Interview | Aki Arjola

Eat&Joy Maatilatori shop, image courtesy:, photo: Tuukka Koski

Aki Arjola is one of the founders of Eat & Joy, a business venture that takes quality produce from small producers in the Finnish countryside, and makes them available for consumers. I discovered their small shop in the city center last year, and have become a regular customer for dairy, chocolate, beer and muesli.

Finnish food market has been divided by only two retailing conglomerate, S and K, except for marginal number of market halls, and market square open only during the summer. Recently they have launched another a much larger store in a shopping centre in the heart of Helsinki city center, and I have become interested in talking to them and learn about their approach. I did not want to drop anything from the precious conversation, so added more questions to be used a milestone for you to quickly browse through.

Seungho What are your backgrounds and how was this all started?
Aki I have been in Russian trade, and spent the whole 90’s in Russia or Baltic states. Jari has been salesperson in the digital media, and Eero has been in magazine business, and he has been creating upmost young and new magazines in Finland. We three are the founders and later we realized that we need more shareholders who can bring expertise to the company. Naturally one of them was Markus Maulavirta, a chef who really understands the origin of foodstuff and he has been involved with the producers in his whole life–more than 50 years. Then Harri Koskinen, and Stefan Mahlberg of Bergen Designwho designs and builds for everything we do joined us as well.We started Unione Oy in 2002, exactly 10 years ago, and ran a magazine called Viisi Tähteä (Five Stars), which is now remaining only as a online magazine, mostly targeting restaurateurs. During the time, we discovered lots of problems in the food industry and in 2003 we set out a project called The Best of Finland for creating connections between the restaurateurs and small farmers with good produce directly. Together with the best chefs in Finland we searched for the right produce, and during 8 years of The Best of Finland project, we found hundreds of interesting farmers in Finland. Only by then we realized that there are many small excellent producers in Finland but there was not any distribution channel for them. Before, most of the restaurants had been buying the ingredients from the whole sale, but now it has become the norm for the best restaurants to buy directly from the producers. Maybe not the whole but at least the main ingredients.
Seungho I think I saw something similar to that in the Vantaa Airport.
Aki Yes, in the process of initializing the connections between the producers and restaurateurs, we realized that there was no place for consumers to buy those excellent produce. We thought that a store in the airport would be a good place to start as it doesn’t only target the Finns but also the foreigners who wants to bring back good souvenirs. What’s better souvenir than excellent foodstuff anyway?
Seungho It took a long time.
Aki We started the collaboration with the airport in 2006 but it has been delayed and postponed several times for various reasons, and it was finally realized only last year, three years later than we anticipated. During the delays and postponing we started off Maatilatori at Lasipalatsi because we couldn’t wait too long for the shop in the airport to open, and it led to a surprising success.
Seungho There are views that Eat & Joy’s market places are elite-istic because your shops are only in the fancy area of the city.
Aki Yes, there are and we are aware of that. However, Prisma, one of the biggest supermarket chain in Finland, asked us to make a shop-in-shop in their Kannelmäki branch which was renovated last year and hence become the largest Prisma in Finland. We now have the 100m2 shop-in-shopin there, and running it in the same way we do with Maatilatori in Lasipalatsi–we keep in contact with the producers and manage the stock. It has proven to be hugely successful, which means that it is not only people with money or higher education who prefer our product. Here in Helsinki city center, one can say it’s elite-istic, but in Kannelmäki, Prisma is considered the cheapest supermarket, but people come readily to pay more for good food. I think the availability was just not there for people.Then we realized that we need a larger space to exemplify better practices like smoking fish, bake breads, ground wheat, do butchering, making our own sausage and a small restaurant space where we can use the produce we sell, and so we made the investment to this very shop in Kluuvi.
Seungho Making own sausages? That reminds me of a YouTube video of a sausage factory. Many seemed to be disgusted by the process.
Aki That’s a good example of what is today and what can be done tomorrow. We asked around the sausage makers if they can make sausages without any additives, and everyone said it can’t be done. So, we’ve got the facility here in Kluuvi, made sausage without any additives, and now we can ask the sausage makers by showing the product to make something similar or something even better. If you don’t have this example, you cannot demand.
Seungho I noticed that there are more animal products than vegetables in Eat & Joy shops.
Aki Actually bread is our best selling category that makes up 25-30 per cent of our sales. Dairy is the next, then meat and vegetables are selling about the same. We only sell Finnish vegetables that are seasonal, and in the winter it’s basically almost only root vegetables. This may change over time, but for now it is our principle to deliver only Finnish and seasonal to our customers.
Seungho Anything imported?
Aki Salt, sugar, cacao are the pretty much only things that are imported, but they are all Finnish hand made products anyway. Chocolate that are handmade with Finnish dairy, salt that are ground and packaged in Finland and so on. We try to promote Finnish labour. This is something we are talking internally whether we should have more organic produce from abroad, but for now the principle is the same.
Seungho Are you aware of the environmental impact of beef consumption?
Aki Yes, I am, but I think it’s too narrow to talk about beef overall as a single item… it’s not just beef, but the everything we do. We try to emphasize the small producer’s production, and our idea of future environment is that farm size again being small run by families, which will have huge impact not only to environment but also to mankind.It’s all the industrialized farming that does the harm to the environment and small farms have no problem. If you have 20 cows, they are like your family members, and nobody does harsh things to the animals in the case. Farting and methane gas is also not a big problem when it is proportionally done like that. Industrial cow farms have at least one or two hundred cows, which I think is enormous amount. Then you cannot take the manure and use them in a closed circle, nor can you take good care of the livestock. The big problem is the food industry, industrialized beef production.

