The quest for an American Diner.

Our stealthy sources at HAAGA-HELIA StartUp School alerted us about a certain couple hatching a master-plan: to open an authentic, 50s era, American Diner in the middle of Helsinki! Somehow we managed to get invited to a tasting session at which the following was offered: chicken wings, mac-and-cheese, crab cakes, ribs, club sandwiches, pecan pie, cheesecake… It was delicious, and we wanted to know more about their project.

Hi, there. Tell a bit about yourselves.

Sanna: My name is Sanna Langi, I’m 24 years-young, and I am from Kotka, a town quite close to Helsinki. I was born and raised there, and after high-school I went abroad. I am a free spirit. I have always been lively and sociable.

I went to the UK in a youth exchange program in 2009. I got a job in Scotland, I moved there, and worked for seven months. It was challenging because the work load was too much for my experience at the time. Work-wise it was really exhausting, I was working split shifts and twelve hours a day. We did breakfast, lunch, and dinner shifts, in this massive resort. It was a sobering experience on how crazy the restaurant industry can be. But I also met so many wonderful people from the UK and from all around the world; people I still keep in touch with.

After that, I decided to go to Australia with a Finnish girl that I met in Scotland. We booked tickets within two days’ notice and went to Australia for a three-month “holiday”. We worked for three months in several places, like banana farms, bartending, waitressing. I was even planting papaya trees for a while! Then I came back to Finland.

How did you feel when you came back?

S: Oh, I may be a citizen of the world, but I am Finnish, I love Finland. It’s so honest; people are who they are. I’m proud of my nationality and I embrace it. We have so much knowledge and know-how here, and amazing and successful companies.

So anyway, I came back and was working at the reception of a resort, then I applied to HAAGA-HELIA Hospitality Management School. I got accepted, and… I met Michael there!

On to you, Michael.

Michael: Hi! My name is Michael Beresford. I’m from Winchester, England. I studied tourism at Lincoln University when I was in my twenties. I was fortunate enough to meet my very good friends, who are Finnish. I had never been to Finland before.

S: We wouldn’t have known each other.

M: That’s true! So then I started to come on holidays with them. Very interesting people, and they are very eclectic. They are quite artsy, creative types, which is the people I feel good to be around. I was very impressed with their honesty, and their ability to have fun. They invited me to stay in Finland in 2001 and I came here on a holiday, and was quite impressed with the country, the nature. I found peace here. And then I kept coming sporadically. I graduated on European Tourism, and I decided to move over here. It was kind of a failed attempt, because I spent all my money on music festivals! I was living in Turku, and it was hard to get a job…

S: You were foolish! (laughs)

M: Yeah. So I went home for a while, to work in London, save a little money. I went into banking, which was completely wrong. Then I decided just to work as a waiter, because the banking industry was getting too stressful. After that, in 2009, I packed my things, got a one-way ticket to Helsinki, and came over here again. It was really exciting, and scary. At some point I was homeless, broke an arm at a ski resort, so I couldn’t work… Then I put my passport in the washing machine… I was couch surfing, basically.

How did you survive?

M: My father encouraged to stay and he told me “you’re not coming home, you have to make it work there, it’s what you dreamed of”. So from that, I had the motivation to find myself work. I walked every street in Helsinki until I found a job. I was getting older, so I thought “right, what am I doing?” I had applied to a place at home to study Environmental Science, but I chose not to. I decided to stay here and apply for HAAGA-HELIA University.

S: …then we met!

M: Yes. We had a get-together with the new class. On our way there we “had a few beverages” and started to talk. We realised our goals in life were similar, and we both were keen on entrepreneurship. From that day Kitty’s Diner started to come alive..

S: After some weeks we were on a marketing course and decided to test our concept. We made a promotional campaign for the diner. After that there was no doubt in our minds.

M: It’s fun to see our first materials, the first Kitty…

Who is Kitty?

S: I actually remember the day we came up with Kitty. We met at Michael’s place and co-created Kitty. So at first it was going to be “Kitty’s Kitsch Diner”, then we ditched the Kitsch (Michael did, actually). Then I thought “why don’t we create a Kitty person? She’s like a 43 years-old lady, she looks like this, she wears this type of dresses and this brand of lipstick, she dyes her hair this color…”

M: We brainstormed a lot.

S: “What kind of family does she have, what car does she drive, what does she do, hobbies…”

M: We created this persona. We loved the name Kitty, and we thought it was a great idea: “Kitty’s Diner”. It’s a catchy, American name. And Kitty is a composite of both our characters: fun, frivolous, social, lovable…

S: All of the good qualities, none of the bad! (laughs)

M: She’s colorful, and she develops through time.

S: She’s from Detroit, and recently moved to Helsinki.

How did you get things going?

M: Our mentor at Startup School recommended crowdfunding to us, so we spent six months documenting ourselves, and researching. Recently we began a campaign with Invesdor, which is a new concept in Finland by which people can join in as investors in our project.

S: We did a lot of research for this. We have both worked in many different restaurants in Helsinki too, and believe there is a lot of room for improvement, in management and other areas. But there really isn’t much on offer. So we did our benchmarking and we saw there was a gap in the market place for this kind of offer, for breaking trends, as we call it. People would, according to our research, welcome this type of American dining.

