Fading smell of enthusiastic food?

By: Mikko Jääskeläinen

First of all, congratulations for Restaurant Day and the original innovators behind the concept, for the nomination as best event of 2012 by Best of Helsinki! In the present active scene of enthusiastic active citizens organizing all kind of activities and events that is really something to be proud of!

For those of us still not aware what this event, close to its second anniversary, is about; Restaurant Day is a day hold four times a year when anybody can put up his or her own restaurant in the city for one day, be it in a park or on the street or in your living room. You can sign up your restaurant beforehand on Restaurant Day web page so that the prospective Restaurant Day customers can find your very special eatery through a map on the web page or through mobile applications.

The triumph of Restaurant Day has been wild to follow. From mere 40 restaurants in Helsinki during the first Restaurant Day on May 2011, the sixth Restaurant Day on August 2012 catered 782 restaurants in 12 different countries and now a bit more than a week before the seventh one on 17th November, already 340 restaurants in 18 countries, and in 99 cities, have already signed up. The organizers themselves are excitingly wondering, which city will become the 100nd one.

I interviewed Niku Paananen, who put up a restaurant with his friends in Roihuvuori, selling blueberry pie, hot chocolate and coffee on the third Restaurant day just a year ago. According to the words of Niku, Restaurant Day is a nice concept and he sees people enjoying themselves participating in this activity.

But where does this Helsinki originated movement is heading to? Will it eventually reach every substantial city? Will it grow to become even more popular?

I hate to be the person pronouncing aloud the pessimistic word about a concept that is uniting and exciting people and which is an event even the columnist himself enjoys taking part to (as a customer). The harsh reality is going to be however, as we found out in a group study on social movements in Helsinki on a Systems Thinking course at Aalto University, that Restaurant Day has only a limited number of prospective participants in the end. Why it would be like that, the readers may ask, that an all popular event wouldn’t success in the future? Well, let me explain that.

First of all, having had fast expansion into additional cities, Restaurant Day will only invoke to those citizens of those cities, which have a certain high enough level of regulation for restaurant business. That in effect excludes all the developing countries and cities, as well as all those cities, where setting up street food stalls is easy and straightforward even in current framework. No special day is required for encouraging street food culture.

Secondly, and most importantly; the success of Restaurant Day relies on people, and only enthusiastic people can make it work. So let’s take the original city of the idea, Helsinki, for example. Next week we’ll have the 7th Restaurant Day and the awareness of the concept has reached even larger crowd.

In innovation adaption curve terms we are probably reaching a point, when early or late majority are putting up their restaurants. But what about all those innovators and early adaptors, in the frontline, who were setting up the first restaurants? How many times they are going to repeat, having a pop-up restaurant?

Niku says that now after having set up one restaurant, he would find the threshold much lower to do it again, even though, he admits, that is going to be very unlikely. He even goes into confessing, that he never participated as a customer, because he always seemed to have something else to do on Restaurant Days. Your columnist also genuinely suspect if the enthusiastic innovators, Niku among them, have enthusiasm to again and again set up new restaurants after the novelty of the concept degrades and the event becomes commonplace. Same can be said of the late comers as well.

So in the end the success of Restaurant Day relies on luring in more people, who are willing to live their restaurant dream for one day, which attracts other citizens to participate and enjoy food creations. The spreading of the idea is reinforced by a self-reinforcing cycle of more people getting aware of the concept after each Restaurant Day, which induces them to set up restaurants, which gathers people to try out the offering of these pop-up eateries. And finally during and after each Restaurant Day, the media coverage helps in spreading the word.

But inevitably the number of restaurants popping up will turn into decline as most of the potential pop-up restaurant owners have set up one and move on getting the excitement for life from other novel ideas and concepts. So even though Restaurant Day currently has self-reinforcing support for its success, the prognostic is, that the movement will finally run out of energy.