Not so long ago, most cities in America were home to at least one public cafeteria. In Minot, North Dakota, it was the Savoy. Albuquerque had Bracy’s and Tulsa had Foote’s. For much of the 20th century, diners in big cities like San Francisco and Philadelphia could practically eat at a different cafeteria each day of the week. The food tended to be unglamorous but hearty, the decor nothing to write home about, and the service was, well, up to you. At some places the bowls of mashed potatoes and plates of pie stood pre-assembled, ready for the taking at arm’s reach, while at others the cooks would dish and scoop from steam tables to order.
The few public cafeterias that are left are mostly beloved, legacy restaurants like the Valois in Chicago’s Hyde Park and Sokolowski’s University Inn in Cleveland, where at this very moment there’s probably a line forming for plates of pierogies, kielbasa, and sauerkraut.
And then there’s Ikea, the Swedish-founded, Netherlands-headquartered retailer of flat-packed furniture and housewares that raked in 37.6 billion dollars in annual revenue last year. Chances are, you may be sitting in, or adjacent to, a piece of furniture you put together from a box you bought at Ikea. And in that case, you’ve probably also eaten at one of its cafeterias.
If you haven’t been lately, or you haven’t heard, Ikea Food is booming. The company now estimates that about 30 percent of visitors to its blue and yellow behemoths come solely for the food, which, in addition to its famous Swedish meatballs, includes three meals a day spanning scrambled eggs to salmon filets, chicken meatballs to cappuccinos. (With the introduction of veggie balls to the “meatball family range” in 2015, sales for meatballs across the board, which includes chicken and “traditional” varieties, increased 30 percent.)
Back when the first Ikea cafeteria opened in 1959, a year after the first store opened for business, the logic of its restaurants was obvious: “It’s difficult to do business with someone on an empty stomach,” went the dictum of founder Ingvar Kamprad.
But now that so many customers are coming to Ikea just to fill up, the company stands poised to capitalize as a player in the cheap-but-relatively nutritious dining game. In the last year, the restaurants have been redesigned with distinct seating areas to better accommodate a variety of customers: families with children, couples stopping by for coffee, solitary laptop squatters hungry for free Wi-Fi. Ikea Food’s new program “Food is Precious,” which aims to cut the company’s food waste in half by 2020, has the makings of an industry innovation. And after the European success of Ikea Food pop-ups, restaurants that live separately from the retail stores, the company sent meatball-enthusiasts’ hearts aflutter when it hinted last spring that standalone cafeterias could be part of the brand’s future.
“As we go into new markets and open new stores, we’re looking forward to reaching more people,” says Peter Ho, range and product developer for Ikea Food US, although he notes that there are no current plans to open a standalone cafeteria stateside.
Outside of Ikea’s retail stores, public cafeterias are mostly gone now, victims of fast-food’s greasy grasp on the American stomach. Since that hold now appears to be loosening, along with that of its heir, “fast casual,” it may be time to reconsider the cafeteria’s appeal. Because of (and not in spite of) regimented lines and limited menus, cafeterias have been vital spaces where community happens. They’re as American as ÄPPELPAJ.
The marriage of cafeterias and Swedish cuisine goes back a lot further than Ikea. The very first American restaurant to call itself a cafeteria — John Kruger’s self-service cafe at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago — took its inspiration from the Swedish smörgåsbord, the traditional buffet spread of open-faced sandwich fixins.
Kruger’s cafeteria was basically a late-19th century version of a pop-up. But adding to the novelty was that it was also the first restaurant of its kind to serve men and women alike, starting the cafeteria’s reputation for being organizationally innovative and socially progressive, even a little subversive. Accessible and affordable, cafeterias leveled some of the class- and gender-based disparities that ordered the restaurant industry — first by giving women the opportunity to dine in public without the company of men.