Why did you pick American style in particular?

M: I’ve always been interested in the era also because my father owned many classic cars as well, MGs and motorbikes. He’s even owned vintage boats! He has this vintage-retro side to him. And my mum also has encouraged us to be unique and individual, and the American diner portrays a certain individuality. The fifties were a fun, free era, people didn’t hide behind masks so much, they would go out and socialize a lot more.

A tremendous tension was globally released after the end of WWII.

S: Exactly! And they didn’t have Facebook back then. Today, a strong competitor for restaurants is… home. Basically it’s the whole industry trying to drag people away from their homes and go out to eat. I asked many, many people this question: “where do you go to eat when you go out in Helsinki?” and they go “er, not sure…”

M: So the diner is a classic, from a classic era. And it makes people happy, in a way. You can do so much with colors and the deco!

Will it be kinda like the McDonald’s in Mannerheimintie?

S: The Rokki-Mäkki! No. We don’t want to create a theme restaurant, but to have a general feel to it. The important thing is that we want to be ourselves.

M: We don’t want to call our customers “customers”, but guests, or friends. And that’s the way we want to do it at Kitty’s. It needs to be a personal service, without so much rush. There’s so much you can learn about people just by having a short conversation, a few questions.

S: We are interested in people.

M: And we also want to keep our quality up, all the time. We will focus on this, and also on the training of the staff. So many times I have felt that restaurants don’t put enough time into training their people. You’re expected to know everything out of thin air, and sell the menu to the customers. So we want to focus on their training and personal development.

Let’s talk food.

M: Something related to 1950’s diner food, like what you can get in a diner in New York today. We’re going to have dessert pastries on display on the counter.

S: Cakes won’t be on the menu; we’re going to a have pastry chef doing different cakes every day.

M: We’ll also have the Specials board with different things each day, play with the menu, see what works and what people like. And our milk-shake bar!

S: Yeah! We found several places in Helsinki offering milk-shakes, but we want to offer a great variety of options. We had a huge list, actually…

M: …then we were told “calm down, keep it real!” The problem is that we got so many good ideas from New York: root-beer float, cherry-soda and chocolate ice-cream floats… And this really great one called “New York Cream” which is soda-water, milk, and some syrup…

S: Root-beer float, oh-my-gosh… Rich vanilla ice-cream and then root-beer…

M: And then we can sell eggnog in winter… There’s so much we can do with the milk-shake bar. We have bars like that in the UK, and they’re really popular, because basically you have the candies that you store, and you mix them with ice-cream.

Are you going to offer gym memberships too, to counter-balance all the calories?

(they both laugh)

S: No! It’s their choice! (laughs)

M: We will offer options that are lighter, like salads, but when you think of an American diner you don’t exactly think healthy, but variety.

S: We were asked, in the beginning, what kind of food are you going to offer, and we were like “let’s do this hangover-brunch-thing, ha ha ha!” And then we thought “we can’t do this! Under the new trends in Helsinki everything is organic, everything is gluten-free, blah-blah-free!” So we were considering “let’s do a healthy burger, a healthy this, a healthy that!” It didn’t work. So we just said “let’s do the 50’s diner that we wanted to do in the first place!”.

People can come once per week, and then burn the extra calories the rest of the week.


M: The most exciting part is the all-day breakfast. We’ll have pancakes, waffles, French-toasts…


M: Lots of bacon.

Ok, I’m in. Do you have a place already?

M: We are looking for a place. We need a corner unit in Helsinki!

S: We are in the early stages of the funding, and we’ll also have a meeting next week with Finnvera and the bank. We have a plan B and a plan C.

Any special area you are interested in?

(both) Kallio.

M: It’s such a hip area at the moment for up-and-coming independents. We wouldn’t want to have Kitty’s diner in a shopping center, for instance. It would lose its identity completely. So we need a corner unit, in Kallio, or around that area.

Is there a particular target audience for Kitty’s?

M: Basically people who dare to go out to have fun. We have a target market already, but we believe that 1950’s enthusiasts would find our venue pleasing.

Will you encourage people to stay there, to socialize or work with their Macs?

M: There are many restaurants in Helsinki where you’re expected to pay and go, so we want to create an American style of cheers-café feeling, where people can come and meet their friends.

S: We went to a diner in New York, and five waitresses came to our table while we were still eating, to collect plates. We do not want something like that. We may have a special area for lunch, and others for chilling, but until we see the floor plan, we can’t do much.

What do you need the money for?

S: The physical place, and all the renovations. If we find a good location that already includes a kitchen, that would be great. And if the owners like the idea they may do the renovations themselves, so it really depends. For kitchen equipment, we’ve seen all the major providers by now.

M: It would be our dream to actually have a cool 50’s diner, so we could have the rockabilly scene from Finland and the Nordics coming over and parking their cars outside! And I think it would be a good idea to collaborate with other diners, maybe. The point is to drive the distance, so they travel together and meet there with the community.

When can we expect an opening?

M: November to December 2015. Maybe early next year. But let’s say that, as soon as we get the money, we are rolling!

This is Kitty’s Diner website, and this is their page on Invesdor.