Text: INGA RAGNHILD HOLST | Photo: HANS FREDRIK ASBJØRNSEN
(SCANDINAVIAN TRAVELER) Entrepreneur Jan Vardøen built a business empire from scratch and went on to transform the old working-class neighborhood of Grünerløkka.
Jan Vardøen breathes in the scent of the old streets of Grünerløkka, Oslo. It’s a heady mix of wood lacquer, leather and freshly baked bread. Within just a few blocks are no fewer than ten businesses he’s built up literally by hand. Sporting a black shirt that Johnny Cash would have been proud of, he walks between his bars and restaurants. Style comes naturally to Vardøen, and you can see inspired vintage touches from the 1940s, 50s and 60s in all the places he’s touched.
Vardøen, who split his time between his father’s home in England and his mother’s in Norway until his 20s, arrived in Risør in 1988, having talked himself into a boat building course.
“Boat building is a fine skill,” he says, “one that everyone should learn. It teaches you problem solving. You’re also working with aesthetics, so you develop your personal style. And you need to be precise, or the boat might sink.”
Risør soon felt too small, so it was off to Oslo and Grünerløkka. Back then, Grünerløkka was a downbeat working-class area. There were still residential buildings where several apartments shared a communal bathroom. People were poor, and living on Markveien or Nordregate was not something to boast about.
But Vardøen has a thing for rough neighborhoods. In London, for example, he lived in a Brixton squat. He was quick to see the potential of Grünerløkka.
“It’s a soulful neighborhood,” he says, “with a nice mix of parks and old buildings. Everything is very relaxed here and there is a sense of unity. It suits me well.”
Amassing an emporium
In 1996, Vardøen helped open a small Mexican restaurant, Mucho Mas, which became Grünerløkka’s first hip eatery. After that, things snowballed. Vardøen took over another place on Thorvald Meyers gate and opened Bar Boca, which was an immediate success. It had some of the city’s toughest bartenders, but they were mixing colorful cocktails decorated with cherries. The place was packed to the rafters on Friday nights. Then came the cozy pizza restaurant Villa Paradiso, the US-style Nighthawk Diner, a microbrewery, a bakery, and more.
Today, Vardøen’s empire also includes a record label, a film production company, a publishing house, an import business and an accounting firm. He employs over 300 people.
“It’s a strange feeling,” he says. “I see everyone gathered for Christmas lunch and I think: ‘I pay all these people’s wages!’”
Guided by his interests
Vardøen has been instrumental in making Grünerløkka the vibrant and desirable area it is today. In fact, property prices have tripled since he arrived. But he’s modest about his part in the transformation.
“Had it been intentional, I would have been happy. But it was never my aim to build a neighborhood. I just pursued the things I like. I have an interest in food, diners, tiki culture, and brewing. Suddenly there I am, owning lots of places. I’m an enthusiast, and I believe in following through on my plans.”
He has quite literally built this empire with his bare hands.
“I’ve done all the carpentry myself,” he says. “And laid the floors. I’ve even painted the signs. I wouldn’t have got things off the ground if I’d needed to pay someone else to do the work.”
Keep your head up, get things done
Vardøen is skeptical of the concept of design. “It just makes things more expensive,” he says. “I don’t see why I should hire an interior designer – building a restaurant is not too different from building a wooden boat. Once you master a technique like that, you can use it for many other things.”
You get the feeling that Vardøen’s days have more than 24 hours. In addition to keeping his empire running and opening a new branch of Villa Paradiso, he recently found time to direct his third movie, Autumn Fall. The secret, he says, is not putting things off.
“It’s like being a bartender in a packed bar. It’s easy to be overwhelmed, and you might feel tempted to look down at the floor instead of dealing with the customers. But if you keep your head up and get things done, you find you can manage it. That’s what my days are like.” With that, he walks on to the next restaurant.
This article was first published in SAS’ inflight magazine, Scandinavian Traveler, June, 2015. Read more stories published in Scandinavian Traveler »»