Our concept is to make everything small. All the meat we have here is either heritage varieties, or game. They are there in the wild anyway, and as long as we keep the hunting rate properly that is one of the most environmentally friendly way of consuming animal product.

Beef is a good example because, if we go back to small-sized, family farming we also get back to the indigenous breeds that are proper to the location and climate and the feed locally grown, and we will get more and more different bio diversity that way, less and less production waste, less carbon-footage. Methane and animal manure are only problems when they are so huge amount that not being used, in other words not in the closed circle, and that is always the case with the industrialized production.

It is the same case with all the other products here. Today flour–especially white one–is considered a bad ingredient that makes people dull, fat, and even allergic, but it is absolutely excellent thing if you buy from small farms, ground right before use, then it’s healthy and actually not many people are allergic to them. We offer freshly ground flour here at Kluuvi shop with a flour cellar.

The flour cellar at Eat & Joy Kluuvi where one can freshly grind the flour of daily need, image courtesy:

The breads are actually baked in Kluuvi shopping center building with freshly ground wheat, image courtesy:

Seungho What do they do with manure to keep them in a closed circle?
Aki In bio-dynamic farming they mimic the nature and try to create a closed circle: nothing is wasted. They collect the manure, either they burn it as bio energy, or make natural fertilizer. The manure is kept in special places just like the old ways of Austrian and German that goes along with the change of the nature. You do certain things at certain time of the year. People in food industry jokingly say that it’s witch craft because you are following the biorhythm of the nature.
Seungho That may be a good way to put it–more smaller farms, and alternative eco system of food production for health of both environment and people.
Aki I think it is pity, when people talk about certain food produce, be it beef or flour, discussion is so narrow and often misled to “whether it is good or bad for people and environment.” But if you approach all the food with the small scale farming, it is whole different story. The same thing with fish, people says it is not possible to get fresh fish here in Finland, but actually you can. It’s just a matter of availability, you try to reach the small farmers, and pay a little bit more for their honest job. Certainly it is much harder job, especially in the western culture I think, but it’s worth it.
Seungho I was told that in Finland beef is almost byproduct of dairy production.
Aki Well, at least to my knowledge, milking cows produce the best beef in small farms. The meat is fattier and the texture of it is better because they are kept for many years. The cows grown for meat is slaughtered too young for profitability and they are not as good. The problem is the availability because the milk farms supply to us are small, and when you have twenty cows, you slaughter only one or two at most in one year. So, there you go.
Seungho They live much longer than cows in bigger farms?
Aki As far as I know, yes. So, it is hard to get a lot of beef from small farms, and therefore fifty per cent of our meat is game–deer, rabbit, many different birds, reindeers, though reindeers are herded. We never buy farmed reindeer because they are totally different product than the herded ones.
Seungho Is there a big difference?
Aki There is. When they are wild, they live in different vegetation so each part of Lapland gets to have unique reindeer, and hence unique taste. As you know, some parts of the Lapland is like moon where nothing is growing whereas the other parts have a large and dense forest. When you keep them inside the huts they lose the wildness, they taste flat, they taste like cows.
Seungho You run quite different some shops now.
Aki We think them as all different laboratories where we experiment new methods and see how people react to the goods, and hence to get verification to our ideas–what can be done. We founders are still in shifts, for example at cheese section, to actually see how people like the products. It seems that our ideas are well-received because we still sell something even in this economical climate. Not a lot, but something.
Seungho Do you expect to see the ROI soon?
Aki Not at all. This is at least 15-years-long-commitment. We have very long lease agreement, and the company that owns Kluuvi shopping mall have also invested a large sum. One might say our project plan is completely stupid because the ROI will be never met in two or three years. But we felt this was a must-to-do to show that the traditional food preparation is still possible, you can smoke fish in the Helsinki city center and so on. We have built ourselves a 45-meter-high chimney and wooden oven for baking bread. Many small entrepreneurs have said it can’t be done because the officials would not give permits, but here we have shown that it is possible if you want to do. It maybe a fuss, but it is also a testimonial through which we can see it is not only our ideas but also the people who come to buy the good foodstuff.