Just two years after Kruger’s experiment, in 1895, the Chicago Tribune reported on the new curiosity of downtown “girls’ clubs” — also commonly known as lunch clubs — where women congregated during their lunch breaks to chat and eat with one another at cafeterias. These “self-supporting women,” many of them the first in their families to earn money away from home, came by the hundreds each day to places like the Noonday Rest, the Jane Club, and the Alpha Club, where “in long lines they file past the steam tables, getting each their favorite dish” as a trio of musicians played to the side.
At a time when most places to get a bite to eat were dim, boozy, male-dominated establishments, women’s club cafeterias offered a welcome respite. A cafeteria handbook produced in 1917 by the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) describes the ideal cafeteria as “a center for refreshment, rest, and inspiration — a cheerful place, offering delicious food neatly served, without noise or bustle, in quarters as clean as a new pin, flooded with the light of day[.]”
This was a new restaurant for a new diner, responsive to the social dynamics of being in public. “Men by their presence,” according to the YWCA, “take space which should be filled by girls; they change the character of the menu, they create a different atmosphere.” These early cafeterias were meant to be, in effect, safe spaces for women otherwise confined to the margins of public life. As the 1895 Tribune story observed breathlessly: “It is no longer who you are, but what you are between women.”
That was going too far, of course, since, like most public accommodations until after the 1960s, these cafeterias were racially segregated in practice, if not by law. African-American women maintained clubs and cafeterias of their own, often with far fewer funds. The Harlem YWCA, for instance, served as an indispensable social venue in the neighborhood, with a cafeteria that nourished a generation of intellectuals and activists in the 1930s who would go on to lead the Civil Rights Movement, like Ella Baker and Pauli Murray. The late Jean Blackwell Hutson, head of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, remembered the Harlem YWCA cafeteria as the sort of room where people “who could have eaten almost any place would come and have Sunday dinner,” because the food was good and the company was better.
Cafeterias as public restaurants found hungry customers everywhere they opened for business. While chains like Luby’s, Morrison’s, and Dubrow’s would turn most of America into cafeteria country by mid-century, Los Angeles was the first cafeteria capital. Inspired by the Chicago girls’ clubs, a restaurateur named Helen S. Mosher opened the first one on the West Coast in 1905, on Hill Street in Los Angeles. She called it the Cafeteria, and women weren’t just the clientele: They were working in the kitchens, too. Soon after opening, the Pacific Coast Record reported that the Cafeteria made bank as “women cooks and see-and-select one’s food drew the crowds.” Mosher opened two more and soon had a slew of others, also run by women, to compete with in the days when L.A. ranked in size between Omaha and Memphis.
To women, the spaces were sold as an opportunity to skip the patriarchally enforced obligation to cook at home. The option didn’t exactly break the chains of domestic servitude, but pointed toward a new intersection between eating, money, and gender. “We want to say to every housewife in Phoenix,” read a 1914 ad in the Arizona Republican, “that the time has come when you can come to the New Palace Cafeteria and get the very best meal cheaper than you can prepare it at home.”
Cafeterias became places where just about anyone could get a meal, from bohemians to business executives, in a model that operated on the assumption of equality — with the exception of places like the segregated South.
During World War II, protestors at the Little Palace Cafeteria in Washington, D.C. (a demonstration organized by Pauli Murray, once a regular at the Harlem YWCA cafeteria) held signs reading “We Die Together — Why Can’t We Eat Together?” They would follow with a similar protest at Thompson’s Cafeteria in D.C. one year later; the Thompson’s protests would lead to a years-long legal case that would, in 1953, end segregation in all Washington, D.C. restaurants. That case would lay the groundwork for the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, the Supreme Court decision that ended racial segregation in public schools, one year later. The cafeteria site, in other words, has helped hold the American public to a higher standard than we’ve held ourselves.
Today we think of cafeterias as high-efficiency, low-food-quality spaces belonging to institutions like schools, prisons, and hospitals; they run on the principle of sameness. Same food. Same table reservations (i.e., none). Same service (i.e., no service, as such).
