The world’s biggest restaurant

From cookie-smart to climate-smart.

Child drinks soda from glass bottle with straw in a crowded restaurant with 1960s wood furnishings.
Child drinks soda from glass bottle with straw in a crowded restaurant with 1960s wood furnishings.

When Ingvar Kamprad opened the doors on his first furniture showroom in Älmhult back in 1953, he wanted to offer visitors coffee and a biscuit – a new phenomenon in the thrifty county of Småland back then. And it was a huge success. The queues were long, and when the biscuits started running out there was something of a panic.

There were many cafés and bakeries all over Sweden back in the 1950s, with about ten in little Älmhult alone. The job of baking 200 biscuits and making coffee for furniture fans went to an Älmhult establishment called Håkanssons efterträdare (Håkansson’s Successors).

“My parents, Stina and Albert, ran the café and bakery, and I would often help out,” says Ingela Gustavsson, now 80 years old. “Ingvar made it clear that it had to be biscuits that wouldn’t make a mess on the furniture. We made the coffee and IKEA provided the cups.”

Quiet Swedish street in the 1930s, a woman dressed in white on the sidewalk, one parked car, one car coming down the street.
The first half of the 20th century is said to be the golden age of café culture in Sweden. Little Älmhult had about ten cafés and bakeries, so Ingvar Kamprad had a lot to choose from when he decided to serve coffee and cake at the opening of his first furniture showroom in 1953.

The grand opening had been advertised in a few newspapers, but nobody expected quite such as huge invasion of customers. Ingela, aged 12 at the time, helped out on service and noticed the biscuits were running out. “People had come a long way and they were hungry,” she remembers. “We started by using the entire stock of biscuits from the café, but that wasn’t enough. So the other girls and I had to run around every other café in Älmhult and buy everything they had.”

When the doors closed late in the evening, almost 1,000 biscuits had been eaten. Bakers and servers had been on their feet since five in the morning, and they were tired but also proud. And Ingvar Kamprad had made an important discovery: visitors with full stomachs stay longer and buy more.

Sensational squash

After the grand opening there were no more biscuit feasts, but every visitor was welcomed with a glass of squash. “Taking that good care of your customers was pretty sensational in those days. For Ingvar it was mainly about showing his gratitude, and giving something back to the people who came and shopped at IKEA,” explains Mats Agmén. Mats has worked at IKEA for over 40 years, primarily on matters relating to the IKEA concept and the company’s Swedish profile.

Small cafe corner in business premises with black chairs, small white tables and green plants.
The first IKEA store, opened in Älmhult 1958, only offered visitors a small coffee corner. However, in 1960 visitors could relax and recharge in a proper restaurant called IKEA Baren (The IKEA Bar).

The first IKEA store opened in Älmhult in 1958 with a small coffee corner, but in summer 1960 the store got a real restaurant called IKEA Baren, ‘The IKEA Bar’. To begin with it only served coffee and cold dishes, but after investing in a Radar oven from America, a kind of early microwave oven, the range expanded.

“The Radar oven reflects Ingvar’s constant interest in new technology. An article was written about the oven in the local newspaper, because being able to make chicken in ten minutes was revolutionary,” says Mats. “The store quickly became a destination for families from across southern Sweden, especially during the summer. The IKEA catalogue was distributed to homes around the country, and people were attracted by the low prices and high quality. Things were going well for IKEA, and soon there were plans to build a store in the capital, which would be the biggest furniture store in Europe.”

Woman in 1960s clothes stands at self-service counter, with serving staff including a chef standing by a radar oven.
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Ingvar Kamprad was always interested in new technology and equipped the first IKEA restaurant with a Radar oven, an early microwave oven, which made a sensation in the local press.
Pen sketch of compact restaurant kitchen.
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One of the first sketches of the very first IKEA restaurant that would open in 1960 in Älmhult, Sweden.
Empty restaurant with self-service area and 1960s wood furnishings.
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A simple yet cosy interior in the first IKEA restaurant in Älmhult, Sweden.
A chef and a female kitchen staff member stand in the self-service area of a restaurant with 1960s wood furnishings.
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Self-service with a friendly welcome in the first IKEA restaurant in Älmhult, Sweden.
Women of different ages, dressed in 1960s style, stand in a restaurant queue holding trays.
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Long queues with diners of all ages were a common sight at the IKEA restaurant in Älmhult, Sweden.

