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Driven to Succeed – Hesburger Founder Heikki Salmela’s Journey From a Sausage Stand to a Burger Behemoth

Driven to Succeed – Hesburger Founder Heikki Salmela’s Journey From a Sausage Stand to a Burger Behemoth
Heikki Salmela, the founder of Hesburger. Picture: Vesa-Matti Väärä

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Few things are more beloved in Finland than Heikki Salmela’s mayonnaise. At least, that is, in culinary terms. First devised in 1972 as an accompaniment to the double-decker hamburgers sold at his grilli (sausage stand), Salmela said in an interview with Finland Today that there was no complex formula that led to his celebrated creation: “There was no specific technology for coming up with mayonnaise recipes. Just simple, real ingredients, just like today.” Salmela sold five hamburgers that first night; perhaps not imagining that some 47 years later, his sauces would be produced by 10 full-time employees.

Salmela’s story begins in Turku, where “Hese,” as he is known, was born in the wake of the Second World War. From a young age, Salmela was driven to succeed.

 “Since I was a child, I’ve known that I will become an entrepreneur. I had a strong will and a goal in mind.” Never one to shy away from hard work, Salmela took on various jobs on the way to realizing his dream. “At one point, I worked as a microwave oven salesman. They told me I should sell at least three ovens per month. I sold 25-30 per month. I’ve always tried to maximize my efficiency.”

“Since I was a child, I’ve known that I will become an entrepreneur. I had a strong will and a goal in mind.”

Heikki Salmela

Salmela was working as an assistant to a plumber when his mother made a simple suggestion that changed his entire future. Noticing that there were more and more men working as chefs, Salmela’s mother recommended that he try his hand at cooking. He secured a position at Hotel Turku and soon demonstrated a strong aptitude in the kitchen. “Through hard work, a great mentor and always striving for efficiency, I moved up quickly.” By the age of 17, Salmela was working as a kitchen manager at Restaurant Valhalla in Helsinki.

Heikki Salmela and his wife, Kirsti, in the early days of Hesburger. Picture: Hesburger

In 1966 Salmela married his sweetheart, Kirsti, and shortly afterward, the newlyweds opened their first grilli in Naantali. For Salmela, it was a childhood dream come true, but his success, he says, is owed to his partner. “I would not be at this point without a wife like Kirsti. We have a similar mindset. We have fought together and we both have our strengths.” The hard-working pair set about building their budding business and soon established a loyal following. As the years passed by, the Salmela family also began to grow with the couple welcoming two sons, Kari and Marko.   

These days you can Find Hesburger in almost every city in Finland. Picture: Vesa-Matti Väärä

Then, in 1980, in Turku’s brand-new shopping complex, Salmela opened a fast-food restaurant that would eventually make him a household name. The restaurant was called Hesburger, a now multi-million-euro chain found right across Finland. According to Salmela, Hesburger was the first fast-food company to embrace new ways of operating. “Other kiosks would use microwave ovens. I designed kitchen appliances for Hesburger—we still use those. These appliances are made specifically with our products in mind.”

From the outset, Hesburger was a success, but Salmela says that its growth only truly began in the 1990s once the family had sold the chain and then bought it back some years later at a fraction of the cost. “We were rested and full of enthusiasm. We had the financial ability to develop the company and during the recession in Finland at the time, it was more affordable to build,” Salmela said. Hesburger expanded first to Estonia, and then later to Germany as well as six other countries. At last count, there were 486 Hesburger restaurants worldwide.

American tough guy Chuck Norris visited Helsinki in January 2018 to star in a commercial for Hesburger. Picture: Janne Mikkilä

Today, the chain is owned by a parent company, Burger-In Oy, and Salmela continues to serve as chairman. In fact, the entire Salmela family are involved in the company to varying extents, a point, which Salmela says, has its benefits. “A family-owned company equipped with the right kind of motivation is really efficient and doesn’t only operate for money—other values are truly meaningful as well,” Salmela said and continued, “It is hard work to maintain the same feeling as more generations become involved—you have to be able to transfer the same motivation to the next generations.”

In 2018, Hesburger turned over 227 million euros in Finland alone, but the company is continually striving to improve. As well as developing biodegradable packaging, for example, Hesburger also recycles staff uniforms into table settings and frying oil into ship biofuel. For Salmela, however, efficiency and innovation have always been key. “I remember our first environmentally-friendly innovation to be a heat pump used at the grill in Turku before we had any Hesburger restaurants. We wanted to find a more affordable solution to warm up the incoming air.”

While Salmela is now 72 years of age, it is hard to imagine him slowing down. It has been a long and impressive career for the former assistant plumber-turned-cook, whose mayonnaise is now produced in 4,000-litre batches. But these days, Salmela said he is enjoying a quieter life: “Currently, I enjoy my health and physical shape being at the level where I can even be proud of it. I enjoy long walks . . . it’s a form of therapy to me. I listen to political talks and just think.”

On occasion, he also indulges in his favorite Hesburger meal: a soy tortilla and a Coke Zero.

About The Author

Kathleen Cusack

Kathleen Cusack is our history and culture reporter. She is an Australian expat, coming to grips with the Finnish language and its enthusiastic use of vowels. She is passionate about history, tea and the Sydney Swans.

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