Meatballs with boiled potatoes and sweet red sauce


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Ikea is famous for the furniture it sells from mazelike showrooms and sprawling warehouses, but also for its meatballs. The furniture giant sells more than a billion of its trademark Swedish meatballs a year — at only $5 a plate, a great option for a cheap (and delicious) meal. 

“I would never have imagined 40 years later, people would be calling me about it,” said then-store manager Sören Hullberg, the mind behind the meatball. 

But how did Ikea's iconic dish come to be?

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Literally

When the company's first in-store cafe opened in Älmhult, Sweden, in 1958, only two items were available: coffee and cake. As the business grew, stores started offering traditional Swedish dishes such as potato mash and sausage, offering hearty meals during frigid Scandinavian days. Still, meatballs did not become a part of the menu for several decades.

Gallery: Secrets and Hacks for Shopping at Ikea

In 1985, when Ikea had around 50 stores worldwide (there are now 392), Ikea founder Ingvar Kamprad was concerned that customers would get hungry while shopping and leave the store to grab a bite to eat — meaning the chain would lose out on sales because of a lackluster food selection. “He was not happy with the quality and the image [of Ikea]," said Hullberg , who was tasked with formulating a new low-cost menu aimed at enticing customers to stay and shop for longer. The masterminds never expected the meatballs to take off the way they did. 

In fact, investors and suppliers had been wary. Hullberg explained the skepticism to CNN: “Why should a furniture dealer suddenly buy meatballs and send them across the world?" 

Universally Loved

Stores were seeing only as many as 5,000 customers per day in the ’80s, and Kamprad wanted those numbers doubled. Ikea needed to simplify its restaurant operations at stores around the world while keeping overheard costs low, Hullberg said.

In looking for a way to make sure no one left Ikea “because of being thirsty or hungry,” Hullberg said, a team spent months researching. 

“We were hooked on [meatballs],” which the team found evoked a sense of childhood nostalgia, he told CNN. “Even if it’s not really a Swedish innovation, meatballs exist in every culture you come to” — an important factor, as the menu would be similar across all its stores. 

A Logistical Winner 

Meatballs were also efficient to freeze, transport, and heat in Ikea kitchens, Hullberg said; making thousands of them in-house every day would have been a logistical nightmare. 

In a country with “as many recipes of meatballs as there are people eating them,” the team needed a single formula with ingredients that were easy to find, a recipe that was easy for vendors to cook, and made sense logistically. Kamprad wanted pork, but the Ikea team settled on two-thirds beef and one-third pork.

“We won that battle because it was easier to export meatballs containing a majority of beef than pig,” Hullberg said.

Make ‘Em at Home

As someone who more often visits Ikea for lunch than to buy new furniture, I'd say Hullberg and Kamprad succeeded in creating a low-cost, delicious meal.

But if you don't want to trek all the way to Ikea to grab a plate of meatballs in a creamy gravy with a side of lingonberry sauce, you can re-create Ikea's meatballs with this recipe. In 2020, the furniture giant also released its own recipe to help customers make the dish at home. 

Made from a similar beef-pork combination but with soaked bread instead of breadcrumbs, this recipe comes highly rated to result in juicy and tender meatballs. Start by combining all the ingredients and seasoning the mixture with ground nutmeg and a touch of allspice. You can roll your meatballs by hand, or use an ice cream scooper to keep them the same size and shape. Be sure to serve them with a side of creamy, buttery mashed potatoes and drench them with that rich, velvety gravy (because you can never have too much gravy). 

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