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Students have been in the restaurant business in Helsinki for over 70 years: Today, UniCafe celebrates its anniversary

On the 7th of September, it will be 70 years since the Student Union of the University of Helsinki’s restaurant business was founded. HYY’s restaurant business started out of necessity in the 1950s. The city had nowhere where students could get food that was both affordable and nutritious enough for their needs. UniCafe’s anniversary also features in an exhibition at the Hotel and Restaurant Museum.

The social significance of food has not declined in the past 70 years – on the contrary, it has done the opposite.

“The availability of affordable and nutritious food has a direct impact on people’s wellbeing. Food is also a significant climate issue. Approximately one fifth of the average Finn’s carbon footprint comes from food. We want to be at the forefront of the food revolution and blaze the trail with our own actions,” says Ylva’s Business Director Anne Immonen.

In 2019, UniCafe was the centre of attention when the chain completely abandoned the use of beef. Last year, the chain calculated the carbon footprint of all its meals ingredient by ingredient and opened its first entirely vegan restaurant. UniCafe aims to be carbon-neutral by 2025.

UniCafe’s story began at Domus Academica

After the Winter and Continuation Wars, students in Helsinki found themselves struggling to find a place where they could get “proper food for a low price”. In 1951, an editorial in the student newspaper suggested that HYY could solve this problem by running its own affordable student restaurant.

On HYY’s initiative, a restaurant was opened in Domus Academica’s C Building in the autumn of 1952. It was run by Miss Ester Wahlman and was required to offer students “nutritious and cheap food”. A year after the restaurant was opened, HYY took up maintenance of the establishment. HYY’s restaurant business expanded in the 1960s and 70s, first into central Helsinki, then onto the university’s other campuses. The restaurants were brought under the UniCafe brand in 1988.

“Today, UniCafe has 18 restaurants and cafes and provides catering services on all the University of Helsinki’s campuses. However, the core mission of the chain has not changed. Our goal is still to offer students tasty, nutritious and affordable food,” Immonen says.

UniCafe invites its customers to join its 70th anniversary celebrations. All UniCafe restaurants will be offering coffee and cake on Thursday 7th of September.

The Hotel and Restaurant Museum’s exhibition presents memories of student dining

This autumn, the Hotel and Restaurant Museum will be putting UniCafe’s anniversary celebrations on display. The museum will host a miniature exhibition from the 5th of September to the 30th of November 2023, allowing visitors to reminisce about their own student dining experiences and learn about UniCafe’s work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The museum’s goal is to shed light on the social significance of food culture. That is why museum curator Laika Nevalainen felt that highlighting this milestone year for student dining was important.

“In the early 20th century, getting food was a major problem for students, as they were often living in cramped accommodations with no kitchens and didn’t have much money. Male students, in particular, simply didn’t know how to cook for themselves – nor where they expected to. The student cafeterias founded by the student union marked a significant step up in students’ quality of life and are an important part of Finland’s culinary history,” Nevalainen explains.

Citations: Aalto, Sari. Opiskelijaruokailun tekijät: Oy UniCafe Ab 1953–2003. Gaudeamus, Helsinki 2003. Photo: HYY’s archives.

More information:

Anne Immonen
Business Director, restaurants
+358 40 512 5008

UniCafe is a pioneer of sustainable eating

In 2013, UniCafe produced a model for calculating the carbon footprint of its service production and applied it to its student restaurants for the first time.

In 2014, UniCafe took part in the Climate Lunch project conducted by Agrifood Research Finland (MTT) in cooperation with WWF and a group of lunch restaurants. The project developed and tested the Climate Choice concept, and one of its objectives was to determine an upper limit for greenhouse gas emissions from Climate Choice lunches. UniCafe permanently adopted the label for its lunch menus at the beginning of 2015. In connection with the most recent calculation, the upper emissions limit of Climate Choice lunches was lowered to match the One Planet Plate model’s CO2 limit (0.5 kg CO2e per meal).

In 2019, Ylva calculated the carbon footprint of its entire operation, and UniCafe’s first carbon budget was drawn up. UniCafe restaurants phased out beef entirely.

In 2021, calculating the carbon footprints of meals was piloted at UniCafe Kaivopiha as part of the Climate Meal campaign organised in November that year.

In 2022, UniCafe conducted a carbon footprint analysis of all its ingredients, allowing its carbon budget to be calculated more accurately than ever.