Ikea’s restaurants failed. Then it became Swedish meatballs

Every year, the retail giant sells more than a billion of its branded Swedish meatballs in cafeterias in stores. The meatballs have become a symbol of Ikea’s friendly Scandinavian brand image and central to the retailer’s strategy of keeping customers browsing inside the stores for hours – and getting them to pick up a new bed or sofa when they’m done eating.

Meatballs are “the best sofa seller,” Gerd Diewald, who ran Ikea’s US food business at the time, said in a 2017 interview.
But meatballs were not on the menu when Ikea opened its first store café in 1953 in Älmhult, Sweden. There was just coffee and cake. As Ikea grew, it began to offer traditional Swedish dishes such as mashed potatoes and sausage. Still no meatballs for a while, though.

Ikea finally debuted its meatballs in 1985 after a review of the menu and restaurant operations.

But the people behind Ikea’s meatballs never expected that they would be a sensation.

“I would never have imagined 40 years later that people would call me about it,” said Sören Hullberg, who led Ikea’s food renewal at the time.

In fact, suppliers that Ikea approached to produce its meatballs were skeptical of its plan, Hullberg said: “Why should a furniture retailer suddenly buy meatballs and send them out into the world?”

Land on meatballs

Ikea turned to meatballs after facing problems selling food.

The company’s founder Ingvar Kamprad, who started Ikea as a mail order company (Ikea’s name comes from his initials and the farm and village where he grew up in Sweden), felt that the company’s restaurants were a “mess”, Hullberg said. “He was not happy with the quality and the image.”

At the time, Ikea had about 50 stores worldwide. Kamprad was worried that Ikea was losing customers who were getting hungry as they wandered around Ikea’s maze-like stores and set off for a bite to eat.

Kamprad, who died in 2018, imagined restaurants in stores as a place where customers could sit down, eat and plan how to decorate their living rooms with Ikea goods.

Hullberg, who was Ikea’s store manager at the time, had come close to Kamprad and was used to create a new concept for all Ikea’s restaurants – everything from kitchen lines to the menu to staff training. He and a team of four, including a chef recruited from a high-end restaurant in Stockholm, set about designing a restaurant that would be an extension of Ikea’s Swedish brand identity and frugal reputation.

The meatballs were not the idea of ​​Ikea founder Ingvar Kamprad.

“Our mission was to make sure no one left an Ikea store due to being thirsty or hungry,” he said.

At the time, a typical Ikea store served up to 5,000 customers a day. To simplify operations and keep costs down, the menu should be limited. And since the menu would be similar in stores in different countries, Hullberg’s team looked for foods that were popular across different cultures.

Meatballs, a basic pill in the Swedish diet, fit the bill.

“We were hooked on that one,” he said. “Even though it’s not really a Swedish innovation, meatballs are found in every culture you come to.”

Meatballs were also effective to freeze, transport and quickly cook in Ikea’s kitchens.

Although in Sweden “there are as many recipes for meatballs as there are people who eat them”, Ikea had to land on one recipe as it was outsourcing production. Making them internally would have been too complicated for the quantities that Ikea needed.

Ikea’s chef came up with a recipe that was two-thirds beef and one-third pork, but Kamprad, the founder, wanted the meatball to be primarily from pigs.

“We won that battle because it was easier to export meatballs that contain a majority of beef than pork,” Hullberg said.

In addition to meatballs, the new menu also included Swedish staples such as salmon and roast beef and smaller plates such as salads and sandwiches.

Hullberg, 71, left Ikea in 1992. But he still shops there and looks past the restaurant to check out his idea.

‘Iconic for IKEA’

Today, Ikea has several meatballs – the original, chicken, salmon, vegetarian and a newer plant-based meatballs. They are served with mashed potatoes, cream sauce, cranberry jam and vegetables. Ikea also sells frozen meatballs that customers can take home.

The meatballs survived a damaging recall in 2013 after traces of horsemeat were found in a batch in Europe. During the Covid-19 pandemic, Ikea closed its restaurants and released the recipe for customers to cook at home.

The cafeterias, which typically serve meatballs, are located close to the center of the store – not too close to the entrance or exit.

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There is a strategy involved here, according to Alison Jing Xu, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, who studies consumer behavior and the impact hunger has on purchasing decisions.

Ikea does not want to give you food right away, but instead prefers that you build an appetite while shopping and then visit the restaurant to take a break, Xu said.

When you are hungry, your mind is focused on getting you food. This can be contagious about acquiring other products, she said. Xu’s research has found that hungry malls spent 64% more money than customers who were already full.

When Tiare Sol, an Ikea shopper in Sacramento, California, and her family visit the store, “almost everyone ends up ordering the meatballs.”

“They’re delicious,” she said. “They have a plant-based one that’s nice because I’ve been trying to cut down on eating meat and dairy products.”

For Sol, eating Swedish meatballs at Ikea is part of the experience: “The meatballs are a bit iconic for Ikea. It’s just what you do.”

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