Date with IKEA: Swedish cuisine in White Marsh

Believe nothing less: the restaurant at IKEA—the merciful asylum of that Swedish embassy along Honeygo Boulevard in White Marsh—is simply one of the most pleasant, affordable, and accommodating places to eat in Baltimore County.

I, for one, am not an IKEA fetishist—you'll find me at the soft opening of the Second Chance charcuterie once it happens—but a recent trip to the upstairs cafeteria reminded me just how much of a food destination IKEA is in its own right. And with roomfuls of couches and mattresses around the corner, why not gorge yourself and make a day of it? On weekends, families with children flood the restaurant, many of them at tables and chairs made with shorter legs to match shorter legs. Couples fortify themselves in preparation for the gauntlet that awaits in the showrooms, or review the day's damage on either side of a slice of Almond Cake. Two bamboo tablet stands? IKEA has a famous way with your money.

Two children, Roland and Jewell, were seated at one of the short-leg tables with their mother, Jill Andrews. They had left home planning to go to the movies, but Jewell successfully petitioned her mother to drive to IKEA so she could find a few things for her bedroom. Roland had been a hard sell on his sister's idea, like any younger brother, but he finally acquiesced on one condition: "If we can get meatballs," he said, "it's a deal."

Some people eat at IKEA because it's nearby and good enough—like Daniel, who spends most of his lunch breaks from the Sears across the parking lot over a cup of sugary coffee and a few dinner rolls with margarine. Originally from Ghana, where there are no IKEAs as of this writing, Daniel recommended the cornbread without reservation.

IKEA, I have found, is a place where one can always depend on the kindness of strangers. Perhaps it's the egalitarianism of the mess hall set-up that brings it out in people, or the way Americans who run into each other overseas make easy conversation. At IKEA, you're IKEA Family.

Les and Rochelle Schneiderman had finished their shopping and were also drinking coffee, which comes complimentary with an IKEA Family card (again, free). They came from Eldersburg to find a single replacement screw for one of the many pieces of IKEA furniture they've bought over the years. "We redid our bedroom and now it's all IKEA," Rochelle told me. "We like it here." The screw was out of stock, of course, but neither Schneiderman seemed to mind having sacrificed a rainy day to the chase. Les gave me the Carroll County scuttlebutt: "What I keep hearing," he said, "is the problem is, there isn't enough IKEAs around." Hear that, 8th District representative Chris Van Hollen? Get Stockholm on the phone and let's make IKEA Sykesville a reality today.

At Faidley's, you get the crab cake; at IKEA, you get the KÖTTBULLAR, or Swedish meatballs. Served with mashed potatoes, lingonberry jam, and a simple cream gravy called GRÄDDSÅS, the meatballs are easily the best-selling dish on the menu, I was told. Recent additions include chicken meatballs and GRÖNSAKSBULLAR—a vegan version of the meatballs dished up with steamed vegetables and a chunky, slightly spicy tomato-based sauce that has bits of bean and quinoa suspended in it like a pantry clean-out chili. The veggie balls are having a moment right now, one of the cooks said to me, "because Lent."

Most entrees on the menu will set you back about $5, while kids' meals are all $2.49. There are salads and salmon fillets and little Elderflower and Lingonberry juice boxes called DRYCK FLÄDER and DRYCK LINGON. Sure, most of what IKEA serves has to be defrosted, and steamed cauliflower isn't very sexy, but IKEA's is that rare cheap cuisine that doesn't make you feel like an American piece of human trash after you eat it. Not too fancy, not too heavy—it's the kind of food you could imagine yourself savoring with your child on one of the 480 days of paid parental leave you and your co-parent were guaranteed by the Swedish government.

Contemplating the relative merits of Scandinavian social democracy as I sipped pensively on the straw of my DRYCK, I noticed the crowd at the IKEA restaurant was more racially diverse and multigenerational than the average joint of similar capacity. A lady in a wheelchair rolled off the elevator with her family as I arrived. The kitchen crew and cashiers betrayed an uncoerced-seeming friendliness for such a busy day, too—perhaps thanks, at least in part, to the company's policy of tying its employees' hourly wages to MIT's Living Wage Calculator. No one at the White Marsh store makes less than $12 an hour, which may be low for certain parts of Baltimore County but stacks up pretty well compared to the average McDonald's pittance.

