines.

So is Finland a case apart?

Thirty years ago, eastern parts of Europe’s most remote nation had a worse diet and a worse heart disease record than Scotland. The Finns still have more smokers, a higher suicide rate and heavier drinkers than the rest of the Nordic region – though their social problems are still not a patch on Scotland’s. So what the Finns can do is not unachievable. Indeed in many ways, the Finns are our most realistic role models.

What about Restaurant Day in Edinburgh – or maybe better in Glasgow during the Commonwealth Games this summer when folk from 70 nations are set to arrive looking for connection, fun and genuine hospitality. Glasgow could be perfect for Scotland’s first Restaurant Day. Nowhere in Scotland has a bigger ethnic mix, greater tradition of hospitality, more robust delight in confounding authority (just think traffic cone) – and nowhere is in greater need of a better diet.

Restaurant Day is a very portable idea. According to organisers the world’s biggest food carnival has witnessed the creation of 8,500 one-day restaurants by 35,000 restaurateurs with an estimated 930,000 customers. One-day restaurants have popped up in 55 different countries including Argentina, Aruba, Australia, Austria, Bangladesh, Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, China, Colombia, Czech Republic, Denmark, England, Ecuador, Estonia, Finland, France, French Polynesia, Germany, Greece, Guyana, Hungary, Iceland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Mexico, Mozambique, Nepal, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Rwanda, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Tanzania, Thailand, Turkey, Ukraine, Venezuela, USA and Uzbekistan.

Restaurant Days in 2014 are 16 February, 17 May, 17 August, 15 November.

Could Scotland be next?

Comments (13)

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  1. Wilma Watts says:

    What a fantastic idea. You will have my email address attached so you can put anyone else in touch if you get any others interested. I am in Tarbert, Argyll or can be in Glasgow.

  2. Derek Coghill says:

    17th August is mid-Festival in Edinburgh, too. Depends on Edinburgh Cooncil having a sense of humour, mind… (don’t mention the T-word)

  3. What a fantastic idea. I’m up for it…….we could have a musical pop up restaurant with a new take on service station food! Or an alternative take on some highland take away.

  4. Abulhaq says:

    The bad Scottish diet is essentially one driven by comfort eating; high carbohydrate, high fat, low nutrition. Just like the politics of unionism injurious to mind, body and soul. The enjoyment of “good food” is not elitist any more than delight in good music or good literature. Excellence is no sin!

  5. David McCann says:

    Absolutely brilliant idea. Lets go for it!

  6. Crubag says:

    A rather mangled first quotation – it is a cut and shunt from two quite different passages in Johnson’s “Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland.”

    The first two lines relate to his time in Inverness, where he was contrasting Scottish achievement in literature with advancement in agriculture and trades, the full passage ends with “Literature soon after its revival found its way to Scotland, and from the middle of the sixteenth century, almost to the middle of the seventeenth, the politer studies were very diligently pursued. The Latin poetry of Deliciæ Poëtarum Scotorum would have done honour to any nation, at least till the publication of May’s Supplement the English had very little to oppose.”

    The third line is from his time in Skye, where he was commenting on the lack of specialised trades in the islands which would provide solutions to local problems. There is no link made to Presbyertian recitude, which in any event Johnson thought “by trade and intercourse with England, is now visibly abating” – though that was not all to the good in his opinion.

    Johnson does give a rolling rendition of what he considered the benefits of union “Till the Union made them acquainted with English manners, the culture of their lands was unskilful, and their domestick life unformed; their tables were coarse as the feasts of Eskimeaux, and their houses filthy as the cottages of Hottentots.”

    But his predictions as to the fate of Scots did come to pass: “The conversation of the Scots grows every day less unpleasing to the English; their peculiarities wear fast away; their dialect is likely to become in half a century provincial and rustick, even to themselves. The great, the learned, the ambitious, and the vain, all cultivate the English phrase, and the English pronunciation, and in splendid companies Scotch is not much heard, except now and then from an old Lady.”

    1. An Duine Gruamach says:

      Yes, an otherwise very good article marred only by this rather odd mangling. I can only assume Lesley got it in that form in some secondary literature – since it’d be a bit of a faff to cobble it together like that specially for this article. I also wonder what Presbyterianism has to do with it. Sorley MacLean, no friend of the Kirk(s) remarked that Calvinism was a handy scapegoat for all of Scotland’s problems, but only for those with rather sketchy ideas of what is actually is. Mind you, I suppose the no-less-auster Lutheran Nordics must be holding those societies back something dreadful. (In one of his books, “Pan”, I think, Knut Hamsun refers to someone being “as gentle as a Scottish pastor – perhaps something to bear in mind when people try to pin our problems on our supposedly grim religion!)

      That aside, the idea is a great one, and something I’d love to see happen. As long as it wasn’t something as dreadfully up-itself as the Foodie festival in Edinburgh. You could smell the Guardian coming off the people there, the food was overpriced and all it really was was all the restaurants coming together in one place with vans. If we can get something as “democratic”, fun and interesting as what Lesley’s described, I’m all up for it!

  7. Wullie says:

    Dr Johnson of course was hardly a model of sophistication himself, a soap-dodger par excellence he could be identified in the dark apparently, bowfin was not in it, and not in his dictionary either. 🙂
    Good idea from Lesley however.
    Make that wummin the first president!

  8. Jim says:

    Naah. It wouldn’t work Lesley. Scotland is too cold and too rainy whereas Scandanavia isn’t.

    Sorry. I was giving the Better Together response there!

  9. eilidh says:

    This sounds amazing! I’d love to make this happen. Who are you?! And how can we make this a reality?
    A friend of mine and I are setting up a sustainable-istic pop up cafe in Scotland this year and we stumbled upon this blog. Sounds really exciting. And optimistic. And important.
    Let us know if we can help

  10. Christine says:

    Sounds amazing. Not a bad idea altogether. A restaurant day in Zurenborg. Guess should try out that one too.

  11. Dion Scott says:

    Scotland is indeed an interesting place. “Restaurant Day” is indeed a revolution of sorts. Keep posting such interesting information.

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