IKEA, the world’s largest furniture company, also hosts a large restaurant chain. Almost every one of the mega-retailer’s 400 stores worldwide runs its own restaurant. And while they’re at it, they’re curbing food waste, sourcing key ingredients sustainably and giving employees a say in what they eat for lunch.
The company opened its first restaurant in 1959 to offer meal options to customers in one of its stores in Sweden. Today, IKEA restaurants are still focused on the customer, says Peter Ho, product developer for IKEA U.S., even though the company now serves 660 million people every year.
Over the decades, the company has expanded the menu and responded to evolving demand. But simplicity is still the core of IKEA food. Like the Scandinavian furniture the company popularized, IKEA’s food is without excess. Entrées are familiar and made with few ingredients. Seasonal sauces, soups and sides add panache and pop, just as a throw pillow or vase brightens a room. A standard entrée is spruced up with a Thai coconut curry sauce in fall and winter and a tomato-spinach sauce in spring and summer.
IKEA restaurants offer dozens of options, including entrée plates, sandwiches, wraps, salads and desserts. In their smaller bistros, located near store exits, they serve quick bites, such as hot dogs, pizza, yogurt cones and cinnamon buns.
The dining room resembles a cafeteria. Diners slide trays along railings, viewing options through clear display cases. But rather than choose a collection of individually plated servings, customers order full meals, such as meatballs with a seasonal sauce and a side of beans or salmon with hollandaise sauce and wheat pilaf. Customers can choose to sit at communal tables, high barstools, or comfortable sofas and chairs with phone charging stations.
Variety and creature comforts are appealing, but meals at IKEA are also popular because they’re affordable. Massive bulk orders allow the company to pass along savings to their customers. But Ho also says the company isn’t focused on profit with its foodservice. “We’re not looking to make a lot of money off the meals.”
Success hasn’t blunted the company’s quest to make things better. The uber-popularity of their Swedish meatballs (they serve one billion of them worldwide every year) has only inspired them to introduce new products. “A lot of our consumers look for healthier alternatives,” Ho says. So in 2015, they unveiled both vegan and chicken versions of the meatball in Belgium and the U.S.
The meatballs themselves are sourced from a U.S. supplier, but much of the food is prepared in-house. In the U.S., IKEA procures domestic products through Sysco and European products through a specialized importer.
About 45 to 50 employees run each site. Behind the scenes, they also operate a “co-worker dining room” where all IKEA employees can purchase meals for a reduced price. In addition to a full soup and salad bar and some options from the restaurant, the menu includes special dishes created by employees at individual sites. One chef makes monthly re-creations of Swedish favorites from her childhood. At another site, where employees are encouraged to submit recipes, they once served drunken noodles.
In addition to boosting nutrition and improving the dining experience, IKEA has responded to the demand for more equitable food.
The pork and beef in the Swedish meatballs is free of antibiotics. All seafood, served and sold, is certified by the Aquaculture Stewardship Council or the Marine Stewardship Council. Cocoa and coffee is certified by the Rainforest Alliance.
Sourcing sustainable ingredients stateside can be less straightforward than it is in other parts of the world. “As a company in the U.S., we have these goals,” Ho says, “but it is more challenging for us to find the resources in the States to align with IKEA’s values.” For instance, the company sources eggs from cage-free hens but they don’t have access to enough eggs from free-range hens in the U.S. to make the switch all at once. They plan move to free-range products as they become available, but they know it will take time.
That said, IKEA is making progress on food waste. To meet the company’s goal of generating zero food-to-landfill waste by 2020, they track avoidable food waste using LeanPath Technology. Some locations use a pulper to convert food waste into pellets that can be composted or otherwise repurposed. And they contract with private companies to compost food waste where composting is available. Not every community offers composting for foodservice, “but in that sense, we need to be creative,” Ho says. “We need to explore further.”