You can have your precious restaurants back. I'm headed to the Ikea food court

Lorenza Centi
Originally Published: 

If the pandemic has taught us one thing, it's that we should be living and speaking our truths more during this fleeting time we have on earth. And last week, I made a triumphant return to furniture and fine food mecca Ikea for the first time since the pandemic began. A year without Ikea left me craving new towels, a bold-colored frame or two, and a wok, among other crucial items — but most of all, it left me missing the food. Ikea has always known how to appoint your walk-in closet of an apartment with ease but for me, the real value lies in its ability to furnish my stomach.

First, to get it out of the way: I really actually love Ikea this much. No, this is not SponCon and yes, I am aware of my absurdity. During the pandemic and the resulting quarantine, I really did miss this semi-regular errand: a long ride, sister in tow, through the suburbs of Maryland to get to the Ikea in Bay Ridge.

Of course, I’d get hungry on the way (I get hungry on the way everywhere). It starts at a low grumble but my eagerness for Nordic nourishment takes over my being just as I’m in the display section, imagining a parallel universe where I contemplate whether my circular waterbed could use is mosquito netting.

The joy of possibility that Ikea makes me feel as if I just moved, even if I haven’t. This ebullience mixes with a mild case of delirium — which is probably brought on by the fact that I skipped lunch, or the fact that Ikea purposely messes with our brains while we walk the 2,000 steps or about a mile, average to make it to the exit. How, do you ask? Trickery, guidance, and insinuation.

As you approach the halfway mark of any Ikea, you’ll reach the cafeteria with the sweet smelling waves of their signature dish. There's culinary mastery in the 25.4 millimeters of ground meat that make up a single Ikea meatball. It's a simple recipe, really: pork, beef, onion, breadcrumbs, egg, water, salt, and pepper are pretty much all they’re allegedly made of, save for an occasional bit of potato and a dash of allspice. The meatball is both satiating after wandering through the halls of that store, and on your couch at home if you decide on buying a bag of frozen ones. For people who care about culture, it’s important to note that Swedish meatballs are not actually a food originally from Sweden. I care, but my stomach does not.

How have these meatballs trick entranced me you ask? Well, they’re not just a pretty sphere; they have a psychological purpose. At only $5.99 per plate (that comes with sides), they run cheaper than any fast food joint in a 30 mile radius, and that is the exact goal: That you won’t get hungry and leave the premises for food.

If your stomach is full of meatballs, lingonberry jam, and that creamy sauce that has no right to be that good, you can go right back to round two of shopping. With that newfound vigor comes a blue n’ yellow bag full to the brim with GLIMMA tea lights, a fancy watering can and probably a MALM dresser, if you’re feeling feisty. As you buy $100 worth of things you needed and $250 more of stuff you didn’t, you’ll think to yourself, “I could go for another serving.”

Jeff Greenberg/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Look, I personally could put away an obscene amount of Ikea meatballs, and I’m clearly among good company since Ikea apparently sells approximately 1 billion meatballs per year in the United States. They’ve even recently started to sell chicken- and plant-based varieties (and yes, both may also be sitting in my freezer at the moment).

The way Ikea can guide your behavior with food (and aren’t your mother during the holidays) impresses me. What they do actually has a term: Neuromarketing. With the layout, the costs, and the food, they can subtly make us think what they want, which sounds a little 1984, but these are dressers and $1 cinnamon buns, so let’s not get too riled up.

I do not mind getting bamboozled by the psychological tricks they employ. This is my love letter. I have done zero people-watching since the pandemic started, unless wistfully from my window, and I’ve long been ready to see a couple continuing to argue over a BILLY bookcase while they eat affordable smoked salmon. I’m ready to return.

Now, approaching late spring as vaccines are being rolled out like those unwieldy Ikea carts, we’re finally able to start wandering again, near other people. Post-vaccine will be as sweet as the frozen almond confection they sell in the cafeteria — and that I also hoard in my freezer at home.

Some experiences in life can be both an errand and a joy, a guilty pleasure and a proud past time. For me, eating (and shopping) at Big Blue is one of the post-pandemic experiences I truly look forward to. This love is deep, it’s unbridled — and after a year of grief and fear — it’s refreshing. I’ll enjoy the wanderlust and the meal it inspires, and now that I can slightly see the horizon line of post-pandemic life, my feet are ready to roam.