The story of Thunder Bay’s socialist Finnish restaurant

Founded by loggers in northwestern Ontario, the Hoito has been serving up traditional Finnish fare and more for 100 years
By Saku Pinta and Jon Thompson - Published on August 13, 2018
a waitress bringing food to tables in a restaurant
The Hoito Restaurant celebrated its centenary on May 1, 2018 — International Workers' Day. (Jon Thompson)

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THUNDER BAY — The Finnish Labour Temple is not as imposing as the grain elevators along Thunder Bay’s waterfront, nor as well known as the Sleeping Giant peninsula, an immense rock formation that juts out into Lake Superior.

Yet the two-storey red-brick building that houses the Hoito Restaurant is an equally important symbol of the city. After 100 years of continuous operation in the heart of the Thunder Bay’s historic Finnish quarter, it still attracts a regular clientele that spans generations. It also serves as a popular destination for tourists and for politicians looking for hands to shake.

Speaking at a staff party in May to celebrate the Hoito’s centenary, Paula Malone, who’s worked there for 31 years as a server, credited the restaurant’s longevity to a loyal following. “The customers are the key factor,” she said. “The regulars keep coming back.”

Often described as a “workers’ cafeteria,” the Hoito — where one of the authors worked intermittently between 1994 and 2006 — has deep roots in the labour movement, as well as a special connection to Thunder Bay’s large Finnish community.

In the 1910s, Finns were key drivers behind efforts to establish unions to improve working conditions and living standards for loggers in northern Ontario. The Hoito was founded on the same values of collective organization. The idea for the restaurant originated in January 1918 in a logging camp outside of Nipigon, about 100 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay (which was two cities back then: Port Arthur and Fort William).

Union organizer Armas Topias “Tom” Hill had been dispatched to the camp to organize a committee of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a union whose members are known as “Wobblies.” He helped win some improvements to conditions there, but IWW members also shared their concerns about issues outside the workplace. In this labour-intensive industry, where the average logger burned more than 7,000 calories a day, getting enough food was a constant, obsessive preoccupation.

The workers, mainly single men, spent their off-season spring and summer months lodging in the city. Their interest in finding a good meal at a reasonable price gave birth to a new idea.

They proposed a co-operative restaurant. To raise start-up funds, an organizing committee collected $5 “comrade loans” from 59 prospective member-customers. Hill became the restaurant’s first manager. The organizing committee voted to name the restaurant Hoito (Finnish for “care”), which beat out Taisto (“struggle”).

On May 1, International Workers’ Day, the Hoito Restaurant welcomed its first patrons.

In its early years, the restaurant, with its large communal tables that sat up to 12 patrons, resembled a dining hall in a logging camp — but there was a key difference: the workers were in charge. The managers were union organizers, the owners were loggers, and the kitchen staff were recruited from the logging camps. All belonged to the IWW, and the socialistic structure of the restaurant reflected the union’s influence. An advertisement painted on the wall of the Finnish Labour Temple proclaimed in both Finnish and English that the Hoito was “the only restaurant in the city owned and controlled by the boarders themselves.”

The Hoito lowered its prices once a reserve fund exceeded a certain sum and then increased them in leaner times. Customers who purchased weekly meal tickets were entitled to three meals a day, plus coffee and pastries between meals. Customer-owners were eligible to elect and serve on a board of directors. Many customers were itinerant workers without fixed addresses, so they had their mail sent to the Hoito.

During the latter part of the First World War, the federal government subjected immigrant communities to increased scrutiny and, under the War Measures Act, outlawed 14 socialist and labour groups — including the IWW and the Finnish Socialist Organization of Canada — composed largely of recent immigrants. Six months after the Hoito opened, Canada declared Finnish (along with Ukrainian and Russian) an “enemy language” — partly in response to the Russian Revolution of 1917. Even possessing Finnish literature could result in fines or imprisonment.

The ban on the IWW was lifted on April 2, 1919, but it wasn’t until 1924 that the union re-emerged as a leading regional force. Its Canadian administrative headquarters was located at the Labour Temple from 1932 to 1960. The hall above the restaurant housed the Canadian offices of the Industrialisti — a Finnish-language IWW daily newspaper — until it ceased publication in 1975.

The last major wave of Finnish immigration to Canada occurred in the 1950s and ’60s, during a period of postwar economic growth. Many of the new arrivals who settled here had the education and skills to find employment beyond the logging industry.

At the same time, mechanization meant a leaner forestry workforce. “The machines took over,” recalls 83-year-old Eila Koivu, who was a server at the Hoito between 1952 and 1956. The lumber workers “petered out,” she said, and the long communal tables were gradually replaced with more conventional restaurant furnishings.

During this transitional period, the Hoito began to attract customers beyond its traditional Finnish base. The boarding houses in the Finnish quarter that had once housed loggers began to attract students from the Lakehead Technical Institute (later Lakehead University), founded in 1946. Like the loggers before them, they were drawn to the Hoito for its homemade food and reasonable prices.

In the 1970s, the non-profit Finlandia Club of Port Arthur became the majority shareholder of the Labour Temple. Reflecting the attitudes of a new generation, the club focused on cultural rather than labour matters. The co-operative ownership model ended in 1974.

Still, the old clientele kept coming. Restaurant staff have become a kind of extended family to retired lumber workers — they keep track of birthdays and check in on customers who haven’t been seen for a few days. “I’ve seen a lot of them come and go,” Malone says. “They come to socialize. Some of them have nowhere else to go.” 

Today, more than 10 per cent of Thunder Bay residents identify as Finnish — the city is home to the largest concentration of Finns per capita outside the Nordic countries. And the Hoito’s menu, largely unchanged for a century, illustrates how Finnish culture has become embedded in the culture of Thunder Bay. The restaurant serves traditional Finnish foods such as suolakala (salt-cured salmon) and karjalanpiirakka (a rye pastry with a savoury rice-pudding filling).

Finnish pancakes — large, thin, and crêpe-like — are by far the most popular menu item. At the Hoito, they are typically eaten at breakfast alongside bacon and eggs, and maple syrup is the preferred condiment (in Finland, pancakes are usually considered a dessert item). The house specialty is mojakka, a beef and root-vegetable dish flavoured with allspice and originally concocted by Finnish immigrants to North America.

Kaija Pinta, who retired as the Hoito’s head cook in 2008 (and who is the author’s mother), said the Hoito must maintain its sense of tradition while still adapting to change if it’s to survive. She predicts it will.

“The restaurant has had to change in each era by necessity, and it will continue to face new challenges — but the old spirit remains. This was only the first hundred years.”

Saku Pinta has a doctoral degree in political science from Loughborough University and is now an independent scholar based in Thunder Bay. Pinta worked at the Hoito intermittently between 1994 and 2006. Jon Thompson is TVO's northwestern Ontario Hubs reporter.

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northwestern Ontario. It's brought to you in partnership with Confederation College of Applied Arts and Technology. Views and opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the college.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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