Food at Ikea

While walking through the newly built Ikea at Atlantic Station, I noticed a huge line for the restaurant — including many office worker-bee types, probably escaping Midtown for a cheap eat. I’d read somewhere before that Ikea is the tenth-largest restaurant chain in the USA by volume, and it certainly seems plausible given the persistent crowds there. Yet the food isn’t all that wonderful and no cheaper than standard mall-food-court fare. Sure, they have stuff you can’t get elsewhere (lingonberry juice, apple cake), but that’s not really the draw. What is, and what elements would a knock-off or spin-off Ikea restaurant have to keep?

1. Portion sizes. Part of the magic behind the low prices: you get what you pay for. Despite the low prices per menu item, a lunch there easily runs the $10 that it would anywhere else after adding on a drink and dessert. Yet each individual piece is quite affordable since it’s largely stripped of the bulk and fluff that surround typical American plates. Using the kids’ menu as a loss leader also makes eminent sense — something that McDonald’s does quite well.

2. Cafeteria, or better yet, Automat format. This cuts back on staffing and the latter perpetuates the whole Modern aesthetic; the a la carte pricing makes the prices deceptively low.

3. Limited, internationalist menu with gradual changes. I’m not even sure whether the generic Euro-bland menu — e.g., English-style “chicken masala” with vaguely Indian-Chinese overtones — would make sense outside the generic Euro-bland confines of the Big Blue Box. Yet the menu succeeds in selling processed, generic, not all that tasty fast food (tiger shrimp, farmed salmon, frozen vegetables) to a snobby audience, and the occasional shifts might keep them coming back. Or not.