Ikea is known for sprawling showrooms, cheap flat-pack furniture and, of course, Swedish meatballs.
The retail giant sells more than a billion of its trademark Swedish meatballs at cafeterias in stores every year. 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 stores for hours — and getting them to pick up a new bed or couch after they finish eating.
Meatballs are “the best sofa-seller,” Gerd Diewald, who led Ikea’s US food operations at the time, said 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 just coffee and cake. As Ikea grew, it started offering traditional Swedish dishes such as potato mash and sausage. Still no meatballs for a while, though.
Ikea finally debuted its meatballs in 1985, following an overhaul of its menu and restaurant operations.
But the masterminds of Ikea’s meatballs never expected them to become a sensation.
“I would never have imagined 40 years later people would be calling me about it,” said Sören Hullberg, who led Ikea’s food revamp at the time.
In fact, suppliers Ikea approached to produce its meatballs were skeptical of its plan, Hullberg said: “Why should a furniture dealer suddenly buy meatballs and send them across the world?”
Ikea turned to meatballs after it faced struggles selling food.
Company 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 around 50 stores worldwide. Kamprad worried that Ikea was losing customers who were getting hungry while they wandered around Ikea’s maze-like stores and leaving to grab a bite to eat.
Kamprad, who died in 2018, envisioned restaurants in stores as a place where customers could sit down, eat and plan how to decorate their living rooms with Ikea wares.
Hullberg, then an Ikea store manager, had gotten close to Kamprad and was tapped to create a new concept for all of Ikea’s restaurants — everything from kitchen lines to the menu to training staff. He and a team of four, including a chef recruited from a high-end restaurant in Stockholm, went to work on designing a restaurant that would be an extension of Ikea’s Swedish brand identity and thrifty reputation.
“Our mission was to make sure that no one left an Ikea store because of being thirsty or hungry,” he said.
At the time, a typical Ikea store was serving up to 5,000 customers a day. To simplify operations and keep costs down, the menu would have to be limited. And since the menu would be similar at 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 hooked on that one,” he said. “Even if it’s not really a Swedish innovation, meatballs exist in every culture you come to.”
Meatballs were also efficient to freeze, transport and quickly prepare at Ikea’s kitchens.
Although in Sweden “there are as many recipes of meatballs as there are people eating them,” Ikea needed to land on one recipe since it was outsourcing production. Making them in-house would have been too complicated for the volumes 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 containing a majority of beef than pig,” Hullberg said.
In addition to meatballs, the new menu also featured Swedish staples such as salmon and roast beef, and smaller plates like 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 one, chicken, salmon, vegetarian and a newer plant-based meatball. They’re served with mashed potatoes, cream sauce, lingonberry jam and vegetables. Ikea also sells frozen meatballs 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 shut down its restaurants and released the recipe for customers to cook them at home.
The cafeterias where meatballs are typically served are located near the middle of the store — not too close to the entrance or the exit.
There’s a strategy involved here, according 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 doesn’t want to feed you right away, instead preferring that you work up an appetite while you shop and then visit the restaurant to take a break, Xu said.
When you’re 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 mall shoppers spent 64% more money than shoppers 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 which is nice because I’ve been trying to cut down on eating meat and dairy.”
For Sol, eating Swedish meatballs at Ikea is part of the experience: “The meatballs are kind of iconic for Ikea. It’s just what you do.”