Friday, December 19, 2014

Fast Food Finland

One part of my life in Finland that would certainly have been different if I had not left the US is my eating habits, especially when it comes to fast food.

We don’t eat a lot of fast food here, not compared to Americans, at least not in my family. Even when our kids were small we avoided going to McDonald's more than once or so a month, if even that. Nowadays, the most I’ll consume any kind of burger-and-fries “combo meal” in Finland is maybe two or three times a year.

I’m not saying that’s typical for Finns. Or that no fast food exists here. It does, but it’s nothing like the take-out cornucopia of North America.

In Finland, you won’t find the junk-food strips so typical of American cities, those long stretches of urban landscape lined with dozens of different franchises, where you can cruise along until you find the hamburger or taco or fried chicken or pizza or whatever quickly prepared meal your heart, or stomach, might desire. That culture doesn’t exist here.

If there’s something Americans do love, no, demand, it is choice and convenience. And nowhere does that seem truer than when eating is involved. Finns, and Europeans in general, haven’t been brought up with the same expectation of cheap and easy food, not until recently at least.

As late as the early 80s, American-style “fast” food was a still new experience for some Finnish folks, especially the older generation.

I remember when my in-laws went to a McDonald's for the first (and certainly the only) time. We were traveling back with them from Switzerland, where we had been visiting my sister-in-law Eeva-Riitta. In Lübeck, West Germany, we decided to make a quick stop for coffee at a McDonald's before catching the ferry back to Helsinki. Now, it’s not unusual for Finns to stop for coffee, not at all, especially on a longish drive. For my in-law’s generation, though, you stop for coffee, none of this driving and drinking from a travel mug, and you stop at a cafe, where they have real ceramic dishware, not paper cups and plastic spoons.

Drinking from paper cups might have been bad enough, but as we started to depart the McDonald's in Lübeck, I really took my mother-in-law by surprise when I rose from the table, took the food tray and dumped our empty cups into the trashcan. It was her first exposure to a “restaurant” where the customers are forced to clear their own tables.

Another example of fast-food culture shock occurred when I was briefly living again in Georgia. Eeva-Riitta had come over for a visit from Switzerland, and we were taking her on a trip to New Orleans. As we started out in the morning on the long drive from Athens to Louisiana, we stopped at a McDonald's for coffee and, probably for me anyway, some Egg McMuffins.

For Eeva-Riitta, who was something of a gourmet, maybe what we’d call a foodie nowadays, it was probably distasteful enough to be stopping for breakfast at a hamburger place. After all, it hadn’t been many years earlier that the first American hamburger joint in Winterthur, where she lived, had been bombed soon after opening, much to general approval of some residents.

But what really shocked her was that we didn’t even get out of the car and had our food handed to us through a window. She’d never realized such a thing as Drive Thru existed. Luckily, the food served in the restaurants we later visited in the Big Easy did meet with her approval, so maybe that made up for the indignity of Drive Thru.

Anyway, like I say, fast food is not unknown in Finland, and I’m not talking about the time-honored tradition of the “nakkikioski”, those steamy sidewalk booths selling water-soaked hot dogs and otherwise greasy fare to the somber folks pausing on a winter’s night on their journey between last call and the last bus home. And I’m not talking about the kebab places that are everywhere. I’m talking about American-style fast food, mainly McDonald’s.

McDonald’s arrived in Finland just two years after I did, opening its first restaurant here in 1984. Now, there are some 80 throughout the country, so the chain seems popular enough with Finns.

But before there was McDonald’s, there was Carrol’s. This American chain that I’d never heard of established itself in Finland in the mid-70s. I didn’t even realize it was originally American; I always assumed it was a purely Finnish imitation. In the early days, I would drop into one now and then and order a “Big Carolina” burger and ranskalaiset (French fries). It made me think of home. Kind of.

Finland does have its own, completely Finnish, hamburger chain, Hesburger. The founder of the chain was even invited to this year’s Independence Day gala at the Presidential Palace. I used to think that Hesburger evolved from the Snacky grilli, another Finnish chain of little fast-food places not much bigger than nakkikioskit. But apparently I’m wrong about that.

I have been to a Hesburger, but I can’t remember when. Sometime long ago. I have heard that they are considered to be better than McDonald’s. Maybe more suited to the local taste. At least, numerically, Hesburger is more successful locally. There are almost 260 stores in Finland, plus outlets in the Baltics, Germany and Russia, even as far afield as Kamchatka in the Russian Far East (only 950 kilometers from US territory!).

Still, nothing matches the worldwide reach of McDonald’s. We have ordered Happy Meals in various countries, ranging from Hungary to Indonesia to New Zealand. The snob in me hates to admit visiting exotic lands, with their own distinctive, mouthwatering cuisine...and then stepping into the familiar, plastic environs of a McDonald’s to order a Big Mac.

The thing is, when you’re traveling to those exotic lands with small kids, you often can’t avoid being drawn into these outposts of American fast food. The hold that McDonald's has on children is simply amazing, a genius of marketing really. Our kids were no less susceptible to the magic of McDonald's (maybe because we normally deprived them of fast food at home), so sometimes we had to give in. And to be fair, often it is obviously the easiest option.

When on a road trip with the kids in the backseat, we had to be careful not to tip our hands if we were even considering stopping at a McDonald’s. Discussing the different places to eat, my wife and I would not dare to actually say the word “McDonald's” aloud, lest we get the kids’ hopes up.

