THE STORY OF CANTINA
The Cantina West restaurant was opened on 10 October 1990 as the first Tex-Mex restaurant in Finland.
Cantina’s predecessor, Gourmet Capitol, was located in the Handelsgillet premises on Kasarminkatu 23. The Capitol restaurant was in decline by 1990, so something had to be done. Magnus “Manne” Lundström, the owner at that time, travelled to the West Coast of America with his acquaintance Sakke Järvenpää to look for a new restaurant business idea. Manne was wearing a tuxedo, as a gourmet restaurateur should. In America, the “brothers” found a new business idea that they instantly took a liking to and began to believe in strongly. The tuxedo was put away quietly and the men came back from the trip relaxed and with strong confidence in the future. They may have bought new boots in America as well. The new business idea was to establish a Tex-Mex restaurant.
Cantina was founded in the back of the street level of the current restaurant. The entrance was in the back of the courtyard and the restaurant looked much like it does today, having 60 seats.
Furniture and decorations for the restaurant were purchased from America and Mexico, and even the large two-level bar counter was imported from America. The measurements of the counter were probably overlooked, as it could only be brought into the restaurant through a large window with a crane. The restaurant hired some personnel, who began their employment by painting the furniture and walls of the restaurant.
The bars of the restaurant were equipped with old bath tubs for keeping the beers cold; fill the tub with beers and put some ice on top. This kept the beverages cold throughout a whole work shift. The bars were also equipped with several new margarita machines, which were used to make the first Frozen Margaritas in Finland, with strawberries, mango or limes. Unfortunately, several machines broke down before the correct margarita recipe was found. The Cantina bar was also among the first ones to sell “Salmiakkikossu” shots. Just put some Tyrkisk Peber candies in a bottle, add Koskenkorva vodka and put the bottle in the dishwasher for a moment to make the candies dissolve faster.
The small Tex-Mex restaurant had a queue outside on the opening night. Before the opening day, the personnel had a party to celebrate the completion of the restaurant, and personnel members were taught how to eat fajitas and what the differences are between burritos, tacos and fajitas. Quite a few people were apprehensive about how hot the stuffed jalapeños were and doubted whether people could even eat them. They were proven wrong. The popularity exploded and so the Tex-Mex restaurant began expanding within the property, one department at a time. Cantina was among the first restaurants to receive a permit that allowed customers to walk around with their glasses. Previously, personnel members were always required to carry alcoholic beverages from one table to another. This was new in Finland back in the day!
After Cantina had occupied the most sacred area of the building, the ceremonial hall, which had not seen much appropriate use in terms of its size in those years, it was applauded by the children or grandchildren of the “grand old men” of Handelsgillet, who ended their evening at the restaurant by telling their elders what a good decision they had made by allowing the ceremonial hall to be put into “proper” use as a Tex-Mex restaurant. It was easy to proceed from there, and no one dared complain about the “old men’s” excellent decision.
At first, the valuable paintings of the ceremonial hall were covered by other paintings in order to conceal and protect these highly expensive pieces. Luckily, there were no notable accidents involving the Handelsgillet art pieces, but it was quite an ordeal to cover the paintings every evening.
Since those years, Cantina has filled every hall year after year. Ever since then, Handelsgillet has used the beautifully renovated third-floor conference facilities as a ceremonial hall, the largest of which is the 100-seat Donator.
What Cantina brought with it to Finland were strongly seasoned Tex-Mex dishes, laid back service, voluptuous slammer girls with their “tequila” shouts and energetic American-style bands who would sometimes play until four in the morning. Each band played for four weeks, six days a week. It was not uncommon for the personnel to know the entire set by heart by the fourth week.
Even though the restaurant business was shaken up by the economic recession of the early 90s, Cantina’s popularity kept growing every year. The fajitas, ribs, fiestas etc. were very popular among everyone from teenagers to grannies and grandpas.
In 1997, Manne sold Cantina to the Ravintolakolmio group owned by Heimo Keskinen. The popularity has remained strong, but some changes have also been made along the way. In the late 90s, numerous night clubs began appearing simultaneously in Helsinki, whereupon Cantina decided to drop the bands and concentrate heavily on the food business. In retrospect, this was the right decision, considering how the night club business is currently doing in Helsinki. Cantina has continued as a Tex-Mex pioneer in Finland, occasionally drawing inspiration from Mexico as well as the West Coast.