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Closets, couches – and crepes

Sheila Hansen doesn’t come to the sprawling IKEA Charlotte to shop for the KIVIK sofa, with its modern lines and comfy memory foam cushions.Or the dizzying array of kitchen countertops, the GRUNDTAL kitchen racks, or even the ARSTID lamps. She comes for the herring from the food market. Or for a plate of Swedish meatballs – where she can connect with her Swedish roots in the behemoth blue-and-yellow big-box retailer’s restaurant.Hansen, a recent transplant from Philadelphia, descends from Swedes and goes to Stockholm yearly to visit relatives.“So when I come back to Charlotte, I miss it and want to get my Swedish fix,” she says. “Sitting here at IKEA, eating herring or meatballs with lingonberries, is the closest thing to being back in Stockholm.“Occasionally I’ll go see what they’ve got on the showroom floor.”To most Americans, the restaurant works like a cafeteria, with a serving line and servers ready to dish up orders.IKEA likes to call it a restaurant, because the fare isn’t typical cafeteria – but food, the company’s promoters believe, that’s as good as you’d find in any mid-scale restaurant. What cafeteria do you know that serves up vegetarian crepes, salmon filet with potato medallions and gravad lax? Or organic pasta marinara?The food is good and healthful. And it’s inexpensive.It’s all about adding to the shopping experience, says Jackie DeChamps, IKEA Charlotte’s deputy store manager.That’s why they put the restaurant at the end of the blue path that takes customers on a journey through a land of housewares. “We want the experience to be fun,” DeChamps says. “The restaurant gives customers a place to sit down and reflect on what they’ve seen.”

Will eat forfurnitureIKEA has been priming the family experience ever since founder Ingvar Kamprad opened his first IKEA (the I is Ingvar, K for Kamprad, E for Kamprad’s farm, Elmtaryd, and A for his Swedish birthplace, Agunnaryd) in Sweden in 1958. The restaurant seats about 400 in chairs and at tables sold in the store. “It’s important to show customers our furniture holds up under some heavy use,” DeChamps says. Each of the 280 IKEA stores in 26 countries has a restaurant – each offering Swedish fare as well as regional foods.At IKEA Charlotte, Wednesdays are ribs night (a half-rack of baby back ribs, with fries and cornbread for $7.99). Mornings, you can eat a 99-cent breakfast (scrambled eggs, bacon and seasoned potatoes) and French toast for another buck. A half-hour before the store’s 10 a.m. opening (Sundays, it’s 11 a.m.), coffee’s free. And several times during the year, the restaurant may offer a free breakfast or deals where your food tab will be taken off your furniture tab over $100.“We are always looking for places to cut prices,” DeChamps says. “You’d be hard-pressed to go into the market and find a more affordable and quality meal.”That includes the popular Swedish meatballs. A plate of 15, with mashed potatoes and lingonberry sauce, is $3.99, down a buck from last year.To play on its Swedish culture, the restaurant hosts an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord for $9.99 featuring native foods at certain times of the year – like the Swedish Christmas Julbord last month. The next one will be at Easter.And here’s a nice touch: If you need a jar of baby food, the restaurant stocks them. Then there’s the microwave to heat formula, and a child area with child seats, child-sized cutlery and kid’s movies playing all day.Perhaps all that thoughtfulness explains why IKEA Charlotte’s restaurant has served up 930,315 meatballs, 70,986 hot dogs and 46,396 cinnamon rolls since Jan. 1.And get this: Much of what you like in the restaurant, you can buy in the Swedish Food Market to take home.

Feels like homeMany customers time their shopping so it falls on mealtime. Charles Crawford and his wife, of New Bern, built in time during a recent stopover at Charlotte/Douglas International Airport so they could take a taxi to IKEA to buy a kitchen. It was Wednesday. So while they were there, they munched on some ribs.“The food’s consistently good,” Crawford says. “And ribs for 8 bucks – you can’t beat that.”Craig Tiebout of Charlotte agrees, after finishing the $1.99 breakfast. “You can’t go to McDonald’s and eat for that. And the food here is better than most fast-food.”Howard Ebright, an auto appraiser from Fort Mill, was looking at a car nearby and stopped off for the pasta and marinara sauce combo at lunch. He’d discovered the restaurant when he brought 11-year-old daughter, Jazz, to shop for her bedroom furniture for the new house the family’s building.On this day, he found the sauce full of vegetables and the side salad full of cherry tomatoes.“The noodles were good; everything seemed to be fresh,” he says. “It’s all very tasty. And you can’t beat the price.”Lotta Griffin and Kajsa Barncastle, both of Davidson, arrived before opening time for a morning of shopping.Both are experts in everything Swedish. Griffin grew up in Trelleborg, Sweden, and Barncastle in Gothenburg. They sat for breakfast.“This is not a typical Swedish breakfast,” Griffin says.Yet much of the food is close to authentic, including the meatballs, though “in Sweden we eat them with boiled potatoes, not mashed,” Barncastle says.Barncastle used to live in San Diego, just up the hill from IKEA. She and her family often went there just to eat.Griffin sometimes goes to IKEA Charlotte with no intention of buying anything.“It’s just a good place to come and hang out,” she says. “It feels a little like home, so when I get homesick I come here.”

Did you know: IKEA offers free coffee every morning, 30 minutes before the store opens.

You can get free baby food (one jar) in combination with an adult meal.

There are always free refills on coffee, tea and soft drinks.

There is always an organic option.

There is always a vegetarian option.

Want to go?What: IKEA Charlotte RestaurantWhere: 8300 IKEA Blvd.Restaurant hours: 9:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 10:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m. SundayStore hours: 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. SundayMore information: (704) 549-4532