Mountain View Voice

Eating Out - September 23, 2011

A little Swedish comfort food

IKEA serves up fast, inexpensive fare to ease the shopping experience

by Carol Blitzer

It's 2 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon and the football-field-sized dining area at the IKEA restaurant in East Palo Alto is relatively calm.

One couple is feeding the baby, using a high chair; a toddler shrieks — is it joy? A white-haired couple shares an afternoon snack, while a smattering of small groups quietly chat and nibble.

With 285 seats, the IKEA restaurant serves hundreds of meals a day, several hundreds on the weekends, offering a respite for folks seeking an affordable sofa or that perfect dining-room table. Attracted by the low prices and varied menu, some skip the sofa and head straight for the cafeteria line.

The restaurant caters to all ages, with everything from its signature Swedish meatballs ($2.99 for a small plate) to kids' meal combos at $2.49.

Hal Mash, IKEA food manager, keeps a close eye on his "just-in-time" food service, cranking out platters of Swedish meatballs in 13 minutes, which are served between 11 a.m. and 8 p.m. daily.

What separates IKEA's restaurant from others, Mash said, is its support role to the store. "It's about taking care of the customer, so they'll have a comfortable and easier experience," he said.

It's all self-serve — much like IKEA furniture is primarily self-assemble. A large sign suggests that patrons bus their trays, but it's not required.

"It's all about the culture. We work hard to keep everything affordable, and if you do a little part of it. ... It allows us to be competitive," Mash said.

That devotion to keeping prices down and quality up has pushed the food section's business — which includes the cafeteria, a Swedish market and a bistro by the check-out — up 11 percent this past year, Mash added.

The restaurant isn't designed to be a profit center, he said.

"Our goal is to sustain what we do and not be an impact on the store. ... If the store is successful, we're successful. We want to be cost-conscious, mindful of resources," he said.

With that in mind, IKEA offers weekly and occasional specials, ranging from free breakfast every Monday morning (served between 9:30 and 11 a.m.) to offering customers a rebate on their restaurant bill, if they spend $100 in the store (just present the receipt at check-out).

"Especially in the economy right now, people are looking for a deal," added Vanessa Garcia, IKEA's local marketing specialist.

Mash has spent much of his adult life in the food industry, earning a degree in restaurant management from the University of Illinois. "I've done it all, from the restaurant business to quick food to nightclub type," he said.

He's been with IKEA for five years, beginning as a team leader and working his way through three assistant positions. He's trained in Emeryville and spent a year in Tampa, Fla., arriving as an opening assistant. Fourteen months ago he returned to the East Palo Alto store, and soon filled his current management position.

Mash contrasts IKEA with his other food-industry experience, noting "the difference being that my focus is one of supporting the company and we're here to help sell home furnishings, sofas," he said.

"It's such a big store; we try to keep it family-friendly and family-oriented," Garcia noted, adding that the store provides a children's play area with a flat-screen TV for watching cartoons, as well as bottle warmers in the restaurant area.

"It can be exhausting, especially if you're here with kids. ... (You can) fuel up and then go downstairs and finish your shopping or maybe come back another day," she said.

All IKEA stores offer the same core menu (think Swedish meatballs and gravadlax) as well as regional specials. In East Palo Alto that might be a Latin dish, Mash said, and in Philadelphia, cheese steak, or pasta in Italy.

Although the most popular item is the meatballs, the IKEA restaurant also offers a Swedish crepe, filled with spinach and cheese, a Greek salad, vegetarian or chicken wraps, pea soup or even macaroni and cheese.

The core menu is enhanced by local produce, grown in Northern California, Mash said, adding that the emphasis is on healthful, well-prepared, hormone- and preservative-free food. "The pasta is organic, there's no MSG in the cream sauce. We really try to look at that as well," he added.

And all suppliers must follow the I-way, Garcia said, which means no child or forced labor, at least minimum wage, no hazardous conditions and they must be environmentally friendly.

"We keep the price down through volume," she said. "We know people are here and hungry; we don't want them to spend $40-50 on a meal for their family when they're here to buy a couch."

The Swedish market is especially appealing to another customer base: Swedish ex-pats.

Ninos Chankos, commercial restaurant team leader for IKEA, grew up in Sweden. He said there's actually quite a Swedish population in Silicon Valley, especially since Ericsson has a presence in San Jose.

Swedes no longer have to shop only in specialty international markets to find such things as Dryck Flader (an elderflower drink), sylt lingon (lingonberry jam), prinskorv lindvalls (small sausages) or abba fiskbullar (fishballs in lobster sauce). And they can find a whole crayfish party kit, complete with bibs, songbooks and hats — along with instructions on how to peel crayfish.

For those still hungry on the way out, the bistro offers pizza, frozen yogurt, hot dogs or cinnamon buns. Or one can pick up frozen Swedish meatballs, gravy and mashed-potato mix to prepare at home.

Carol Blitzer is the associate editor of the Voice's sister paper, the Palo Alto Weekly, and can be emailed at cblitzer@paweekly.com.

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