Restaurant Day and the role of money

By: Elina Tarkkonen

The first Restaurant Day was organized in Helsinki in May 2011. The idea of this new type of event spread through the social media and eventually almost 40 pop-up restaurants in 13 different places in Finland generated a new phenomena that so far has been here to stay. Restaurant Day is based on the idea that during one day, anyone can set up a temporary pop-up restaurant in a place where the imagination is the only limit, and without the compulsion to obey the regulations and legislation that is related to normal restaurant business. This privilege also includes the freedom to earn tax-free income. Restaurant Day has been an extremely successful event and nowadays it is organized four times a year all over the world. One of the reasons for its success is most probably the fact, that Restaurant Day offers an exquisite opportunity for ordinary people to test new restaurant concepts and ideas as well as new recipes, supporting also the local communities by offering a way to have fun and get together.

In a short time, Restaurant Day has grown into a big phenomena. It has received a lot of positive feedback, but there are also people, that have criticised the event. One of the critiques claim that Restaurant Day enhances unreported employment because the pop-up restaurants and their workers are not obliged to pay taxes. On the other hand, some people support the event by saying that Restaurant Day generates another type of value for the society and communities, such as cultural, which in comparison to taxation is just less economical. In this debate the answer to who is right, depends on how you look at the things. It is hard to deny the cultural value of Restaurant Day and its impact on Finnish food and city culture. However, even in small scale, Restaurant Day is a way of doing business at least in some sense, because the trade-off is based on money. In addition, the bigger the event grows, the more commercial players it might allure. If there is a loophole in the system, someone will eventually utilize it for making profit. Perhaps it would be a bit naive to think that all the Restaurant Day’s pop-up restaurants are set up for sincere reasons to offer the community people a way to have fun and try out new dishes. Although there are rules that forbid the misuse of Restaurant Day for any commercial activities, there has been pop-up restaurants that have used the event for their own – not so sincere – purposes. Unfortunately, controlling the misuse of Restaurant Day is impossible because of its own rules. When there is no any real regulations to obey, there is no legal way to control the participants either.

It would be interesting to know how would the Restaurant Day change if the trade-off between the pop-up restaurant and the client would be based on something else than money, such as food. At the moment, money seems to be one of the leverage points that enables the pop-up restaurants activity. Would it work if the clients brought their own ingredients, such as vegetables, as a trade-off to the chefs for having food? Would it cause the collapse of Restaurant Day or would it just become a small, more inner circle system? Although most of the pop-up restaurants are set up for sincere reasons to serve the community a way to have fun, it is obvious that it is not any kind of charity activity. For the pop-up restaurants the money trade-off means covering the costs of food they need to buy in order to make the dishes, and for the clients it is the ticket for participation. If the money wasn’t involved, the event would be quite probably very different and maybe it wouldn’t be that well-functioning and successful at all. And I am quite sure, that if the pop-up restaurants make some profit during the Restaurant Day, it will be a good motivator to participate in Restaurant Day also the next time.

While writing this article, the new Restaurant Day pop-up restaurants are getting ready for the 7th event that will be held in November 17th in 2012. The Restaurant Day’s Facebook page praises the upcoming event by saying that it is something that could not be achieved by money and nice frames, but with good spirit. In the same sentence however, the happening is divided in two different key actors: the service providers and the consumers. And yet, despite the definition of the participants, it is not supposed to have any commercial features.

The dream of the people behind the original idea of Restaurant Day, was to have an international festival that would spread to all countries all over the world. However, the big events such as festivals usually involve different kind of commercial actors that eventually change the spirit of the event. In Restaurant Day’s case it would be good to evaluate if the event should actually stay as a grass-root community action instead of growing bigger and bigger every year. The future of Restaurant Day is yet unknown, but if it keeps on growing, undoubtedly, there will be a day when the event has become too big to preserve the original idea of being just a non-commercial, community based happening. So far here in Finland, the idea of Restaurant Day has been protected by giving it a freedom to operate outside the legislation, but how long will this privilege last? If Restaurant Day becomes profitable for the service providers, it might rapidly change the aims to participate. Would Restaurant Day be the same if it lost the feeling of being little bit of rebellious and if it was like any other commercial event regulated by the law?