When food delivery app Seamless launched, it was the greatest possible thing for those of us who alternate between being both lazy and antisocial. With a moderate amount of scrolling and a willingness to open your door to a stranger in a red vest, you could have dinner delivered from your favorite restaurant without having to pause the rerun of CSI:Ted Danson you were half-watching.
In 2014, a similar service called Wolt launched in Finland and was an immediate success, possibly because, for much of the year, the weather in Helsinki would make Princess Elsa say "Fuck this, I'm staying inside forever." Wolt quickly raised more than €14 million from big name investors, including the chairman of Nokia and the founder of Skype, and has since expanded into Sweden and Estonia. But now, the startup has decided to try something really ambitious: convincing its users to order food from twentyish participating restaurants and have it delivered to...a different restaurant.
That's the idea behind Take In, a pop-up that Wolt and American Express launched in Helsinki in mid-January. "People in Helsinki are willing to try new things," Lotta Wikman, the General Manager of Wolt Finland told me. "It's not a big European capital city, but there's always something new and exciting, and people here have a willingness to experiment."
That may be true—this is the country that has an annual boot throwing competition—but eating dinner in a restaurant isn't exactly groundbreaking. I'm currently in Helsinki, so I decided to try it, to see what sort-of free-range takeout felt like and to find out whether, as Wikman said, it really was "a new way of eating."
The restaurant's concept is simple, as you'd expect from a place without a kitchen or its own menu. You take a seat, launch the app, search for "Take In," and scroll through the 20-some restaurants that are participating. Many of the Wolt regulars offer their full menus, but four of Helsinki's swankier spots have prepared special tasting menus just for customers at the pop-up.
"Normally, in fine dining, the dish goes from kitchen to table in under a minute," Wikman said. "Here, they've slightly changed their preparation methods to ensure it can make the journey." They haven't altered their price points, though, so it's up to you to decide whether you want to blow a stack of Euros to eat out of a plastic container.
Tom, my dinner companion, and I forgot that the menus would probably be in Finnish (they were) so Noora Huhtala, the hostess-slash-server patiently translated for us one vegetable at a time. "These are the little round cabbages," she said, making a hand gesture that was somehow recognizable as a Brussel sprout. She was fantastic.
I opted for Tonkotsu ramen (€15.50) and pork belly bao (€9.50) from Momotoko, and chocolate cake with chocolate mousse (€10) from Muru, another of the limited-edition Wolters. Tom decided to go big, with all three courses from Pastis: bouillabaisse (€15.50), braised veal neck (€26.50) and coconut panna cotta with passionfruit soup (€10.50).
That seemed to highlight what is both interesting and awkward about the concept: I didn't want anything expensive—or anything French—so that prevented an argument that we would've had on a snowy sidewalk. So yes, if you want to go out with friends, but your friends are the "I don't care, what do you want?" type, you can all get what you want. ("It also makes things easier with fussy toddlers," Wikman said, which describes most of my friends).
But one of my biggest questions was whether I'd be comfortable eating what is essentially €52 take-out. Although there were plenty of options that were inexpensive-by-Helsinki-standards, pulling bouillabaisse and a veal neck out of a carrier bag just seems like Isabelle Huppert gave you her leftovers on the way out the door.
Another hard sell might be getting Finns or anyone with functional nerve endings to go out in the middle of winter, especially when it's so easy to have that takeout delivered to your own kitchen table. "Well, there's a reason why we launched this in January," Wikman said. "It's one month after Christmas, the parties are over, and everyone is eating salad. We can't be that boring."
Wikman said that, despite the weather and the slightly weird concept, Finns "weren't hard to convince" to give Take In a try. But Huhtala said that, in the weeks that she'd worked there, she'd never seen the restaurant completely packed. "It has been peaceful," she said, which sounds appropriately polite.
We got excited every time the door opened but, the first two times, it was just a pizza for both couples sitting in the back. That seemed to defeat Take In's purpose on a number of levels and, if I'd had an extra boot, I might have thrown it out of pure disappointment. Our three orders arrived almost simultaneously, almost exactly 40 minutes since we'd first opened the app. Each course was in its own two-piece plastic container, decorated with a brightly colored Take In sticker. (Yes, those will all be recycled. We asked).
We popped the lids off and tucked in right away, eating straight from the containers and pulling a pair of forks from the jar on the table—the only cutlery or non-delivered dinnerware in sight. Tom said his courses were perfect, as were mine. My bao were especially right on, still warm but not-at-all soggy. Pastis did forget Tom's side of bread, and the garnish from my chocolate mousse had slid off, leaving it huddled in the corner like boys at a middle school dance, but this isn't about presentation—it's about convenience, right?
That seems to be what Take In is selling, since it's not really selling anything else—and the idea might be just strange enough to work, given enough time. I'd be interested to see if the concept would take off in the U.S., or if our habits are too compartmentalized or regimented: restaurants are for ordering in, and take out is for eating at home.
Take In was designed to be temporary, and the pop up closes on February 4. I asked Wikman whether there were plans to open a permanent version, or take it on the road to one of Wolt's other cities. "We haven't gotten that far," she said, with a laugh. "We'll have to see what happens."