University City

Cheap eats: Ikea’s snack bar hidden in plain sight

People drive all day to shop at Ikea, but those snazzy kits for making your own Euro-designed furniture are not the only reason people flock there.

Just inside the doors by the loading area is Ikea’s snack bar. Hang a right at the big sign bidding you goodbye in Swedish, and you’re there.

With 50-cent beef hot dogs, $1 frozen yogurt cones and first-rate coffee for 75 cents, this is one of the best Charlotte spots for quick cheap eats.

The food tastes good, too: Like Ikea’s famous bookshelves and chairs, we are talking decent quality at a minimalist price.

Keisha Watts, who works the counter, reported that the Ikea snack bar has established customers, including cinnamon roll berserkers who voyage from afar to make off with multiple boxes, only $4 each for six Valkyrie-sized rolls dripping with sugar frosting.

“Yes, we have our regulars,” Watts said. “Sometimes somebody comes from work and gets 20 hot dogs, and the frozen yogurt cones are popular, too.

“There are folks that shop the deli as well,” she said. “They like the frozen Swedish meatballs and packets to make the cream sauce to go with them.”

The deli, beside the snack bar, provides a quick culinary visit to the lands of the Vikings, with an array of various pickled herrings, lingonberry soda, real European muesli, and a fine selection of Nordic cheeses and rustic rye crackers to eat it on, smorgasbord-style.

The deli also carries unusual Swedish specialties, both main dishes and desserts, some of them a bit odd for American tastes.

Did you know you can buy toothpaste-like tubes filled with fish and crab spread to squeeze on those crackers? Just don’t mix a tube up with your dental hygiene supplies, or your kids may never brush again.

Throughout the deli, and poised invitingly by the snack bar checkout line, are candies, including European licorice and, of course, Swedish fish gummies.

Prices are reasonable or better: Ikea’s excellent chocolate bars are hard to beat at three for just $2.50.

On the weekday afternoon I visited, a constant flow customers lined up five to 20 deep at the snack bar, under a sign atop a glass-front freezer case, reading “Feeling A Bit Swedish Today?”

A few brave souls wandered curiously through the deli, but most seemed focused on the snack bar. Many were Ikea shoppers, pushing a parade of carts piled with furniture kits and knick-knacks to the loading dock, but I noticed a couple of local snack bar fans who simply slipped in the door, ordered and headed back out.

Along with the hot dogs, Ikea’s snack bar offers pizza. It may sound more Italian than Swedish, but the quality is good, and the price is right at $1.75 for a generous cheesy slice. They serve it up hot out of the oven, serve-yourself style.

And if 50 cents per dog isn’t good enough, there’s a special: Two dogs, chips and free-refill soda (yes, they have lingonberry on tap) for just $2.50.

If you want to pay a bit more and enjoy a sit-down meal, Ikea provides that, too, in its upstairs cafeteria. There, selection is wider and prices are moderate, keeping in the Ikea tradition, though a cut higher than at the snack bar.

The specialty? Swedish meatballs, naturally, and that traditional cream gravy.

“I like working here,” Watts reflected. “I have learned about stuff I didn’t know anything about. But those meatballs? Well, they are too much for me!”

If you are on a quest for good, cheap eats, though, there’s no need to go upstairs to the cafeteria. Ikea’s snack bar, hidden in plain sight downstairs by the loading area, can fill you up without emptying your wallet.