Ikea is known for its sprawling showrooms, cheap flatpack furniture and, of course, Swedish meatballs.
The retail giant sells more than a billion of its signature Swedish meatballs in store cafeterias every year. The meatballs have become a symbol of Ikea’s friendly Scandinavian brand image and are central to the retailer’s strategy of keeping customers snooping around in stores for hours – and prompting them to pick up a new bed or sofa after they have finished shopping. have finished eating.
Meatballs are “the best bank seller,” Gerd Diewald, who led Ikea’s US food business at the time, said in a 2017 interview.
But meatballs weren’t on the menu when Ikea opened its first retail cafe in Älmhult, Sweden, in 1953. There was only coffee and cake. As Ikea grew, it began to offer traditional Swedish dishes such as mashed potatoes and sausage. But still no meatballs for now.
Ikea finally debuted its meatballs in 1985, after overhauling its menu and restaurant business.
But the masterminds of Ikea’s meatballs never expected to become a sensation.
“I never thought 40 years later that people would call me about it,” says Sören Hullberg, who led Ikea’s food innovation at the time.
Suppliers Ikea approached to produce their meatballs were even skeptical of the plan, Hullberg said: “Why would a furniture retailer suddenly buy meatballs and send them around the world?”
Ikea turned to meatballs after it struggled 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), thought the company’s restaurants were a “shambles,” Hullberg said. “He was not happy with the quality and the image.”
At the time, Ikea had about 50 stores worldwide. Kamprad worried that Ikea was losing customers who got hungry as they wandered through Ikea’s maze-like stores and left for a bite to eat.
Kamprad, who passed away in 2018, saw in-store restaurants as a place where customers could sit down, eat and plan how to furnish their living rooms with Ikea wares.
Hullberg, then an Ikea store manager, had developed a close relationship with Kamprad and was asked to create a new concept for all Ikea 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 to work designing a restaurant that would be an extension of Ikea’s Swedish brand identity and frugal reputation.
“Our mission was to make sure no one left an Ikea store because of thirst or hunger,” he said.
At the time, a typical Ikea store served up to 5,000 customers a day. To simplify operations and keep costs low, the menu should be reduced. And since the menu in stores in different countries would be similar, Hullberg’s team looked for foods that were popular in different cultures.
Meatballs, a mainstay of Swedish diets, fit the bill.
“We were hooked on that one,” he said. “Even though it’s not quite a Swedish innovation, meatballs exist in every culture you come across.”
Meatballs were also efficient to freeze, transport and prepare quickly in Ikea kitchens.
Although there are “as many meatball recipes as there are people eating them” in Sweden, Ikea had to come up with one recipe because it outsourced production. Making your own would be too complicated for the volumes Ikea needed.
Ikea’s chef came up with a recipe that consisted of 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 containing mostly beef than pork,” Hullberg said.
In addition to meatballs, the new menu also featured Swedish ingredients 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 stops by the restaurant to check out his brainchild.
Today, Ikea has several meatballs – the original, chicken, salmon, vegetarian, and a newer vegetable meatball. They are served with mashed potatoes, cream sauce, blueberry 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 has closed its restaurants and released the recipe for customers to cook them at home.
The cafeterias where meatballs are usually served are in the middle of the store – not too close to the entrance or exit.
This is where strategy comes in, 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 of hunger on purchasing decisions.
Ikea doesn’t want to feed you right away, preferring that you get hungry while you shop and then visit the restaurant to take a break, Xu said.
When you are hungry, your mind is focused on acquiring food. This can spill over into acquiring other products, she said. Xu’s research has found that hungry shoppers in malls spend 64% more money than customers who are already full.
When Tiare Sol, an Ikea shopper in Sacramento, California, and her family visit the store, “almost everyone orders the meatballs.”
“They’re delicious,” she said. “They have a vegetable, which is nice because I’ve tried to eat less meat and dairy.”
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.”