For One Day a Year, You Can Open Your Own Restaurant

The co-working space D.Collective transformed into a pop up restaurant (Photo: Elsa Thorp)

Have you ever dreamed of opening up your very own restaurant? Many of us have, but time and monetary constraints stop most of us from fulfilling that particular culinary dream. 

But what if you could do it for just one day? Now you can.

That’s the idea behind Restaurant Day, a single day when anyone in the world can open his own restaurant and serve strangers a home-cooked meal. It happens every four months (the next one is on Aug. 17) and allows diners to experience a whole new world of cuisine. The idea was cooked up in 2011 in Helsinki by Timo Santala and a friend who wanted to open a traditional restaurant but realized the red tape and regulations made it impossible monetarily. As a protest against the restaurant industry, they decided to start the one-day festival during which anyone could open a place and serve whatever he’d like. The first event had 45 restaurants in 13 cities. From there, the idea  spread like wildfire and blossomed into a party with more than 1,700 restaurants in 30 countries.

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People queuing for the vegan bakings of Kallion Herkut on the second Restaurant Day in Helsinki (Photo: Tuomas Sarparanta)

Restaurants are opened everywhere, including living rooms, front and back yards, parks, alleys, and more. The single-day restaurateurs create a menu and decide what to charge on their own.

Emilie’s Alley, a pop-up restaurant in Amsterdam (Photo: Emilie Majoor)

Emilie Majoor’s one-day restaurant is Emilie’s Alley, a typical Dutch hofje in Amsterdam with a cute cobblestone courtyard.

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“It’s an ideal setting for a cozy brunch when the weather is nice,” Majoor says. “For 15 euro [about $20 U.S.], you can choose three items from my menu. Coffee, tea, and homemade lemonade are included in the price.”

The delicious snacks served at Emilie’s Alley (Photo: Emilie Majoor)

The team at Restaurant Day has created a unique website housing a map of every restaurant available for diners across the world and promotes the eateries on Facebook.

There’s even an app showing where guests can get food. All a potential restaurateur has to do is sign up on the site, and from there it’s just down to the cooking and keeping up with demand — which aren’t easy tasks.

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“I’ve never seen so many people in my apartment,” said Patrick Lupinski, founder of Restaurant Day in New York City. “They were back-to-back. I was really surprised by the turnout and how quickly it went, and how difficult it is to keep up with a restaurant and hungry people.” Lupinski served a traditional Finnish pea soup and bread at his restaurant, a throwback to the original event creators.

Food regulations are one of the major obstacles to Restaurant Day in the U.S., but for what it’s worth, the event’s intention is to shirk those rules. Most of those running restaurants for the day ignore legality and instead simply keep a very clean kitchen space — and most don’t get caught. If a potential restaurateur wants to be completely legit and avoid any fines, they need to check with their state and county authorities to obtain permits from the health department and a catering or temporary food establishment license, in addition to any other special regulations the area requires.

Lingerie designer Tyra Therman serves tea, cupcakes, and pies in her boutique. Heidi Helenius and Heikki and Elsi Urpelainen are her customers in Punavuoren Teehuone, Helsinki. (Photo: Heidi Uutela)

So in our food-obsessed society, what does it mean for the future of America’s culinary landscape now that anyone can be a restaurateur? Aaron Allen, a corporate restaurant consultant, says Restaurant Day is indicative of a larger movement in the culinary world to step away from the big chain restaurants and toward a more mobile style of eating.

“What we’re seeing is a kind of shrinking of the box,” he says. “The bulk of the food service operations in other parts of the world are food carts. Here in the U.S., it’s mostly been sit-down restaurants. But we’re officially having more street food now. Very large casual dining restaurants having the same old stuff they’ve had for the last 20 years. Consumers are looking for something different. They’re kind of bored with it.”

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Christine Couvelier, a culinary trendologist with Culinary Concierge, agrees with Allen but also says Restaurant Day might take a different route in North America. She says the food consumer now is more educated than ever before with the huge number of culinary shows and magazines available. With all the “foodpreneurs” already putting together their own pop-up restaurants to test out new tastes and ideas, Couvelier says Restaurant Day could become part of a larger food show or food event where people already gather to eat.

But ask anyone who has done it and he’ll tell you it’s not so much about the food as it is about togetherness.

“I think people are hungry for this,” Lupinksi said. "I love the idea of the community coming together and meeting each other and congregating around one of the most social aspects of the human being, and that’s eating.”

Jennifer Billock is a culinary travel writer, editor, and author. She owns Jennifer Billock Creative Services, a boutique editing and writing firm focusing on magazines and book manuscripts. 

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