Who would have thought Swedish meatballs would drive so many destination shopping trips? But the world of IKEA is so much more than selling furniture these days.

Food you can trust IKEARetail alert! A quiet (and gravy-covered) storm is brewing at your local IKEA. The Swedish retailer, famous for flat-pack, inexpensive furniture, clever Scandinavian design and servings of Swedish meatballs ladled out in its iconic cafés, is seemingly bursting at the seams with its vision for all things linking to food culture and sustainability. If you haven't heard, the retailer's in-store cafés are now so popular that an estimated 30 percent of store visits are made just to dine in, and the company,  which has operated pop-up restaurants in London, Paris and Oslo, is apparently considering opening stand-alone cafés in city centers across the globe.

While only recently acknowledged as a powerful element of IKEA's retail experience, the combination of in-store café and home furnishings is elemental to the retailer's DNA and dates to the first IKEA store opened in Sweden in 1958. With aisles that weave for almost a mile through their gargantuan stores, it's little wonder that IKEA offers dining services for its crowds of weary shoppers.

For an illustrated version of this article, download the PDF: IKEA’s Bold Vision

While not all Americans can experience the Swedish retailer's staging of Scandinavian design and cuisine (there are only 48 IKEA stores in the United States), for those who have — like a group of analysts here at The Hartman Group recently did — it has become increasingly evident how immersed the company is in food culture and sustainability.

IKEA menu

IKEA's food and beverage vision spans far and wide, stretching from its hugely popular cafés and growing array of packaged, frozen and refrigerated CPG food and beverage products (now represented in over 12 categories, ranging from meat, fish and seafood to bread, dairy, beverages, snacks and candy) to "the home," notably kitchens, cookware and kitchenware. As described in the company’s 2016 sustainability report, IKEA "provides inspiration and solutions for food activities, from growing and cooking to serving and storing."

Of potential interest to other large retailers who formerly dabbled in food and beverage and are now attempting to make it central to their strategies to drive shopping trips (Amazon, Walmart and Target come to mind), we thought we'd highlight some of IKEA's food and beverage and sustainability strategies and how those realms might be succeeding. While the company has a sophisticated sustainability platform reflective of its Swedish heritage, it might be said that it's a combination of levers being pulled that builds the distinctive IKEA shopping experience, not just any specific one.

Food and Beverage as a Trip Driver at Retail

IKEA restaurantFirst and foremost, it's necessary to acknowledge the power of a serious food service operation as a reward for shopping trips (especially those that can last for hours). With only a small number of stores (many located in proximity to major cities), reurbanizing shoppers from a virtual United Nations of demographics come from long distances and with serious buying intentions at IKEA. Refreshingly different from many American menus, IKEA cafés are an immersion in Scandinavian cuisine, and while Hartman Group researchers see it as a kind of hybrid cafeteria/quick serve/fast casual setting, the cues to quality that borrow from Sweden are unmistakable, ranging from baked, frozen and gravlax salmon to lingonberry jam to the often-described Swedish meatballs. Yes: Most IKEA café food preparations cue less fresh and more “prepared from frozen” and look somewhat like college dining services from the 1990s, but the overall eating experience is rooted in Scandinavia — and for shoppers increasingly eager to try global and ethnic cuisines, it's fun to have a lax gravad (marinated salmon) and a kolsyrad parondryck (sparkling pear drink) at remarkably low prices.

A Strategic Focus on the Home, the Kitchen and Global Food Culture

We mentioned IKEA's focus on "solutions for food activities" earlier, but of even greater interest is the company's probing of the home itself and its relation to kitchens and food, translated into the company’s "Life at Home Reports" published from 2014 to 2016. Life at Home: Tasting the Moments (2015) examines "how people meet and eat in and around the kitchen." Among many insights, the report, which examined consumers in eight countries, found that "how we organize our kitchens can in fact affect our eating behavior." Yes, indeed, and while we might say that the humans in the household itself perhaps have a more significant impact on eating behavior, the actual home environment and tools used to process, consume and store foods and beverages are also highly significant. Overall, the company's focus on the kitchen and its translation of that focus into a myriad of kitchen apparatus — ranging from cabinets and furnishings to appliances and kitchenware — speaks to an inquisitive ongoing corporate mission to understand consumers at home, specifically in relation to food, cooking and eating.

