IKEA The Swedish Feeding Trough

Furniture giant IKEA lures customers with homey interior landscapes and cheap warm meals. But more and more people are starting to use the stores as an ersatz for social services and babysitting.

By Gerald Drissner

Cheap and cheerful furniture isn't the only attraction at the Swedish-run IKEA chain: cheap eats and free babysitting are also customer magnets.

Cheap and cheerful furniture isn't the only attraction at the Swedish-run IKEA chain: cheap eats and free babysitting are also customer magnets.

Every day, at 8.50 am, Bodo Scheel gets into his Nissan car, his stomach rumbling with hunger, and drives 11.3 kilometers down the A7 highway near Hamburg.  He turns off at junction 23 to reach his destination: the Ikea furniture store. The 67-year-old pensioner has been coming to the restaurant in Ikea for breakfast for years now. The deal is unbeatable: For €1.50 he gets two bread rolls, butter, cold cuts and cheese, jam and even smoked salmon. As much coffee as he can drink is also thrown in. "You can take the bread rolls home and they are still okay to eat three days later with a tin of tuna," Scheel, who used to work as a judicial officer, says. "Tastes great."

The pensioner and his wife are not the only ones who have turned going to the furniture shop into a daily ritual. In the western German cities of Cologne and Bielefeld there are even specially organized breakfast clubs. From Munich in the south to Kiel in the north, Ikea is increasingly turning into a welfare center for pensioners, young moms, low-earners and the unemployed.

Many low-earners prefer eating in the familiar atmosphere of this temple to consumption to standing in line at the soup kitchen. Indeed, the stigma of poverty is hidden behind the company's cheep and cheerful designs. What started out as an extra service to improve customer loyalty, has developed a life of its own, separate from the shaky wooden furniture and fold-out sofas. Many people feel that they belong when they mingle among well-off customers -- even if all they can afford is a hot dog.

In 2004 the Swedish company, with its 37 restaurants, managed to reach 11th place in the list of the best-earning eateries in Germany. That put it well ahead of the café stores like Tchibo and the giant bakery chain Kamps, which has 1,000 branches. In Germany, one out of every 20 euros spent at IKEA is doled out for the company's cheap menu meals, comprising a total of €141 million last year alone. The largest Ikea restaurant, with space for 640 guests, is in the Berlin working class area of Tempelhof. Across the country the company's eateries cater to 14,000 visitors.

The customers are a colorful mix of people: pensioners meet up with single-parents, managers with garbage collectors. "The Ikea restaurant is a modern meeting point for all kinds of people. It's a sort of social living room," says Gretel Weiss, who works for the magazine Food Service. Some people even celebrate their birthday in this "social living room."

The main draw is the price: a hot dog costs €1, a beer €1.30 and apple pie and vanilla sauce 50 cents. On average guests at an Ikea restaurant spend €4.30 per meal -- a price which allows them to eat in a half-way decent atmosphere instead of grappling with food packed in plastic at fast-food chain stores. "When I go out to eat with the family, I go to Ikea. I can afford that," says Stephan Panther. The 47-year-old taxi driver from Hamburg earns just €1,200 per month, before tax, to feed his four children.

Flocks of people wait outside early every morning in order to storm the buffet at 9 a.m., when the store opens its doors. Long-distance drivers like to use IKEAs as rest stops since most of the stores are easy to see from the highway and are located close to an exit. During vacation months, for example, hotels in the far northern German city of Kiel see a surge in customers. "They're tourists on their way to Sweden or Denmark who count on a meal at IKEA before they board the ferries," says IKEA's Sabine Nold.

The Swedish buffet is also an El Dorado for people who like to scrounge. Used cups can be rescued from the plate-return stations, washed in the bathroom and refilled forever. And tips for stockpiling food can be found on the Internet: "Just fill out a customer feedback form, give your address, write down something unfriendly like, 'I had to wait 30 minutes.' Then you'll get a coupon for breakfast at the store," writes Daniela at a German site, "Frag-Mutti.de."

Cheap eats and free babysitting

More than food-scroungers, though, IKEA workers fear lazy parents. Around 150 three- to 10-year-olds are deposited daily at the Hamburg-Schnelsen store's play area -- a complimentary offer to allow mom and dad to wander in peace through the showrooms. But many people misuse the service as a free babysitting service. Sometimes moms just set their loved ones down among the colorful balls, with the nursery girl watching -- and hurries to the hairstylist or the tennis court. The desperate store announcements asking the mother to please pick up her screeching child then go unheeded.

"We know there have been certain cases like that. It's absolutely unacceptable for parents to leave the store while their children are in Smaland," says Nold, referring to the stores' children's area. One furniture saleswoman recalls a frightening incident in the western German town of Dortmund. One Friday evening a child had gone un-picked-up by closing time, in spite of imploring announcements on the sound system. The parents came in around 9 p.m. -- at least an hour after the store had closed its doors. They'd simply forgotten their child.

The diaper stations also work a strange allure on parents. "The free diapers used to be carried home in sacks," says Fayme Brockmann of the IKEA restaurant in Schnelsen. Now they're only available in small lots, just enough to keep babies dry during a shopping trip.

So little kids don't starve during these marathon tours, IKEA also offers free Alete baby food. The offer has caught on: Cheapskates collect the 190-gram bottles like batteries and stockpile them up at home -- around 1,500 a month go missing from the Schnelsen store alone. But the company is catching on to people who abuse its complimentary services and cashiers have a new trick: they twist the lids of the jars at the register.


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