Ikea restaurants were failing. Then he turned to Swedish meatballs

The retail giant sells more than a billion of its Swedish meatballs in store cafeterias each year. Meatballs have become a symbol of Ikea’s Scandinavian-friendly brand image and are central to the retailer’s strategy of keeping customers browsing stores for hours and enticing them to choose a new bed or a new couch after you’ve finished eating.

Meatballs are “canapes’ best seller,” said Gerd Diewald, who at the time ran Ikea’s US food operations, in a 2017 interview.
But meatballs weren’t on the menu when Ikea opened its first in-store cafe in 1953 in Älmhult, Sweden. There was only coffee and cakes. As it grew, Ikea began to offer traditional Swedish dishes such as mashed potatoes and sausages. Still no meatballs for a while, though.

Ikea finally launched its meatballs in 1985, following an overhaul of its menu and restaurant operations.

But the brains behind Ikea’s meatballs didn’t expect them to cause a stir.

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

In fact, suppliers approached by Ikea to produce its meatballs were skeptical of its plan, Hullberg said: “Why would a furniture dealer suddenly have to buy meatballs and send them around the world?”

Land on meatballs

Ikea turned to meatballs after struggling to sell food.

Company founder Ingvar Kamprad, who started Ikea as a mail-order business (Ikea’s name comes from his initials and the farm and village where he grew up in Sweden), felt the company’s restaurants were a “mess,” Hullberg said. “He was unhappy with the quality and the image.”

At the time, Ikea had around 50 stores worldwide. Kamprad worried that Ikea was losing hungry customers as they strolled through Ikea’s maze-like stores and left to grab a bite to eat.

Kamprad, who died in 2018, envisioned restaurants in stores as a place where customers could sit, eat and plan how to decorate their living room with Ikea products.

Hullberg, then the manager of an Ikea store, had approached Kamprad and was asked to create a new concept for all of Ikea’s restaurants – everything from kitchen lines to menu to training Staff. He and a team of four, including a chef recruited from a high-end restaurant in Stockholm, worked on designing a restaurant that would be an extension of the Swedish brand identity and Ikea’s thrifty reputation. .

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

Back then, a typical Ikea store served up to 5,000 customers a day. To simplify operations and reduce costs, the menu should be limited. And since the menu would be similar in stores in different countries, Hullberg’s team researched popular foods in different cultures.

Meatballs, a mainstay of the Swedish diet, do the trick.

“We were addicted to that one,” he said. “Even though it’s not really a Swedish innovation, meatballs exist in every culture you come from.”

Meatballs were also good for quick freezing, transporting and preparing in Ikea kitchens.

Although in Sweden “there are as many meatball recipes as there are people who eat them”, Ikea needed only one recipe since it outsourced production. Making them in-house would have been too complicated for the volumes needed at Ikea.

The Ikea chef came up with a recipe that was two-thirds beef and one-third pork, but Kamprad, the founder, wanted the meatball to be mostly pork.

“We won that battle because it was easier to export meatballs that had 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 like salads and sandwiches.

Hullberg, 71, left Ikea in 1992. But he still does his shopping there and stops at the restaurant to discover his brainchild.

“Icon for IKEA”

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

The meatballs survived a damaging recall in 2013 after traces of horse meat 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.

Cafeterias where meatballs are usually served are located near the middle of the store, not too close to the entrance or exit.

Why Chick-fil-A Workers Always Say

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

Ikea doesn’t want to feed you right away, preferring instead that you work up an appetite while you shop and then head to the restaurant to take a break, Xu said.

When you are hungry, your mind is focused on acquiring food. This may carry over to the acquisition of other products, she said. Xu’s research found that hungry mall shoppers spent 64% more money than already full shoppers.

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

“They are delicious,” she said. “They have a plant-based one, which is good because I’ve been trying to reduce my meat and dairy intake.”

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

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