Working together for the future of forests IKEASustainability

Sustainability at IKEA is a big topic, and as with many large corporate sustainability programs, there are higher-order ambitions that focus on sustainable sourcing, energy, environment, "people and their communities" and (uniquely) "sustainable life at home." Demonstrating the intersection often found between food and sustainability, a new corporate initiative called “Food Is Precious” aims to lower food waste. At the granular, consumer-facing store level, we find the company is communicating sustainability and quality through messaging, cues and label distinctions on food service menus, table talkers and banners, as well as on-pack in foods and beverages sold in its Swedish Food Markets. Examples:

  • Coffee and cocoa (used in chocolate) are UTZ-certified sustainable
  • Salmon comes from Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC)-certified farms, and wild-caught seafood is Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certified
  • Swedish meatballs come in vegetarian variety, based on influences from PETA
  • Organic lingonberry jam, coffee and cookies are available, and the retailer claims to offer "at least one organic meal on the menu at our restaurants, as well as an organic children’s meal”


We've noted in the past that the trend of "food everywhere" has now influenced a huge spectrum of retailers formerly "non-food" (or dabbling in food and beverage) to focus on the concept as a strategic and even necessary traffic driver. We need look no further than Amazon, Walmart and Target to be reminded of how essential food and beverage is seen as both corporate strategy and as a welcome addition to the shopper experience.

Amazon, Walmart and Target aren’t alone in their focus on food and beverage as key elements of strategy. We can’t ignore that Nordstrom, Cabella’s, Ralph Lauren and Tommy Bahama have their restaurants and cafés, while American Eagle Outfitters has its trend-setting DRINK bar, which we’ve described here in Hartbeat. Increasingly, for some former “non-food” retailers, food and beverage is the battleground they’ve chosen to sway shoppers toward them and away from a myriad of shopping and eating choices; we call it the “roadside pantry.”

Unfortunately, just saying you’re in the food and beverage business is one thing — actually delivering relevant experiences is another and requires staying close to consumers, something IKEA seems ready and willing to do as it explores at a cellular level what the home, the kitchen and cooking and eating mean to consumers. This is also something we do every day at The Hartman Group as we explore consumer lifestyles in relation to food culture.

Just as food and beverage is often looked to as a key lever to pull to influence consumers as shoppers, so too is “sustainability” — unfortunately, sustainability is often misinterpreted by corporations to be mainly about environmental concerns. Our most recent research in this area finds that sustainability can be a positive “halo” for companies that take a stand in their efforts and communicate transparently. In its current guise, Sustainability 2.0 is about more than just environmental concerns. It involves being a leader (and not necessarily the biggest) in your industry. While IKEA has taken heat in the not-so-distant past on a variety of sustainability fronts (sustainable sourcing, chemicals used in furnishings, labor, etc.), a number of its current initiatives reflect those that are currently driving positive consumer recognition for corporate sustainability efforts and include being:

  • A disruptive problem solver and rethinker
  • Innovative, entrepreneurial, collaborative and resourceful
  • Adaptive, progressive, on-trend and evolving
  • Holistic and working in concert with health, wellness and quality attributes
  • Intentional, caring and driven by more than just profits and shareholders
  • A “good business” and profitable while aware of emerging trends 
  • Transparent and sharing relevant information so that consumers make meaningful choices

Note: The photos in this article were taken by Hartman Group analysts on a trend trek at the Renton, Washington IKEA store, May 2017. If you would like to know more about a guided Hartman Group trend trek immersion, contact: blaine@hartman-group.com


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