Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Lunch at IKEA

Copyright Kai Hendry
Shopping on an empty stomach is not fun. Especially if its shopping for something a little more sophisticated, such as furniture. No wonder than IKEA, the Swedish budget furniture chain, runs restaurants in all its locations. I had a chance to check one out last Saturday. Well, that is, in the end I didn’t.

Copyright Kai Hendry
I have never eaten at IKEA but as my 11-month old baby daughter needed her food anyway, and we were just about to enter the store, we thought we might as well check it out. Nothing had prepared us though for what was going on there. There were two massive lines the size of a check in line for a intercontinental flight and I would estimate that there were at least 500 people in the restaurant. Families with kids, grandmother and dog were queuing up next to young couples or groups of teenagers, old single men as well as people in wheelchairs. It was an amazing mix.

Copyright rayb777
Given the size of the lines and the prospective waiting time we quickly folded the idea of lunch and just fed the baby with what we had with us. The IKEA lunch line though was an exciting spectacle to watch for a few minutes. The food looked actually quite good, though it was rather simple. Meat-and-two-veg seemed to be the general structure. And generous portions. It was cheap: none of the items is more than $7.99 with the legendary Meatball staple at $5.99. It also looked relatively healthy. Only two of the seven main dishes on offer contained fries or deep fried stuff; most had vegetables or salad as sides; and the pasta and crepes were even organic! No junk food this.

It is kind of funny when sitting in the restaurant of a multinational chain you suddenly get the feeling of being more in a public institution – the place looked like the hospital or school canteens of my youth or the university ‘mensa’ of my student days. The entire place had more something of an institutional air around it rather than a ‘restaurant’. Underlined by the demographics of the dining public this appeared more like a social institution than a privately run for-profit restaurant. It even reminded me a little bit of a public soup kitchen or red cross food outlets which I saw when visiting refugee camps in the aftermath of the Yugoslavian wars in the mid 1990s.

Now the peculiar thing here is that all this was not only provided by an otherwise known as a ruthless, efficient and profit driven multinational corporation. Even more, it was just because IKEA has this ultimate modern perfection of a Fordist business model with globally standardized sourcing, products, and processes that the company is able to offer this affordable food supply. I was reminded of investigations in the mid 2000s in Germany which found that IKEA had become the food supplier of choice for people on welfare and low incomes. At the time, the company already made 10% of its revenue in Germany just by food!

Matten jr. enjoyed herself at IKEA
It leaves one wondering about the status and nature of global capitalism. In some ways, IKEA represents this approach like few others. Some scholars have argued that IKEA though, shaped by the social-democratic climate of his home country Sweden represents a somewhat softer or human form of a global corporation. But just skimming the IKEA page on Wikipedia shows that the company is anything but a saint. I well remember that, when the wall came down in 1989 in Germany, some former dissidents had a funny déjà-vu when visiting their relatives in the West for the first time: they could recognize some of their friends’ IKEA furniture as items they had to assemble while being imprisoned by the regime in Eastern Germany which supplied IKEA with some of their phenomenally cheap products...

For me, the company just represents, first of all, the ascent and the degree to which private corporations shape the public and private sphere of ordinary people these days. After all, one out of ten Europeans these days is said to having been conceived in an IKEA bed. It also shows, secondly, that at least from a consumer perspective in the Global North a multinational such as IKEA contributes significantly to enhancing the standard of living and providing affordable access to basic necessities of life. But most of all, it raises some growing and unresolved questions about the status of the social sphere in a world where markets and capitalism seem to colonize every last corner of our lives. No student at my current university has access to cheap food at IKEA prices; and many of the ‘common’ folks I saw last Saturday at IKEA certainly know that taking the family out for a meal anywhere else would probably be beyond their budget. The last time I saw a meal service in a Toronto hospital it was just outright revolting junk served in a public institution. But why is it only a ruthless, self-interested multinational which provides a better alternative at that level today?

I have not doubts about the motivations of IKEA in running such a restaurant operation. I am just puzzled by the fact that the result resembles so much what traditionally looked like the public provision of these goods. This said, I am not even sure if I want to add: this should still be available for common folks, be it in schools, universities, hospitals or even worker’s canteens in companies. But I also know why IKEA can and these other players cannot provide this any more...
Top three fotos reproduced under the Creative Commons License


  1. Part of the secret of a success in life is to eat what you like and let the food fight it out inside.

  2. IKEA's restaurant is very similar to many Swedish restaurants which cater to professionals for lunch. In many companies with lunch service, there are trays, cafeteria style, (some buffet style). It may look like a student dining hall to you, but it is rather common in Stockholm. I think the style suggests that everyone is welcome and lunch doesn't need to be "fancy". The biggest difference is that while local IKEAs can be affordable for many, the majority of restaurants in Stockholm would run around $12 for lunch.


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