Back at Ikea, all of that manages to feel pleasant. The vibe is unhurried, the space clean and bright. A comforting sense of abundance comes from the knowledge that you could go back for more without breaking your bank or your stomach. The restaurant at my local Baltimore store attracts a mix of races, classes, ages, and bodies found almost nowhere else.
Human variety and the physical space for interaction give cafeterias the friction to produce a special energy. In 1939, when cafeterias in New York City served as culinary clearinghouses for bohemians and other threadbare types, a Works Progress Administration guide noted of one Greenwich Village spot that in the “evenings the more conventional occupy tables in one section of the room and watch the ‘show’ of the eccentrics on the other side.”
Both “sides” being in the same room in the first place is rare and precious enough. The sociologist Mitchell Duneier spent four years hanging out at the Valois Restaurant in Chicago (a favorite of Barack Obama’s) to research his book Slim’s Table: Race, Respectability, and Masculinity. Among other things, Duneier observed that “openness, sociability, and the desire to be part of the larger society are important dimensions of the conduct of cafeteria life… The public cafeteria was a locale where barriers that normally divided and isolated people could sometimes break down.”
According to Kami Pothukuchi, professor of Urban Studies and Planning at Wayne State University, a “truly public restaurant” would offer three things: It “would be open to anyone, offer healthy and culturally acceptable food at a low price, and have decent and culturally acceptable decor,” she says. Is it so impossible to imagine a place like that existing today? It would share a lot more in common with the cafeterias at Ikea than the gentrified public market model that’s so prevalent today.
Ikea is not a social service agency: It’s a multinational corporation whose primary duty is to its shareholders. The company is notoriously hostile to unions, has spied on its employees, and nearly added an equine option to the meatball family. But it also has a unique reputation in American big business for respecting the dignity of its customers and rewarding their presence in its stores, not just their money. It offers free child care. At Ikea restaurants, a cup of coffee is always free — a perk of free membership that adds up to a lot for people who don’t have latte money to throw around each morning. Remarkably, a family of four can eat a pretty balanced meal at Ikea for under $20.
There are no signs that Ikea’s cafeteria model is going to change any time soon, but it’s also clear that the company has yet to develop a vision for the restaurants beyond complementing the DIY aspect of the furniture enterprise with “nutritious food that is responsibly produced and good quality, and at a very low price,” according to Ikea’s Peter Ho. The higher-ups in Sweden “are testing different things in Europe for attracting customers to our stores,” he says, but “whether anything they test over there becomes a global model, that’s yet to be seen.”
What seems certain is that Ikea’s customers across the world are going to keep them changing (as their recent meatball-less foray into India proves) and keep them guessing, too — like in Shanghai, where senior citizens basically took over an Ikea cafeteria because they needed somewhere to talk and eat cheap, decent food in comfort.
Equal access to good food doesn’t come naturally in America, not today and not under the conditions that in the last century spurred a lot of brave people to fight Jim Crow segregation at public cafeterias across the country. Only policies can make that happen, but some of the ingredients are there in the simple idea of the public cafeteria — an idea that Ikea, whether it wants to or not, is keeping alive for the rest of us.
The name for Ikea’s “meatball family” (pork-and-beef, chicken, veggie) is ALLEMANSRÄTTEN, a bit of wordplay that’s both shorthand for the Swedes’ Right of Public Access law (“a unique right to roam freely in the countryside”) and, since a rätt can be both a “right” and a “dish,” a commitment to affordable food (everyone’s right to a dish). Cafeterias tap into a deep, universal desire to break bread together with others, as equals, and to see others fed. Improbably, a Swedish furniture manufacturer may be America’s best hope at realizing that primal satisfaction on a large scale. It’s up to Ikea whether it has the resources and the inclination to keep moving in that direction, but the size of our appetite should keep surprising them.
Andrew Holter is a writer and historical researcher based in Baltimore.
Editor: Erin DeJesus
Fact-checker: Dawn Mobley