The IKEA restaurant in Garðabær has only 18 reviews on TripAdvisor. Mainly, these focus on the economic value of the meals—especially compared to how notoriously expensive food in Reykjavík is. One calls it a “great value” while another chirpily describes it as “cheap, cheerful, and quick.” The last is somewhat sardonic: “It’s just IKEA food! What were you expecting?” Accumulated TripAdvisor reviews rank it at #295 out of 379 possible places to eat in the greater Reykjavík area—indeed, it’s not an obvious epicurean destination.
It might come as a surprise, then, to learn that this Swedish-themed eatery is Iceland’s most popular restaurant by far, attracting a staggering average of 25,000 visitors per week—equivalent to 12% of Iceland’s population. In 2013, the restaurant served up a stunning 440,000 hot meals, 140,000 helpings of ice cream, 230,000 drinks, 100,000 cakes and other desserts and 150,000 hot dogs. And that was two years ago—it’s only gotten busier since. With plans to expand the capacity of the restaurant by 100%—from 250 to 500 seats—one cannot help but wonder: what is it about the IKEA restaurant? Is it the allure of ready-made furniture? The delightful convenience of munching while you browse? The infamous Swedish meatballs? Why on earth is IKEA Iceland’s most popular restaurant?
There are restaurants in every IKEA store, but even when compared to other locations, including ones in populous areas like New York City or London, IKEA’s Garðarbær location is still unusually popular. The proportional share of Iceland’s IKEA restaurant’s sales to the overall store’s sales is 13%, while most IKEA restaurants hover around 5%. IKEA restaurant and food department manager Friðdóra Kristinsdóttir tells us that 7% is the max percentage any IKEA restaurant has reached. Iceland’s anomalous 13% is not only unheard-of—it is actually the global leader.
Friðdóra is friendly, but very professional. Choosing her words carefully, she pauses when asked the reasons behind the restaurant’s popularity. “We have high-quality ingredients,” she says, “and it’s cheap, much cheaper than other restaurants in Iceland, so people can afford to come here often.” Iceland’s small population also helps, she believes. “Iceland is small, so if something is going well, the news spreads quickly.”
She is also quick to point out that the restaurant—catering to Iceland’s notorious love of toppings—provides free sauces: cocktail sauce, barbecue sauce, cold sauces, and many more, which serve to make it an attractive place for a quick and tasty meal.
The restaurant’s popularity goes beyond quick meals, however. Though it might seem unexpected, according to Friðdóra, the IKEA restaurant has regulars, just like any bar or restaurant. “It’s become a kind of tradition for some people,” she says, “people from the countryside, industrial workers, older men from Garðabær—they come regularly for breakfast.” The restaurant’s devoted fans know the menu well, even the limited-time-only seasonal meals. “I had hardly started working here,” she recalls, “when I began hearing, ‘When are the lamb shanks going to be back?’”
The restaurant has even, bizarrely, hosted stag parties. Though a furniture store might seem like an unlikely destination to raucously celebrate a bachelor’s last night, Friðdóra concludes that these groups come to IKEA “probably for good food and cheap beer.” With large beers at 495 ISK, the only place that beats them is Bar 7 during happy hour—and they don’t offer meatballs and cream puffs. She assures us that the men behave. “It’s just fun!” she adds with a smile.
Menus vary from IKEA to IKEA. There are some standard items that must be featured—such as the iconic Swedish meatballs—but each franchise has some freedom to develop unique courses. “We listen to the market,” Friðdóra explains. Currently, they are bringing in healthier options. The newest on the menu? “Veggie balls,” says Friðdóra. “Now everyone’s thinking about their health, and we want everyone to find something to their taste.”
IKEA restaurants are also encouraged to develop special meals for holidays, a policy with which Reykjavík’s IKEA has run full-force. Sprengidagur is an Icelandic holiday on which it is traditional to eat copious amounts of salt-cured mutton and pea soup. It translates to “Bursting Day,” so it can perhaps best be compared to America’s gluttonous Thanksgiving or IHOP’s notorious “Free Pancake Day.” Charging 2 ISK for a meal, IKEA used to offer essentially free meat and soup on this day. The price references a popular sing-song phrase: ‘saltkjöt og baunir, túkall’—un-eloquently translating to “salt meat and pea soup, two bits!” (it’s the Icelandic take on “Shave and a haircut”). But as these things go, the deal began to prove far too good to be true.
“There were individuals who hoarded soup into buckets,” Friðdóra relays, “and some who ate far too much and then threw up in unlikely places.” She’s quick to note that it was only a small minority of guests who acted so repugnantly. In response to the pandemonium, though, the restaurant raised the price of the holiday meal from 2 ISK to 995 ISK.
IKEA might be last place one would expect to see a revival of ancient Rome’s apocryphal vomitoria, but that just goes to show how beloved and culturally ingrained the restaurant has become within Iceland. Guests feel comfortable enough there to have some fun and lose control. Average the amount of visitors IKEA receives annually with the population of Iceland, and one finds that the average Icelander must go to IKEA seven or eight times a year. Tourists do stop by, obviously, but the busiest time of the year for the restaurant is, surprisingly enough, December—far outside of the tourist season—when close to 35,000 customers come through the store every week.
Perhaps Icelanders are just really passionate about Swedish design, or perhaps it’s the special holiday menu. IKEA hosts gingerbread house-making lessons over the Advent, with special cookies and dessert displays. “Often it’s the local CEO himself teaching the classes every weekend before Christmas,” Friðdóra tells us. It’s fair to assume that IKEA Sweden CEO Peter Agnefjäll doesn’t do this at the flagship store in Älmhult, Sweden.
With the restaurant currently undergoing renovations, what are the future plans? “We’re going to have a sort of café in our new area, with a bit fancier products, fancier salads and sandwiches, and fancier cakes.” Friðdóra hopes the design will have “more of a coffeehouse feel.”
So looking for a venue to host your stag night? A place to take your vegan friend for a meal and some cheap beer? Free sauces? IKEA’s Hafnarfjörður location might just be your place.