In celebration of Pride month, we feel privileged to spotlight Chef Mikko Kosonsen, one of M&T’s Business Banking clients. Recently, Mikko sat down with his M&T advisor Alex Klosner for a conversation in which he shared his experiences and thoughts on entrepreneurship.
Born in Finland, and passionate about cooking from a young age, Mikko first honed his craft in his family’s Stockholm restaurant, and later at the Helsinki Culinary School. He was a chef at the Finnish Ambassador to Lithuania, and in 1996, he started a 16-year-long run at the Finnish Embassy in Washington, D.C. Today, he runs a successful Nordic catering business and restaurant, where his innovative and highly celebrated dishes have been served to ambassadors, politicians, and royalty from around the world.
Mikko, why don’t we start at the beginning of your time in America. How did you go from working at the Finnish embassy to being a business owner?
It was 2013, and I’d been the chef at the embassy for 16 years. People who came to the embassy would ask if there were any Nordic or Scandinavian caterers, so that encouraged me to leave a secure government job and take a shot at being in my own business. It was like jumping into the darkness because I didn’t know if it would be successful, but I did have a lot of contacts to leverage from the embassy. As it turned out, the catering business was a big hit and, in 2018, I decided to open a restaurant in DuPont Circle. I chose that location for a few reasons. One is that it’s close to where I live, and another is the comfort level. There is a big gay presence; in fact, the area is nicknamed the “gayborhood.”
Let’s segue for a moment. Tell us about your husband, Rob. He has been quite a partner in many ways, it seems.
We met in 1997 and he has been with me through it all and has been a major source of support both personally and professionally. In 2002, we entered into a civil partnership in Finland, along with 55 other couples. We considered ourselves married, but in 2015, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided the Obergefell case that gave same-sex couples the fundamental right to marry, we got married again here in the U.S.
So, you’re a few years into being a caterer and restauranteur and COVID hits in the spring of 2020. Tell us how that impacted your business and how did you pivot in response?
Income was roughly 70% from the catering business and 30% or so from the restaurant. In March 2020, the catering calendar was cleared, and we lost eight months of business. It was a very dark time. We were worried about how we were going to make the payroll.
I reached out to some of my friends in the restaurant business to brainstorm solutions. They advised me to stay open and start offering boxed to-go meals, which I did. We also started making deliveries and even sold grocery items through the window, since people did not want to go to supermarkets. Meal boxes were popular and paid the bills. We also got a few grants which helped and, eventually, a PPP loan. We didn’t have to close, and I’m very proud of the fact that we never had to lay off any of our workers, who had agreed to take fewer hours.
While your business survived the COVID years, there were financing challenges afterward. Can you share a little about what happened?
There was a call option coming due on our commercial mortgage, which meant our former bank was requiring us to come up with the entire balance and denied our application to refinance. The bank saw the reduction in sales during the tough COVID years—even though every restaurant had experienced the same challenges.
That’s when M&T came to the rescue and put so much time into considering all the nuances in our financials. M&T accounted for factors the other lender had not considered, like interconnected financial complexity and the distinctions between the property and the restaurant and catering businesses. They also looked at the unique circumstances surrounding COVID’s impact on the restaurant industry and financial projections for our future business growth. M&T allowed us to think about the future and, today, we are busier than ever before and expanding. In fact, we just won a new contract with the German Embassy, which will be a big boost to business. If it weren’t for you and M&T, Alex, I don’t know if any of this would have come about.
Thank you, Mikko. It’s a great partnership and an approach that’s reflective of our relationship-driven community banking model. So, in closing, how might you counsel young LGBTQ entrepreneurs, or put another way: If you could talk to your 20-year-old self, what would your advice be?
Be cautious but authentic. Being an entrepreneur involves tough decisions, and for us in the LGBTQ community, there can be additional obstacles to navigate. For example, we are considering opening up another restaurant, but we have to be mindful of the fact that not all neighborhoods might be as receptive to a gay-owned business as our current location. So, I’d suggest that, while you don’t necessarily need to advertise that you’re “gay,” you also shouldn’t hide who you are. If someone comes into the restaurant and asks about the rainbow flag that hangs outside our door, I will explain to them I’m gay and that the flag is a symbol of LGBTQ pride and reflects the diversity of our community.