Tio Tikka, Food (Truck) Pioneer

Helsinkian Tio Tikka is only 21 years old. Yet, he has already been the brains behind some great food concepts in the Finnish capital.

At the age of 19 he popped up in downtown Helsinki’s public space with a Citroën Camionette truck that he had turned into a 24/7 crêperie/coffee bar on wheels. His struggle with the local authorities over street-selling permits paved the way for a (very) humble street food culture in Helsinki. We had a chat with Tio during our Helsinki visit, in his new restaurant/club Suola that he opened three weeks ago.

Why are you so passionate about food trucks and street food? And how did the Camionette come about?
“I fell in love with food trucks when I was 14 years old. I saw a commercial from the 1950s about an espresso truck on the streets in Rome, and I realized that no-one had ever done that in Finland. After I finished school I started building my own truck. I wanted to build a crêperie and coffee bar into an old 1970s Citroën Camionette truck which I had found online. I had a three-month holiday which was so boring that I decided to do it. I got the truck shipped from Belgium and began building myself, since I found out there are no Finnish companies specialized in building these kinds of things. As I said, Camionette was a crêpes restaurant. Besides offering food we had a pretty extensive line of specialty coffees made from beans from a local roaster.”

Camionette generated plenty of publicity in Helsinki, not only because its great concept, but also due to your struggles with the local authorities.
“When I tried to get the food truck running in 2010, the city basically said: ‘No way you’re going to run a food truck in Helsinki, ’cause there’s no space for them’. There were no basic rules or regulations for dealing with food trucks in public space. I think the authorities should just treat it like a car that occupies a parking lot, nothing more. But they didn’t. Anyway, this struggle took place right before the elections and meanwhile I had generated some publicity with the Camionette. The truck’s Facebook page, for instance, got 10,000 fans after only a couple of days. Some politicians backed the idea and a week later the city seemed to be fine with my plans and gave me permission to run the food truck. My food truck was located near the Forum shopping center in downtown Helsinki. It was a good spot near a metro entrance. I kept it in the same spot for the entire Summer — it was open 24/7 until the end of August. Six employees worked in the truck. It was a success.

Then the city organized some competition for food truck lots in the city. They offered ten available lots all around the center. One was good — mine —, the other available street food spots were absolutely rubbish — behind buildings and stuff like that. They forced you to guess or propose your own rent, which resulted in rents ranging from 80 euros/month to 2,000 euros/month. Another strange thing was the opening hours. You could have the same spot from 10 to 9 and then someone else could take it for the night time so you had to leave, if you like it or not. That was not my cup of tea — I wanted to be open 24/7 in the Summer at the same spot. When the Summer of 2011 ended I felt I was done, I wanted to do something else. I currently rent out the Camionette for occasional festivals, parties, marketing events, you name it.”

What should Helsinki, and other cities, do to improve local street food culture?
“It wouldn’t be bad to take a look at how cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco deal with food trucks. These places have special food truck courts and city-operated maps that show you where the food trucks are located. It would be great if cities like Helsinki would sell licenses to food truck entrepreneurs for 50 euros/month and let them go wherever they want to go. Food trucks can then just settle on parking lots and rent this way. Parking fees are expensive enough in Helsinki — like 38 euros/day in the city center. On the other hand, a thing the authorities should strongly regulate is the hygiene part, so make sure that the food quality is good at all times. When I walked in, the authorities had never seen a food truck before, so they didn’t know how to deal with it. It was a completely new thing in Helsinki. The city officials were really cooperative in regard to the hygiene regulations when I built my food truck, but, as you know, they weren’t that cooperative at all when it came to the selling food from a vehicle on the street.”

So what’s the current status of street food in Helsinki? How many food trucks does Helsinki count at the moment?
“None, I guess… at least no real food trucks. There are some vehicles that sell food on the street here, but those aren’t typical food trucks. Nevertheless, the City of Helsinki is loosening its policy little by little. A great example here is that the city currently has people on board who are actually developing an urban food strategy for Helsinki. That’s great.”

Could you describe your new restaurant, Suola?
“I would call Suola a modern bistro. We serve modern bistro food at very reasonable prices, and we have a great selection of wines and other drinks. We have seven different Bloody Mary’s, for instance. Another reason to go here is the club in the basement, which has a rawer look-and-feel. The publicity that the Camionette generated has definitely helped me to create this place.”

Click here to visit Camionette’s Facebook page. Tio Tikka’s new restaurant Suola is located at Annankatu 6 in Helsinki. Be sure to check out the free e-book Helsinki Street Eats in case you’re interested in reading more about street food culture in Helsinki.

Helsinki is 2012’s World Design Capital. Visit Finland invited us to come over to explore the city’s design treasures. The ‘Design in Helsinki’ series highlights the best projects, concepts and designs we came across during our visit.