"You have to pester Swedes to get them to talk to you"

Rob Hunt has lived in Skellefteå since 2014, during which time he has become a well-known face on the local restaurant scene. He's now settled and is co-founder and manager of the new Kork wine bar in town – who better to chat to about how to make friends and how to fit into Skellefteå society?

Rob Hunt, co-founder of Kork wine bar.

Rob Hunt, co-founder of Kork wine bar.

Foto: Donna Richmond

Engelska2023-04-14 17:42

There weren't many English people living in Skellefteå when I first arrived more than 10 years ago. Sweden being Sweden there were plenty of English speakers but very few actual English people. So when Rob Hunt opened Society Café in the summer of 2014, basing it on cozy English and Irish cafés, it was a real treat. A home from home with good down-to-earth food, and superlative and friendly service, the café became a bit of a hub for exiled Brits.

Rob was such a natural host that it came as no surprise as he gradually made a name for himself in the restaurant business in Skellefteå. Since Society Café, Rob has been manager at both Stadskällaren and La Cena, as well as restaurant manager for the Wood Hotel.

But now he's part of another project, Kork, the wine bar in Nygatan in Skellefteå city center, which he co-founded with Mikael and Oliver Lundmark and which Rob manages.

We recently sat down in Kork for a chat about his experiences in Skellefteå and to find out if he had any advice for Skellefteå newcomers.

Rob Hunt and Norran English editor, Paul Connolly, in conversation.

PC: When did you come to Skellefteå?
RH: I came here in 2014, before Northvolt was a thing. In those days people used to move here for just one thing - and that was love. So I came here for a girl, Erica. And the plan was to open a small restaurant or a small cafe, like the places we'd worked in, in Dublin. And because Erica had family here, we decided Skellefteå was as good a place to start as any. So we opened Society Café in the summer of 2014. We didn't see many customers for the first 12 months, but it grew, and it became quite successful. 

PC: What was Skellefteå like in those days?
RH: Skellefteå was completely different. A lot has changed in the last 8-9 years. It was so quiet then. It was a very, very small town. I remember walking through town on a Sunday. And it felt more like growing up in the early 1990s in a very quiet part of the UK. It was how it used to be in the UK and in Ireland when absolutely everything shut on a Sunday. And there really wasn't much going on in terms of restaurants and nightlife. 
I remember when Bishop's Arms opened, the first year we lived here. And it was a huge event - the Bishop's Arms had come to Skellefteå! I could use a slightly less flattering word for Skellefteå then, but I'll go for 'quaint'. Skellefteå was quaint. 

Rob Hunt, the genial manager of Kork. "Swedish pizzas are definitely unique."

PC: How were the locals — do you have any advice for newcomers trying to make friends?
RH: The English were still quite unique back then. There was Big Steve from England and maybe a dozen more. But we had a pretty positive reception. I think they weren't quite sure what to make of my broken Swedish and half-Irish, half-English dialect, but it always felt welcoming. 

Now it's a bit different. Most people are coming here to work for companies. I think it's a good idea to socialize with your colleagues and get to know people. You have to be a little more outgoing to get people to warm to you. 

But Swedish workplaces can be quite closed off. And the people can seem a little insular. So you really have to make an effort. So get them out, and pester them and annoy them a little, so they actually speak to you. Once you make that effort, it's definitely worth it.

PC: How did you find the food when you first moved?
RH: I grew up in Hull, in the north of England, so I was used to eating potatoes and meat and one vegetable and some brown sauce. So it was quite familiar, except for the brown sauce.

It wasn't all just meatballs. We ate a lot of moose meat. We went to crayfish parties. We were invited to numerous surströmming parties, which are always fun. And yeah, the food is pretty good. Mind you, I'm not a haute cuisine kind of person anyway.

A 'good luck' gift for Kork from Stadskällaren restaurant, exemplifying the supportive Skellefteå restaurant ecosystem.

PC: How about pizza? What are your feelings on Swedish pizza?
RH: Swedish pizzas are definitely unique. The toppings are unique. I mean, as well as I feel I've integrated here, I still can't have banana, curry and ham on a pizza. Individually, those things are lovely. But I definitely don't need them together on a pizza. Generally, I really have problems with fruit on pizza. If Italian people come over here, they must be devastated by the pizzas. Absolutely devastated.

A gourmet pizza place was originally our plan before we did Kork. There's a good pizza place in Piteå, which I know is a long way to go for a decent pizza. But at the moment, I would go quite far for a decent pizza.

PC: What do you like about Skellefteå?
RH: It's small, and I was used to big cities, but to be so close to the countryside, and to be able to go two kilometers in any direction, and you're in the middle of nowhere. I love that. And especially growing up where we grew up; you're surrounded by urban sprawl, and the countryside is a gap of two kilometers, and then it's another city.

The pace of life is great, too. I mean, my work-life balance is probably slightly skewed by the work I do, but the focus people put on family time is a huge draw for me for Sweden. And it's fantastic that people can work 34-36 hours a week and have time off and six weeks of holiday or whatever normal people in normal, sensible jobs, get here. And, of course, the childcare here is totally amazing. 

Rob Hunt, co-founder of Kork wine bar.

PC: What's business life like here? Is it really competitive with these new restaurants? @RH: Actually, we all get on quite well. Obviously, there is competition in terms of customers and getting people into your restaurant. But especially at the moment, there are a lot of customers to go around. So it's pretty good. But the restaurant scene is healthy. We all eat in each others' restaurants, we all drink in each others' bars. 

We all try to get along. We also try to encourage and support each other when we can. We even help each other with staffing if someone is stuck. That doesn't happen in many places. So it's quite a supportive community. 

PC: What about negatives? 
RH: I'd just like to see more things. More restaurants, more events, more things people can do. Just more! Other than that, there's a reason I've stayed here, and that's because I don't find too many negatives. 

PC: Do you have any tips for newcomers on settling in Skellefteå? 
RH: Try to assimilate with the culture. Whether that's the language, or the way of life, or, especially right now, discovering ice hockey. I'm not the biggest hockey fan, but 95% of locals here are, so it's a great way of bonding. 

Falkträsket is lovely in the summer.

PC: Finally, do you have any secret Skellefteå tips? 
RH: Skiing in Klutmark. It's a fantastic, tiny ski place with everything you need. Obviously this is a tip for next winter now, but it's a great little place, with a cool café. And Falkträsket ( above ) - what a great place to spend a few days in the summer.