From Viking food to Småland specialities

“Ingvar had a bit of a crazy idea about the store restaurant in Kungens Kurva, in Stockholm,” says Mats Agmén. “He wanted to open a Viking restaurant, inspired by a restaurant he had visited in Oslo which had a Viking theme. But store manager Hans Ax was not so sure. He wondered: ‘What actually is a Viking restaurant? What does it look like? What’s on the menu?’”

Man wearing glasses and red sweater, Mats Agmén, is on the phone at a desk, in foreground a big basket with cinnamon buns.
Mats Agmén has worked at IKEA for over 40 years, mainly with issues concerning the IKEA concept and the brand’s Swedish profile, in which “fika” – coffee and cinnamon buns – is an important piece of the puzzle.

Hans Ax, always big on details, wanted to find out more about Viking eating habits and furnishing. So he contacted Mats Rehnberg, an ethnologist famous for being a judge on a major TV quiz show. Mats Rehnberg thought it was a really bad idea, and said that IKEA should serve Småland specialities instead. When IKEA Kungens Kurva opened in 1965, it therefore served Swedish and Småland dishes such as potato and swede mash, smoked lamb, ‘isterband’ sausage, potato dumplings and cheese curd cake. “Hans and Ingvar opted for a slightly more high-brow restaurant offering a Småland feast. And it was a success,” Mats Agmén remembers. “People came from central Stockholm to the suburbs to eat an amazing meal at an amazing price at IKEA. I think the link to Småland was also very important for the IKEA brand, because in Sweden the people of Småland are renowned for their innovativeness and thriftiness, for working hard and never wasting resources.”

Three men in black suits sit in restaurant with wooden walls, in foreground round crispbread hangs on bar above a buffet table.
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When IKEA opened its store in Kungens Kurva in Stockholm, the original plan was to have a Viking themed restaurant. Instead, it served Småland specialities that attracted people from near and far.
Man with glasses and chef's clothes, Ulf Renström, stands in restaurant kitchen holding a leg of lamb.
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Chef Ulf Renströmer created dishes for the restaurant in Kungens Kurva after careful study of the traditional Småland cuisine. Here he is ready to cook a dried, juniper-smoked leg of lamb.
Man in black suit, woman in hat, coat and purse in 1960s style, load their plates with food from a buffet.
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People flocked from all over to enjoy the buffet with Småland specialities in the Kungens Kurva IKEA restaurant, with offerings such as potato and swede mash, ‘isterband’ sausage, potato dumplings and cheese curd cake.

IKEA Kungens Kurva did of course also have a more basic restaurant offering self-service wholesome cooking at low prices. That too was successful and attracted people, especially from the fast-growing housing estates in the city’s outer suburbs, a development known as the Million Programme . And Ingvar Kamprad grew increasingly convinced that the restaurant was not just a tool for visitor well-being, but also for boosting sales. “You can sell more sofa beds to relaxed customers with full stomachs,” says Mats Agmén with a laugh.

Reforms and secret recipes

The major change in the restaurant concept started in the wake of the oil crisis in 1979. IKEA was experiencing cash-flow problems, and had to hold back on expansion and new investment. This freed up human resources who were otherwise building stores, and a great many people suddenly had time to pause for thought and come up with new solutions. In 1979 twelve project groups were formed, made up of junior and senior co-workers from across Europe, and it was their job to examine everything about the company’s operations and renew them wherever possible – an initiative called Strength 80. One of the groups was tasked with travelling around and studying the restaurants at the 23 stores across Europe.

People in 1990s style clothing stand in line in check-out area in IKEA restaurant.
In step with the international expansion, a new restaurant concept took shape. Here implemented at an IKEA store in Vienna, 1999.

“The restaurant group was led by Leif B Bengtsson, a newly appointed manager at IKEA,” says Mats. “He had no experience of the restaurant industry, but had worked in insurance and wealth management for pop group ABBA, among others. But Leif and his team took on the assignment, travelled around to the various stores, and soon reported that quality at the IKEA restaurants had become very poor, especially in Sweden and Scandinavia.”

