A little over a decade ago, Anders Westerholm and Matti Sarkkinen began to doubt their business model. As the owners of a cocktail bar in Helsinki, they realised that the worse their customers felt the next day, the better the business was going – and that couldn’t be right.
“In a way, you were supposed to want to encourage your customers to have one more drink, although it was in no way good for their health,” Westerholm explains. “So yeah, in the long run, that didn’t feel fantastic.”
The duo of entrepreneurs (and owners of We Are Group) decided it was time to dive into the more adult side of the restaurant industry: food. A little later and almost by coincidence, they took over a restaurant serving Japanese food in central Helsinki, renowned for its world-class quality.
It was all well and good, but it was a concept built by someone else. The two men started to ponder over the option of founding something that would be created entirely by them.
The idea for what it could be occurred, again, by coincidence.
The Nordic way of sushi-ing
Sometimes you have to go far to see close. That’s what gave birth to Sushibar+Wine.
“We’ve always known that travelling expands one’s views of the world, and so we do it in abundance,” Westerholm tells. “Once in Barcelona, a local friend wanted to take me to a sushi restaurant that was, in terms of its interior and atmosphere, exactly like a traditional Spanish tavern with Spanish music playing. Basically, everything was full-on Spanish, but they sold sushi.”
The place was jam-packed with locals. Westerholm recalls walking out of the restaurant and thinking: this is it.
“It was my eureka moment. I had to call Matti right away.”
The first Sushibar+Wine was set up in Helsinki pretty much exactly 10 years ago. Its philosophy owes to the place in Catalonia: not trying to create a little Japan but, instead, being proudly Nordic and fine-tuning the food, values and atmosphere to suit the local taste.
Now, there are five Sushibar+Wine restaurants scattered around central Helsinki. Despite being a chain, Westerholm emphasises that each branch is managed as if it was the only one. This, in his view, is visible in their character.
“This way we can avoid the negative effects of chains,” he says. “Our restaurants aren’t just generic sushi places.”
Great shoes and plenty of enthusiasm
Helsinkians have embraced their sushi and wine, and now it’s time for the company to try its seaweedy wings abroad. In early November, the founders announced that two restaurants will be set up in Oslo, Norway, the first one opening its doors in March 2020 and the other following suit in May.
Westerholm tells that the duo’s aim has always been to do inspiring things that are in keeping with the times. Going international seemed like an opportunity to push their limits.
“Wherever we’ve travelled, we’ve not stumbled across anything similar to Sushibar+Wine,” he says. “As we have a well-run and profitable business in Finland, we figured it’s time to take it to the next level.”
Oslo was chosen after careful consideration. Westerholm and Sarkkinen compared the 10 biggest cities in the Nordics, and narrowed down the list to three, all of which they went to visit with local agents – a tour that demanded “great shoes and plenty of enthusiasm”.
Many things were on Oslo’s side, one being the closeness of sustainably produced salmon.
“We didn’t want to just export Finnish expertise but also to bring something back,” Westerholm says. “It’s really good for us to be nearer the fisheries and the entire industry as, so far, we’ve communicated through middlemen.”
Right now, the focus is fully on ensuring success in Oslo. Westerholm says that the plan is to eventually have more than two restaurants in the Norwegian capital.
“Our near future is filled with Norway-themed thoughts,” Westerholm says laughingly.