Two smiling men looking at vacuum-sealed food.

Tasting the future of food

There is a revolution taking place at IKEA. It has nothing to do with flat-pack or furniture; it is all about the food. We sat down with Alexander and David from IKEA Food, over lunch, to talk about the challenges and the opportunities faced when developing food for global taste buds.

The two creative minds that run the IKEA Food Lab are Alexander Magnusson and David Johansson. Together with IKEA Food product developers they work on future ideas, innovations and recipe development out of a food lab in Malmö, Sweden. You can see their work in IKEA restaurants, bistros and IKEA Swedish Food Markets all over the world.

For a very long time, says Managing Director of IKEA Food Michael La Cour, the food offer at IKEA was understood as an additional service to our customers. Michael, together with Alexander and David, believe it can be one of the main reasons for people to visit IKEA stores.

A portrait of a smiling man, surrounded by produce on shelves.
Managing Director of IKEA Food Michael La Cour.

In August 2017, the IKEA Food team was in full-flight at the HAVEN festival in Copenhagen, a festival that, for the first time, merges experiments in music, art, beer and last but not least, food. A perfect place for the forward-thinking culinary team, who are used to hosting all sorts of events but this was their first outing to a music and food festival.

The possibilities are quite big. If you really want to contribute to positive change in the world IKEA is a pretty good place to be food-wise.

What went down in the specially built Food Lab at the festival is indicative of future directions for IKEA Food. “We were trying to find more ways to add vitality and freshness to the food range, for example, work with more herbs in IKEA restaurants,” said Alexander. See the mouth-watering menu below!

“That’s a good connection between the Food Lab at the Haven Festival and the product development,” says Alexander. “That we have a possibility to test our ideas on a larger scale.” The customer feedback and learnings from such an event, trying out new things can show what is possible to do with the IKEA Food offer. David adds that participating in an event like this could be an important part of the development process at IKEA for the future.

A man in a white jumpsuit operating a sous-vide machine.
Product developer at IKEA Food, David Johansson in action at the HAVEN festival.
Vacuum-sealed fruits and vegetables.
At the HAVEN festival the chefs showed people how to vacuum pickle.

IKEA Food and product development

“Working globally is always a tough nut to crack,” says David. Developing food for 400 IKEA stores in 49 countries means that the team has to be smart with the development and try to find solutions that will fit local taste preferences, different cultures and traditions while still keeping a Swedish profile.

IKEA is a global brand known for its Swedishness, how does the team cater for global taste buds? “There are a lot of flavours that are universal,” says David, “we love sweet and sour fish such as pickled herring in Sweden but they also like sweet and sour in Asia. We feel something is very Scandinavian but the taste or ingredient itself is used in other cultures as well. Cardamom for example, you can have it in an Indian curry dish or have it in a sweet roll here in Sweden. We look for Swedish flavours that easily fit into other cultures and cuisines.”

Working closely together with local IKEA teams is on the agenda for the near future. Why? David and Alexander are looking into developing more regional versions of recipes. They also want to continue to add more plant based food options to the IKEA menu whilst “keeping the Nordic and IKEA touch,” says David. “It’s a fun goal to make plant based food as exciting as any meat based food might be,” adds Alexander.

Two smiling women eating street food out of plastic bags.

Designing food like furniture

There is no edible furniture on the cards, but the process of recipe development is similar to that of developing furniture. The model of Democratic Design – with its five cornerstones form, function, sustainability, quality and price – has been slightly adapted to food, but is taken just as seriously as in all other IKEA product development.

“It’s not only about how it looks, it’s about all the dimensions of smell and flavour, and how it’s presented,” said Alexander.

Based on research and insights from the different IKEA markets as well as keeping the pulse on global trends the team is developing more ready and easy to prepare meal solutions. “There aren’t many good ones out there with Nordic flavours,” said Alexander.

Two servings of street food.
Italian style meatballs were on the menu.
A plastic glass being filled with a green, fizzy liquid from a tap.
Drinks from the IKEA PS collection combining flavours of tea with Nordic berries. Carbonated & served on tap.
A desert in a paper bowl, placed on a dock by the water.
Organic soft-serve ice-cream.

But inspiration does not only come from trends and research. “A lot comes from a good dialogue with the IKEA Food sustainability team,” says Alexander. “We talk about what is the most sustainable grain on the market, for example, and we try and create something around that.”

The food teams also take ideas from the kitchen and develop them on the factory floor with the supplier. A recipe for finding moments for innovation and maximising efficiency in production. 

It’s a fun goal to make plant based food as exciting as any meat based food might be.

They also work in different constellations for projects. At the moment, they are working with a pastry chef, “who is very inspirational, and we bounce a lot of ideas back and forth,” says David.

David continues saying, a successful journey consists of many small steps and “it’s pretty amazing to see someone in Shanghai eating something that we worked on here on a very small scale. Especially when the whole concept works and it is served it in the way we imagined it here in the food lab in Malmö.”

Alexander sums their motivation up nicely when he adds: “The possibilities are quite big. If you really want to contribute to positive change in the world IKEA is a pretty good place to be food-wise. We reach 650 million people at IKEA Food every year – that’s big.”

Menu at HAVEN festival:
Veggie balls served with curry sauce, IKEA PS grains, soy based yoghurt & pickles.
Italian style meatball (slightly larger than the IKEA Swedish meatball) made from 100% pork, fennel, garlic & parsley with IKEA mash, a tomato sauce &  smoked cherry tomatoes & parmesan.
3 different drinks from the IKEA PS collection combining flavours of tea with Nordic berries. Carbonated & served on tap.
Organic soft-serve ice-cream partially sweetened with Birch syrup & sugared sea weed with freeze dried blueberries, lingonberries & sea buckthorn. Plus, a clear liquid that you can spray on to your ice cream with natural flavourings.
Festival guests could make their own toppings for their meal by pickling vegetables mixed with oils & spices, vacuuming them for instant pickling, ready in 30 seconds. Fun to make and fun to eat!

Two smiling women eating, sitting side by side, outside.
A lot to be happy about. Guests enjoying the food at the HAVEN festival in Copenhagen.