I'm naked and sweating profusely, my makeup slowly sliding down both sides of my face. I wipe my face, smearing the towel's screen-printed logo with streaks of mascara, and as I lean back against the cool stone of the bathroom wall, I think "Yes, this is the best Burger King I've ever been to."
This is the part where the record would skip and I would cover myself with a Burger King bath towel. "Yeah, that's me," I'd say, staring directly into the camera. "You may wonder how I ended up in this situation." It's because I'm in Helsinki, in a well-appointed Burger King that has a full sauna hidden underneath its tasteful timber and stone accented dining area. The sauna opened last spring, and before anyone even sat on the wooden benches, sweating through their paper seat covers, it was already the world's only fast-food sauna.
Why? The easiest answer is, well, because it's Finland—and that's probably the most accurate answer, too. "Sauna is a year-round part of our lives here," Eve Turunen, a Burger King staffer, said as she led me through the restaurant. "We have a sauna with our friends and our family. We have a Christmas sauna, a midsummer sauna—all year."
She's right. Finland has a population of 5.5 million people and there are an estimated 2 million saunas scattered throughout the country. It's debatable whether Finns actually invented the sauna, as some claim, but it is an essential part of their national identity, right up there with stoicism and avoiding eye contact with strangers. Most Finns take at least one sauna every week, if not more, and it's often followed by a jump into the always chilly Baltic Sea. If that's not available—because, say, you're in a Burger King in the center of the city—you'll have to settle for a cold shower after you've marinated your meal deal in your own sweat.
That's pretty much what I did, eating a Whopper, fries, a Coke, and a milkshake while feeling like I'd just climbed into a dragon's asshole. Trying to endure, let alone enjoy, the oppressive heat in a sauna is a challenge, even when you don't have globs of ketchup dripping on your bare thighs. A printout hanging in a public sauna I'd visited a few days earlier said that, after a full sauna, you might feel reborn; about halfway through my Whopper, I was sure that I'd died at least twice.
Turunen said that the Burger King's sauna was the idea of Mikael Backman, the CEO of Restel, a hospitality company that manages hundreds of chain restaurants—including Burger King—across Finland. "He just thought, 'why not'," she said, especially when the building already had a sauna on its lower level, an appropriately Finnish design element left over from a previous tenant.
"It has been very popular since we opened, mostly with Finnish and Japanese people. The Finnish hockey team had their party here [after winning gold at the World Junior Championships] so it was filled with big, sweaty men," Turunen said, pointing to a picture of the team mounted over a table in the sauna's private dining area. (Finnish athletes have been known to take their trophies into the sauna with them: in 2007, Teemu Selänne, then a winger with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, had a memorably steamy afternoon with the Stanley Cup).
The immaculately clean booths and tables are just a few steps from the sauna, and they're just across from a pair of beer-and soda-stocked refrigerators, a 55-inch flatscreen, and a PS4. "There are a lot of birthday parties here," Turunen said.
"Kids?" I asked. "Oh no," she said. "Everyone."
The Burger King sauna's appeal might partially be because of the novelty of it, or partially because Burger King is three years into a successful resurgence in Finland. The chain was re-launched in the country in 2013, after a failed attempt to serve its flame-broiled food in the 1980s. The BK in question is now one of 27 Burger Kings that are currently competing with McDonald's and Hesburger, a Finnish fast-food chain that is the country's oldest and biggest.
(And, in a weird aside, Finland and Estonia now share ownership of the world's only floating Burger King, on the top deck of the Tallink Star ferry, which travels from Helsinki to Tallinn. The Star's 300-seat restaurant is the biggest Burger King in Finland, the only Burger King in Estonia and, after seeing it in person, I'm pretty sure it's the most depressing Burger King in the world).
I lasted almost 15 minutes in the sauna before I was ready for a cold shower. I feel like I need a shower every time I eat $20 worth of fast food, but this was the first time that one was available in the same restaurant. I showered, stripped down, and leaned against that bathroom wall until I felt like I wasn't sweating anymore (also not unusual for me after eating at Burger King).
If you're in Helsinki and want to experience a unique, exhilarating kind of nausea, the sauna can be temporarily yours. It's available to rent for groups as large as 15, with a price tag of €250 ($270) for three hours, plus the cost of food and drinks. Real high rollers can buy their own embroidered Burger King robes for an extra €60 each.
When I finally cooled off enough to climb the stairs and leave the restaurant, I noticed signs in the window advertising the new-to-Finland Angry Whopper. If only there were a place those burgers could go to relax.