Seungho What do you do with the expired products?
Aki We plan very carefully and we also use the produce in our restaurant before they expire. The almost only thing we cannot plan very well is bread, because it is completely random–it may be the weather or humidity, it’s all about people’s mood. We try to give them to charity but it’s very difficult as the social workers in charge are reluctant because of the potential illness and the law although they are completely good food except that they are a little drier.
Seungho What is the future of Eat & Joy?
Aki It’s not clear yet, but we are moving forward with our enthusiasm, and we think it is important to conduct many different experiments in different projects. So, it is good that we are running different laboratories, but it’s doesn’t mean that we will open another same shop as we did with any of our existing shops. Now we have enough space here to do our own food preparations and we will probably add more cultural aspect to it. Probably we can start thinking of what can be done with the production method we got here.The funny thing is how things should be done is twisted by the industrial food production method, so did the norm. And today, some small farms and manufacturers try to do the same thing the conglomerates do and have gone for the industrial way to make living, which I think they can never achieve. As small producers, you need to make unique and pure product that can differentiate. It’s completely insane to try mimicking industrial sausage with hands. We think it is not their fault and we try to help them to come up with better products.
Seungho That reminds me of the conversation with a veterinarian at Aluehallintovirasto. He said the farm size have become so many times bigger, but the number of staff are staying at the same or less, and the price for pork has become about the half of what costed 30 years ago.
Aki That is a good point. Today, when you open a new pig farm, you don’t get subsidy unless you grow more than 1,000 pigs. It is really strange, it’s like black has turned to white. I do not understand at all. Subsidy plays a huge role, especially when one wants to start a farm the investment can be dangerously large.
Seungho That really is strange. I will have to dig into that more. Do you pay more to those producers without subsidy than other wholesale?
Aki I am not sure how much more we pay, but one thing for sure is that we never bargain and we pay always the amount the producer wants or higher. Strangely, if there is a good product and the capacity is too small then the price is usually too cheap. In that case we try to pay more because they deserve it. We have noticed that there is basically no good producer who price their goods too high.
Seungho It’s interesting that they do not see the value of their produce.
Aki They are very proud of their produce, but also often too modest. They have very good attitude to production, and they treat their soil very well. They are usually very environmentally charged, and what we realized is that it is only natural to be environmentally friendly when you’re doing your own small farm. In the big industry it is completely otherwise because the employees do not have the ownership to the land, nor to the produce. They do not have the culture, nor the knowledge, which you do not really learn from a book or occupational training, but from your family tradition. We have about five hundred producers which we make deals with every week and month, and not one of them would do harmful thing to the environment nor to their goods. You don’t have to push anything, you just give enough chance. The work of our is very organic and flowing, and self-networking. We just have to sell good stuff.
Seungho Is there anything else that you want to say, or something that I didn’t ask yet that I should know?
Aki There are a lot of questions to the food and environment. Logistics is one of the key factors of it. I think the case should be so that the food comes with people just like the old days. Food should be coming to the city when people are moving anyway. In the old days farmer had come and visited the city, had had a good time–relaxing and meeting people–while also buying things he needs in the city. This is completely vanished with the supermarket culture and industrialization of food production, which led to a much deeper problem. Now both people and the environment are suffering. If most farmers are small and make enough profit, this can be reversed again.

Aki was a enthusiastic, and I am looking forward to his feedback on the result of my thesis. I did not dare to take a picture of him as he was extremely busy with this duties. If you would like to see him, you can do it here in the video.

Few things have come to my attention in this interview: subsidy, small farm practices in Finland, the number of small and big farms, the percentage ratio of them in headcount of the whole livestock in Finland. We know that eating animals would certainly not suddenly stop, then what is the way to gradually decrease it? Would the price of meat gradually rise and the consumption decrease if we can promote more smaller farms as opposed to some gigantic industrial farms? It is strange that one has to have certain amount of pigs to get subsidy, and I think I will dig into that more within the beef context. There must be a reason.