The retail giant sells more than 1 billion of its Swedish-branded meatballs in in-store cafeterias each year. Meatballs have become a symbol of Ikea’s friendly Scandinavian brand image and are central to the retailer’s strategy of keeping customers browsing stores for hours — and getting them to pick up a new bed or sofa after they’ve finished eating.
Ikea finally launched meatballs in 1985, after an overhaul of its menu and restaurant operations.
But the masterminds of IKEA meatballs never expected it to become such a sensation.
“I would have never imagined 40 years later that people would contact me about this,” said Sören Hullberg, who led Ikea’s food renovation at the time.
In fact, IKEA suppliers who approached meatball production were skeptical of her plan, Holberg said, “Why would a furniture dealer suddenly buy meatballs and send them all over the world?”
Landing on meatballs
Ikea switched to meatballs after having difficulties selling food.
Company founder Ingvar Kamprad, who started IKEA as a mail-order company (the name IKEA comes from his initials and the farm and village he grew up in in Sweden), felt the company’s restaurants were “a mess,” Holberg said. Was not happy with the quality and the picture.
At that time, IKEA had about 50 stores around the world. Kamprad was concerned that IKEA was losing customers who were starving as they wandered around the maze-like IKEA stores and left to eat.
Hullberg, who was then Ikea store manager, approached Kamprad and was tapped to create a new concept for all Ikea restaurants – everything from the kitchen lines to the menu to staff training. He and a team of four, including a chef recruited from a fine restaurant in Stockholm, went to work on designing a restaurant that would be an extension of Ikea’s Swedish brand identity and esteemed reputation.
“Our job was to make sure no one left IKEA because they were thirsty or hungry,” he said.
At the time, a typical Ikea store served up to 5,000 customers per day. To simplify operations and keep costs down, the menu should be limited. 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 mainstay of Swedish diets, fit the bill.
“We were addicted to it,” he said. “Even if this isn’t really a Swedish innovation, meatballs are in every culture I come into.”
Meatballs were also effective at freezing, transporting, and preparing quickly in Ikea kitchens.
Although in Sweden “there are as many recipes for meatballs as there are people who eat them”, IKEA needed to have one because production was being outsourced. Making it at home was too complicated for the quantities Ikea needed.
An Ikea chef created a recipe that consisted of two-thirds of beef and one-third of pork, but Kamprad, the founder, wanted the meatballs to be primarily from pigs.
“We won that fight because it was easier to export meatballs that contained the majority of beef than pork,” Holberg said.
In addition to meatballs, the new menu also features Swedish staples like salmon and roast beef, and smaller dishes like salads and sandwiches.
Hallberg, 71, left Ikea in 1992. But he still shops there and stops by the restaurant to check out his brainchild.
Today, Ikea has many meatballs – the original, chicken, salmon, vegan and the latest vegan meatballs. Served with mashed potatoes, cream sauce, cranberry jam and vegetables. IKEA also sells frozen meatballs that customers can take home.
Cafeterias where meatballs are usually served are located near the middle of the store – not too close to the entrance or exit.
There’s a strategy involved here, according to Alison Jing Shu, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management who studies consumer behavior and the effect of hunger on purchasing decisions.
Shaw said IKEA doesn’t want to feed you right away, and instead prefers to work up your appetite while you shop and then visit the restaurant to take a break.
When Tiare Sol, an Ikea shopper in Sacramento, California, and her family visit the store, “Almost everyone ends up ordering meatballs.”
“It’s delicious,” she said. “They have a nice vegan because I’ve been trying to cut back on meat and dairy.”
For Sol, eating Swedish meatballs at Ikea is part of the experience: “Meatballs are kind of icon to Ikea. It’s just what they do.”