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- (Photo: TBD | Date: Jun. 10, 2011)
How do you sell Americans on Swedish food? Marketing something called tangkorn, a.k.a. seaweed topping, might be an uphill battle with a national palate more familiar with hamburgers. The answer seems to be to sell foodstuffs alongside the two Swedish imports most beloved by the U.S.A.: IKEA furniture and Swedish meatballs.
Nestled into the front of the College Park IKEA is a modest grocery store, selling everything from toffee ropes to elderberry juice boxes. It’s easy to lose sight of IKEA’s Swedish identity as you roam the cavernous warehouse of do-it-yourself plywood coffee tables, but this market is decidedly foreign. Swedish pancake mix retails alongside cod in a tube. The names of products include delightfully Nordic phrases like “kosyrad appel” and “saft flader” and “frodinge.” Charming translations like “farmer cheese” abound.
The Swedishness of the market’s offerings is confirmed by the Swedish Embassy. “I think it’s amazing how Swedish they make it,” says Gabriella Augustsson, head of public diplomacy and press for the embassy, who adds that she’s impressed by the syrups and breads unavailable anywhere else in the region.
That very Swedishness might be holding some American patrons from sampling everything the IKEA market has to offer. Though market manager Christian Dimenna says frozen meatballs fly off the shelves, some of Sweden’s fishy exports have yet to catch on here. Particularly fish in unusual packaging. Like tubes.
“The Americans haven’t accepted it yet,” Dimenna says of the cod roe, a fish paste squeezed into a toothpaste-tube-like apparatus. He finds it more convenient than more traditional American appetizers like cheese and crackers. “If you have crackers,” he explains, “instead of using a knife and everything, just”—he makes a fish-paste-being-spread-crackers gesture—“Easy.”
Sales of herring in jars have also failed to catch fire at the College Park IKEA, but Sharon Black, store marketing specialist, is confident that with time and lots of sampling, stateside audiences will learn to love little fish in jars. Black and Dimenna, neither of them Swedish, have themselves fallen in love with Nordic treats like the lingonberry.
“It’s like a cranberry,” says Black, adding that she now likes “the lingonberry way better than the cranberry.”
But the point of the market isn’t to rack up sales of seaweed topping for IKEA—it’s to be an ambassador for Swedish groceries. “It’s not meant to drive sales,” says Black. “It’s to give that taste of Sweden.” Even if American shoppers are sticking to cinnamon buns to blackcurrent jams, plenty of Swedes are buying the more exotic stuff.
“At least 50 percent of our shoppers are Swedish,” Dimenna says. At one point he was ordering an extra case of bread mix a week for one persistent customer. Augustsson says she shops fairly regularly at the IKEA market—once every six weeks—and that she tends to stock up when she goes.
And just because shoppers might stick with meatballs and pancake mixes doesn’t mean they aren’t willing to dabble in the more Swedish of the Swedish offerings. Shopper Daniel Dupuy is enjoying the market (“it’s really organized”) and plans to purchase crab pate in a tube. “It looks normal,” he says. “It’s foreign food, but it’s not strange.”