Still, even progressively-minded IKEA has developed a reputation in some quarters for its paternalistic approach to labor relations. Just last year, the company fought hard to prevent workers at its Stoughton, Massachusetts store from joining the United Food and Commercial Workers International (UFCW), a move that resulted in a strike in November, disapproving letters from Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley, and a complaint filed by the National Labor Relations Board alleging that the company violated federal law by badgering workers about their union support. In 2012, workers at IKEA's Perryville warehouse, thirty miles up the road from White Marsh, voted to join the International Association of Machinists (IAM), but the match lit in Stoughton to organize IKEA retail locations has yet to catch down here.

It was Stephen Evans' last day on the job after three years as a "co-worker" at the White Marsh store, he told me. Evans, who looked to be in his mid-20s, said he was leaving on good terms, but I gave him a chance to air any dirty laundry he had with the company on the JÄLL drying rack of my reporter's notepad. Had he seen the stables where the horses were kept before their gruesome journey into meatballs? Were the after-hours, all-staff Maoist-style self-criticism tribunals held in the Workspaces department or deep within Småland, the kids' playroom? We all know Sweden isn't as great as Bernie Sanders says it is, and isn't IKEA just another corporation, man? Evans shrugged. IKEA was a pretty good gig, all things considered. "Better than flipping burgers," he said.

Downstairs lies the IKEA Bistro, a lower-rent version of the restaurant that caters to more domestic tastes with pizza, hot dogs, and cinnamon buns. I grabbed a bottle of Easter-themed "Swedish festive drink," DRYCK PÅSKMUST, from the fridge, which the cashier described with accuracy as tasting "like rum and coke without the alcohol." Meandering back through the showrooms, I fondled the measuring cups and petted the cowhide rugs. I was tired after many portions of various balls, and the words of that former Arbutus resident, David Byrne, kept coming to me: "This is not my beautiful house." I poked a few cactuses in their pots. I looked for Les Schneiderman's replacement screw. The GRÄDDSÅS had gone to my head. The sofas and mattresses beckoned.

Do people ever fall asleep on the couches at IKEA? "Oh yeah," Stephen Evans told me. A man who lives at a local nursing home comes in all the time, plants himself on a sofa near the entrance, and dozes for hours. I asked a co-worker named Jessica Hale whether people snooze on the mattresses, too. "All the time," she said, but there's no policy about forcing them to wake up. A bigger problem is kids jumping on the beds with muddy shoes. She says she knows it's the adults' fault and not the kids', but "I don't judge anymore now that I'm a parent of a three month-old." In a corner of the room, a young woman sat nursing her baby on a loveseat.

"Children are the most important people in the world. Therefore we cater to all their needs," reads a sign near the IKEA restaurant. "Our restaurant offers a great selection of kids' meals, giving you the opportunity to spoil your little ones. Baby food, high chairs and bibs are always available." There's something entirely disarming about being confronted with that fact, even by an international entity that cares more about money than moral instruction. One co-worker told me that the IKEA showroom is actually a pretty dangerous place for small kids; there are plenty of hard surfaces to run into or smack against and no shortage of heavy objects to be crushed by. The restaurant is safer. The kids' meals may not come with plastic toys, but the children I saw looked at least as satisfied as I felt.

In October, Bernie Sanders told a debate audience: "I think we should look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway, and learn from what they have accomplished for their working people." Sanders will have to keep perfecting the art of the deal if he wants to convince most Americans that socially democratic (or democratically socialist) policies are the best way to furnish our very divided house. But maybe Sanders, or whoever comes after him, will find a way to pull it off by really selling it, by offering us an irresistible platter of socialism rolled into easily chewable spheres with a little American capitalist gravy ladled on top. Maybe one day, America will look more like the restaurant at IKEA, where no one makes less than a living wage and kids are relatively well-fed and respected, where everyone can physically get to the table and can afford to eat there, together. Maybe we'll decide we want a country where paying for a college education is as easy as getting a cup of coffee with an orange plastic card.

It's going to be a hard sell. IKEA is far from perfect, but who said anything about that? If we can get meatballs, maybe it's a deal.

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