On my husband’s 70th birthday, we brunched at IKEA because, one of our daughters told us, “That’s where all the old people eat”. It was a symbolic occasion, and he consumed the IKEA Swedish meatballs with – well, perhaps not exactly with relish but with an appreciation of their iconic status. The meatballs are credited with rescuing IKEA from a challenging financial situation back in the early ‘80s, when the chain’s founder, Ingvar Kamprad, realised that feeding shoppers helped to keep them in the store.
The first IKEA store opened in Sweden in 1958. In one corner, customers could enjoy coffee and biscuits and, from 1960, a store restaurant served cold dishes. When the Stockholm store opened in 1965, the restaurant served a number of Swedish dishes, but meatballs were not on the menu. It wasn’t until 1983, when IKEA stores had become an international phenomenon, that Kamprad decided the classic Swedish dish could form the cornerstone of a new, more enticing food offering. He commissioned chef Severin Sjöstedt to come up with the recipe and, after extensive testing, the IKEA Swedish Meatballs – or IKEA Köttbullar – were born.
The first Aussie IKEA opened in St Leonards, Sydney, in 1975, relocating to Gordon in 1978. This was in the pre-meatball era and I can’t find any record of café facilities at these early stores. However, even after the Swedish meatballs had debuted in Europe, they may have taken some time to arrive here.
Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1996, Ruth Ritchie described the menu at the Moore Park IKEA store:
It’s not tempting or exciting, but it does the job. The menu: soup, baguette, Swedish platter, savoury tart, sausage roll, pie, birthday cake, baby food (warmed free of charge), marzipan, lollipops, fridge drinks and coffee. …The Swedish platter of rollmops, big Swedish rye biscuits, smoked salmon, cream, onion, lettuce and tomato was very…novel. The coffee was better than you might expect. And they’ve got a big white and dark chocolate biscuit which could give you the energy to buy a nest of tables and a sofa bed.
Not a meatball in sight. How things have changed. Today, hailed by many as providing a moment of sanity in the madness of an IKEA shopping trip, the Swedish meatballs currently (2023) sell for $10.95 for a plate of eight, plus mashed potato, cream sauce, lingonberry jam and green peas. You can upgrade to a plate of 12 at $13.50. Or you can choose the chicken or plant-based meatball options. IKEA sells more than a billion Swedish meatballs every year in 460 stores around the world.
Then, of course, there are the other Swedish specialties you can buy from the IKEA food market, located opposite the checkouts. And there are hot dogs and cinnamon buns, ready to go. In the restaurant, if Swedish meatballs aren’t your thing, you can now choose from pork ribs, salmon fillet, vegetable curry or even a good Aussie parma. As well as a range of wraps, soups and salads.
But it’s the meatballs that have become a legend – as much a part of the IKEA experience as getting lost between the sofas and the office furniture. Or testing the limits of your patience as you try to assemble a Koppang chest of drawers on your living room floor.