When Ikea executives ponder changes to the restaurants within their sprawling furniture stores, they think about an imaginary customer they’ve dubbed Sarah. Sarah is the average Ikea diner: She’s in her 30s, gets a moderate amount of exercise, eats three meals and two snacks a day.
And when legions of Sarahs set foot in Ikea’s restaurants this spring, they will be sitting in a redesigned setting and eating off a recently-refreshed menu that Ikea hopes will help it unlock more sales from its dining business.
While for decades it has been part of the Ikea experience to get your new couch with a side of Swedish meatballs, Ikea’s U.S. president Lars Petersson said in a recent interview that “Ikea food is becoming a core business” for the privately-held, Sweden-based company.
In the most recent fiscal year, the food division — which also includes sales of take-home, packaged food items such as chocolates, jams and sauces — saw sales surge 8 percent in the U.S. over the previous year, outpacing the 4.5 percent sales growth seen at its U.S. stores open more than a year. Foot traffic to Ikea’s restaurants is also “trending better” than foot traffic to the furnishings areas of their stores, according to Peter Ho, a product developer in Ikea’s food division.
In other words, there are a significant number of customers who come to Ikea just to eat, and the chain is trying to figure out how to cater to them better.
That’s why all 41 of its stateside stores are getting restaurant makeover in the next several months. Instead of the current setup, which is a spare, open space, the goal is to create three zones for different types of diners. One area will be outfitted with high tables and barstools suited for scarfing down a quick bite. A second will aim to be family-friendly, with activities for kids and tables for their parents to dine nearby. The third area they call “Fika,” which is a Swedish word for a coffee break that involves socializing. As the name suggests, the space is meant to offer something of a coffee house vibe: Cushy chairs and couches that are changed out several times a year to create a homey, seasonal spot where you’d feel comfortable lingering and chatting with friends. (And that might also inspire you to buy the furniture you’re sitting on, which will always be pulled directly from Ikea’s current line-up.)
Ikea’s strategy is part of a broader push in casual and quick-service dining that is likely to become more competitive by leveraging existing restaurant space for different meals, or “day parts,” as they’re known in industry speak. Sit-down dining chain Olive Garden, for example, is pushing hard to make carry-out a bigger part of its business, while Starbucks is trying to win more of your lunch dollars instead of just being your go-to place for coffee.
Ikea’s move to change up the look and feel of its dining areas follows an announcement last year that it would tweak its protein offerings to reflect consumers’ changing dietary preferences. For starters, there’s now a veggie version of the famous meatball, which contains chickpeas, kale, peas, and other ingredients. They’ve also added a chicken version of the meatball, which they say is produced in a more sustainable way than their traditional meatball.
“The public today definitely wants to know where their food is coming from,” Ho said.
Ikea will be trumpeting those efforts in the redesigned restaurants, with new graphics and menu boards that tout, for example, its decision to move last year to sourcing all of its fish from supplier that use sustainable fishing practices.
Here, too, Ikea’s willingness to riff on its signature menu item reflects just how differently diners in America and elsewhere are thinking about food. This is why you’ve seen everyone from McDonald’s to Panera Bread making announcements in the last year about changing up their supply chains and trying to create more transparency around how they make their food.
It makes sense that Ikea is investing in its food business at this particular moment: In 2015, the Commerce Department reported that restaurants saw 8.1 percent sales growth, even as the broader retail industry saw an increase of just 2.1 percent and as home furnishings stores posted a 5.8 percent increase. There’s clearly momentum in the dining category, and perhaps a fresher look and menu can help Ikea get a piece of that.