Instead, we took a cue from the world of the theater, where long-held superstition dictates that it’s bad luck to utter the actual name of Shakespeare’s tragedy “Macbeth”. In the same way, whenever we were considering stopping at McDonald’s for lunch, my wife and I would talk mysteriously about “the Scottish restaurant”. As far as I know, the kids never suspected that we weren’t in fact thinking of stopping for some haggis.

Other than McDonald’s, American fast-food franchises have been slow to set up shop in Finland. Subway came here some fifteen years ago. Pizza Hut has been here almost twice as long, but still has only six outlets in the entire country, or so I understand.

Starbucks finally arrived a couple of years ago, entering what is presumably the last civilized country on Earth that did not have even one Starbucks.

That’s about it. No Wendy’s. No KFC. No Domino’s Pizza. No Dunkin’ Donuts. No Taco Bell – which is a shame, since even my wife, no fan of fast food by any means, actually likes Taco Bell. (For the record, she doesn’t mind certain items on the McDonald’s menu either, just not the burgers.) And no Burger King – until recently, that is.

Burger King did open a store here late in 1982. I recall that it was located near the railway station in Kaisaniemi, but I’m not sure if I ever went there. It didn’t last long, maybe a year, maybe more, but not much. That was too bad, since I’ve always preferred BK to McDs, though my wife claims she sees no difference whatsoever between a Whopper and a Quarter Pounder.

A bit more than a year ago, however, Burger King finally returned to Finland, opening a small store on Mannerheimintie, in the location of an old photo shop that I still remember visiting (the bronze door handles still bear the word “Fuji”). Apparently, there were long lines outside waiting to get in, even more than week after it opened. Maybe there really is demand here for a bigger variety of hamburgers.

More Burger King stores have now since opened, and when I finally did step into one for a bite a couple of months ago, it was surely the classiest burger joint I’ve been to in Helsinki, maybe the world.

This Burger King occupies a cavernous room in Helsinki’s historic päärautatieasema, voted by the BBC in 2013 as one of the world’s ten most beautiful railway stations. The room was previously a restaurant and, like the rest of the 100-year-old station, was designed by the Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen, before he moved to the United States to work and teach. (His son would go on to design the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.)

Burger King has naturally left the room’s tall windows and Art Nouveau vaulted ceiling untouched. The National Board of Antiquities wouldn’t have it any other way. And at one end, on the wall high above the counters where customer now order pikaruokaa (fast food), is a beautiful fresco of a Finnish landscape completed in 1911 by Eero Järnefelt, one of the county’s best-loved painters.

Not bad. Compared to the places where I’ve usually had myself a quick meal of grilled meat and deep-fried potatoes, not bad at all.

The Art Nouveau ticket office of the Helsinki railway station.
A matching room now houses a spanking new Burger King.
Photo credit:


  1. I never eat at McDonald's. I hate those joints and don't consider what they serve to be actual food. Yes, I ate there when I was young, but I don't have anything like affection for them. Quite the opposite.

    I worked with a woman who, I discovered, had been to Florence, Italy--a place I crave to see. So of course the first thing I asked her was if she had seen Bruneleschi's Dome or the Baptistry doors.

    "No," she told me. "I don't know what those are. The only place we visited there was the McDonalds. It sure was a nice McDonalds!"

    Great Jove spare me.

    The most interesting McDonalds building I have ever seen is the one in Freeport, Maine. The city did not want to allow them to even build one inside the city limits. But they finally caved when McDonalds submitted blueprints for what they would build to meet the towns specifications. Interesting as the building is, I would still not set foot in it.

    It's good that Finland isn't obsessed with fast food. That's likely one reason I don't see vast crowds of fat people (like me) when I see photos taken in Finland.

    1. That's pretty horrifying to think someone would go to Florence and pay attention only to the McDonald's. I don't even recall seeing one when I was there last winter, except maybe at the railway station.

      I remember some years ago seeing an article in Scientific America, I think, explaining why Americans traveling oversees feel more comfortable going to a McDonald's, it's familiar, it's safe, etc. I can see how in a country like China it can be intimidating to eat in some place where there is no English menu and you can end up ordering dog or pig brains by accident. But the local cuisine in Italy isn't exactly unknown to Americans. Pizza, spaghetti, lasagna. The menu doesn't even have to be in English!

      Unless you have only 15 minutes before catching a train, I can't see why anyone visiting Florence would choose to dine at McDonald's.

  2. Unfortunately, Carrols was bought by Hesburger years ago. They only left one location on Aleksanterinkatu. A couple of years ago they actually started opening new Carrols locations but I think it was too much for the Hesburger execs' prides (they had an all.out three-way burger war in the 90s and Carrols was seen as the coolest) since they then proceeded to turn all of them into Hesburgers. It's a shame because I always preferred Carrols to McDonalds or Hesburger. I think they had ingredients of slightly higher quality, but were sometimes a bit stingy with the "Royal sauce". Hesburger is on the opposite end of the palate and they are probably popular because they are very liberal with their sauces so that no-one ever finds their burgers even remotely dry. I suppose one could argue that any burger will taste good if you drown it in mayonnaise.

    Well, at least there's some small chance of getting a Club Burger every now and then when the powers that be at Hesburger choose to do a campaign run. Not that there is any guarantees that there is ever going to be such a campaign ever again..

  3. Here's hoping the hamburger/french fry grease won't spoil the fresco.

    1. Indeed. I've read that they had to install an especially powerful exhaust system to protect the fresco. Hope it does the trick.