Ikea challenges meatball ‘identity’ with plant-based alternative: ‘We want to convert carnivores’

By Flora Southey

- Last updated on GMT

Ikea Food's plant-based meatball alternative prototype ©Ikea
Ikea Food's plant-based meatball alternative prototype ©Ikea

Related tags Pork Processing and packaging Innovation

A vegan meatball alternative is undergoing product development at Ikea Food, which managing director Michael La Cour says will help get the company’s menu to 20% plant-based by 2022.

Swedish meatballs make up a significant part of Ikea’s brand identity, with the family-owned retailer selling one billion of the pork and beef products globally every year. “That is our icon product,” ​Ikea Food managing director Michael La Cour told delegates at the World Food Summit last month.

Yet the company is ‘challenging that now’ with the development of a new alternative protein meatball, due to launch in Europe next August. The Sweden-headquartered company plans to bring the new offering to North America and Asia Pacific ‘a couple of months’ later.

While still in the development phase, the new product prototype contains a number of ingredients that have a connection to Swedish cuisine, such as pea protein, oats, potato and apple. A full nutritional assessment will be made once the recipe is finalised.

Ikea’s primary ambition for the alternative meatball is to reduce the environmental impact of its value chain. “We know that plant-based food has a smaller climate footprint compared to red meat and first calculations show that the climate footprint of the alternative meatball is significantly lower compared to the traditional meatball,” ​a spokesperson told this publication.

Change through scale

The meatball analogue is the most recent plant-based offering under development at Ikea, since the company ramped up its commitment to producing “healthier, better options for many people around the world”, ​said La Cour.

Ikea approaches this mission through scale. “We develop from a price point, in order to be appealing for the many. That is the starting point,” ​explained the food chief.

Indeed, the furniture retail giant has seen this strategy work across its entire business. By switching out conventional light bulbs for LED alternatives earlier this decade, Ikea contributed to a dramatic price reduction around the world. Five years on from committing to exclusively LED lighting, the bulbs had reduced from €10 to €0.99. “And that is an 85% savings in terms of energy when we use this kind of bulb,” ​he continued.

Food is no exception. Ikea Food’s competitively priced menu attracts 680 million customers per year, and brings in an annual turnover of €2.2bn. In fact, 20% of Ikea’s customers visit its stores just for the food.

Ikea's vegan meatball alternative is still in the development phase ©Ikea

Being a global yet family-run brand, Ikea has the power to implement change through scale. “For us, it has to be an irresistible offer. For us, an irresistible offer is about the low price,” ​La Cour told delegates, adding that experience and taste are also high on the agenda. This means “it is available for many people”,​ he continued.

Ikea Food’s most prominent example of this, to date, was the introduction of a veggie hotdog into its stores. Ikea sells 110 million conventional hotdogs per year priced at €0.50 each. When the company launched its veggie hotdog last year, it incorporated an identical pricing strategy. Ikea now sells 10 million veggie dogs annually.

The firm has taken a similar approach to its soft ice cream offerings. Earlier this year, Ikea launched a vegan soft serve with half the carbon footprint of its conventional dairy-based product.

And its most recent meatball substitute is estimated to have 96% reduced climate footprint compared to the conventional version. The product will be priced the same as its traditional meatballs in all geographies. It will not be the first vegan meatball alternative launched by Ikea – a chickpea-based version was launched in 2015 – but La Cour says it will be the first targeted a wider audience. “We actually want to take the carnivores and convert them into taking the other [new product].”

Moving forward

By 2025, Ikea aspires to be relevant for three billion people. “That equates to one billion people eating in our restaurants,” ​said La Cour. The Swedish retailer plans to do in line with the Paris Agreement. This means reducing greenhouse gas emissions from its value chain and contribute to limiting global temperature increase to well below 2°C by the end of the century.

In food, this means that Ikea will not develop any new meat-based products, and has pledged to modify its menu to include at least 20% plant-based by 2022. “We want to get to 30%, we want to get to 40%...but we are taking steps,” ​the food chief explained.

It is a challenge bringing sustainability and health into the core of the business, but the firm is confident it can do so by making short, actionable goals, and teaming with tech-experts, chefs, and entrepreneurs.

Engaging all co-workers will also prove crucial to its success in this mission. “If you want the meatball [for example] to be a success, I need all my guys out there actually talking about it…knowing what it does,” ​he added. Everyone plays a role in helping the company “tackle global challenges head on”.

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