I have to confess, the thought of going to Ikea for the food was a bit daunting. Presumably, after picking out the meal I wanted to eat in the showroom, I'd then be directed to a warehouse where I'd have to roam up and down the aisles for several hours trying to locate the raw ingredients. After that, I'd take them home, unpack them in my living room and then sit there, scratching my head, wondering how on earth I was supposed to turn them into a three-course meal using nothing more sophisticated than elbow grease and an allen key.
Needless to say, the reality was far, far worse.
My wife and I didn't want to risk being crushed to death by a mob of Chavs on a home-improvement binge, so we decided to visit our nearest Ikea in Brent Park on a Wednesday lunchtime. All I can say is, if it's any more crowded than this on a Saturday afternoon, Ikea is a Hilsborough waiting to happen. When Britain's largest branch threw open its doors in Edmonton last month, five people ended up in hospital, but that seems like a lucky escape in retrospect. Last year, 33 million Britons visited an Ikea store and it's estimated that one in ten Europeans were conceived in an Ikea bed. The founder of the chain, Ingvar Kamprad, is now the world's richest man, with a personal fortune of $53 million. By my calculations, that means he can now afford some decent furniture.
The queue for the canteen snaked all the way back to the showroom, with an alarmingly high number of Homer Simpson look-a-likes salivating at the prospect of all those Swedish meatballs. (No, I'm not talking about the serving staff.) After standing in line for fifteen minutes, my wife and I finally found ourselves opposite a refrigerated sandwich unit which, you won't be surprised to learn, was completely empty. I was tempted to ask when the stock was likely to be replenished, but I knew from experience that the herring sandwich I was after would have to be ordered from another branch and then picked up from the Brent Park collection point in 10 days time.
In the end, I bowed to the inevitable and ordered a plate of meatballs. I was asked if I wanted "sauce" with them and, possibly unwisely, said yes. Some biscuit-coloured gunk was then ladled on to my plate, accompanied by some chips and peas. What flavour was it supposed to be? Indeed, what animals had been slaughtered to create the meatballs? Tasting both provided no clue, but for anyone forced to eat at their local branch of Ikea I'd advise against the sauce. It had begun to congeal before I'd even made it through the checkout. When I said I'd need an allen key to get through my meal I thought I was joking, but apparently not.
So what accounts for the Ikea phenomenon? Is it just the fact that it offers incredible value for money? That must be part of the explanation, but it can't be the whole of the story since you can also buy cheap furniture at Courts, MFI and Bedrooms Direct. The conventional wisdom is that, by offering Scandanavian home furnishings at knock down prices, it appeals to the aspirational working class. In other words, what Sir Terence Conran did for the middle classes, Ingvar Kamprad has done for the masses.
But I'm not sure this is right. My theory is that Ikea's popularity is due to its classlessness. It appeals to everyone, from the SUV-driving yummy mummy who's building a playroom for Freddie and Leticia to the fitness instructor who's just bought a flat in Romford, and the reason is precisely because it's not associated with any particular demographic. The very fact that it's so European makes it's impossible to classify. The food may be no better than a bog standard motorway service station, but what do you expect from the Volkswagen of the furniture world? The meatballs, like the furniture, might lose their universal appeal if they were any less flat.