The restaurant group suggested developing a new, coherent restaurant concept, and this led to change. The renewal process began in 1984 under the management of Sören Hullberg, former store manager in Aubonne, Switzerland. At the time Ingvar Kamprad himself was living and working in Aubonne, so he could follow the evolution of the new restaurant concept closely. The work group included the well-known Swedish chef Severin Sjöstedt, who later developed the meatball recipe – the first proprietary recipe to be secured by IKEA. It was tested over a couple of years by many people, including Ingvar Kamprad himself. The secret recipe is still used today, and has been a huge success for IKEA which has become famous for its Swedish meatballs. “Apart from the blue and yellow colours on the stores and all the IKEA product names being Swedish, I think the food is the strongest part of our Swedish profile,” says Mats Agmén assuredly.

A plate and serving bowls with Swedish meatballs, boiled potatoes, brown sauce and lingonberry jam.
A couple at a self-service counter wait for their food, prepared by a blonde woman in green IKEA 1960s uniform.
Swedish meatballs with sauce, potatoes and lingonberry jam have been a staple dish at IKEA since the start, as well as fast, efficient counter service.

After a few years of testing, the first renovated restaurant opened at IKEA in Västerås, central Sweden, with 175 seats. And in 1987 the decision was made that all new restaurants would follow the new IKEA Restaurant & Café concept.

Huge restaurant chain

It is now almost 70 years since Ingvar Kamprad offered visitors coffee and biscuits at the furniture showroom in Älmhult. The Håkanssons efterträdare café and bakery has long since disappeared. The building it was in was demolished in the 1990s to make way for the X2000 high-speed train. The owners’ daughter Ingela, who searched all over Älmhult for biscuits on that historic day in 1953, is now retired after an entire career spent with IKEA. She never did become a pastry chef, but was one of many locals to find a home at IKEA, just like her husband Ingemar. “We like to say we’re married to each other, and to IKEA,” says Ingela, who met Ingvar Kamprad many times over the years. “He was a nice man with a sense of humour!”

Families with children and couples eat under large white lamps in an airy contemporary IKEA restaurant with wooden furniture.
Today, IKEA can be said to be one of the world’s largest restaurant chains, serving an increasingly plant-based menu for the benefit of people and the planet.

Today, IKEA is one of the world’s biggest restaurant chains, and the stores now also have the Bistro and the Swedish Food Market, where customers can buy frozen meatballs, lingonberry drink, herring, gingerbread thins and all kinds of other goodies to take home. IKEA Food is one of the world’s biggest grocery companies, with more than 700 million customers annually. The volumes are absolutely astounding. For instance, in Sweden alone IKEA Food sells 35 million meatballs a year. More and more plant-based alternatives have been produced, and 2020 saw the launch of a new plant ball. The taste and consistency are similar to that of the meatball, but with just 4% of the carbon footprint of the traditional meatball. The shift towards more plant-based food is an important aspect in making IKEA climate positive and taking responsibility for the future of our planet. Other elements include everything from reducing food waste in the restaurants, to working for responsible animal farming and more sustainable agriculture.

Freshly cooked plant balls and veggies in frying pan.
The plant ball, launched in 2020, has just 4% of the carbon footprint of the traditional meatball.
IKEA Swedish Food Market interior, a staff member stocking shelves while customers choose wares.
IKEA Food has more than 700 million customers annually, making it one of the world’s biggest grocery companies.

Still today, many people come to IKEA just as much to eat as to buy furniture. “The largest restaurants at the stores today have about 700 seats, and the minimum is 450,” says Mats Agmén. “Ingvar felt that the profit margin should be about 5% and should never exceed 10%. He was keen to ensure that any profit over 5% in the restaurants and cafés should be used to raise quality. For him and IKEA, the restaurants were never primarily about making money. We can do that on furniture and other home furnishing products. A good meal at a low price is a way of giving back to the customers. That’s an important part of the overall experience of IKEA, just like that glass of squash that Ingvar offered at the furniture showroom in Älmhult. And as already mentioned, you can sell more sofa beds to happy customers with full stomachs, and you also strengthen the Swedish link to IKEA and its brand.”

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