Interview: Michael La Cour, Managing Director, IKEA Food Services

Future Food-Tech New York caught up with Michael La Cour, Managing Director of IKEA Food Services, about the company’s vision for advancing food innovation, reducing food waste and collaborating with exciting start-ups in the food-tech space.

You’re speaking on the panel discussion “The Role of Technology in Reducing Food Loss and Food Waste during Production and Distribution” at the Future Food-Tech Summit in New York. Can you share some insight into IKEA as a major player in the food sector and how it became among the top 10 largest food chains in the world?

Michael La Cour, Managing Director of IKEA Food Services

Food has been an important part of IKEA from the beginning. The first IKEA Restaurant opened in 1959, only a year after the first IKEA store opened in Älmhult, Sweden. Later the IKEA Bistro and the Swedish food market was added to the concept. The IKEA meatballs are a true IKEA icon as well known as the BILLY bookshelf and KLIPPAN sofa and as Ingvar Kamprad, IKEA’s Founder said: “You can´t do business on an empty stomach.”

Close to a billion people visit an IKEA store annually and 660 million people enjoy the IKEA food offer in more than 400 stores in 49 markets. We acknowledge that reaching all those people globally is both an opportunity but also a great responsibility and based on the IKEA vision of creating a better life for the many people we strive to live up to that responsibility.

What key areas of food innovation is IKEA most focused on and why are these areas particularly important to IKEA’s innovation strategy? How are you developing and delivering a more sustainable, healthier offering for food sales (groceries and food service) across stores?

We create food based on the five Democratic Design principles, the same criteria used in any IKEA product development. Those five principles, which should be considered in every step along the way in the product development process, are function, form, quality, sustainability and low price.

We want to inspire healthier and more sustainable eating and lifestyles in our Restaurants, Bistros and Swedish Food Markets. One could say that we have become obsessed with developing delicious, affordable, healthy and sustainable food. Simply better food for people and the planet. We believe that through our business we can support and influence positive change.

In our product development we look at the whole value chain, from sourcing to the final product, and we try to challenge every step of the way in order to make sure that we do the best we can. We work closely with our suppliers and partners to find solutions on how we can do better in delivering our ambition to create a better everyday life for the many people and we believe that health and sustainability are the key prerequisites in order to do that through our food.

We know that in order to develop the business we need to look critically at all aspects of it, but also to engage in the debate, enabling our customers, co-workers and partners to take action and contribute. The ‘Food is Precious‘ initiative, where we work towards diminishing food waste in our stores, is an example of how we want to do exactly that.

On what scale has IKEA set out to tackle food waste? What initiatives have been put in place and which technologies or partnerships have made the greatest impact?

The Food is Precious initiative has the ambition to diminish food waste at IKEA by 50% by the end of August 2020. Working together with two technology partners LeanPath and Winnow, food waste is measured and reported through a smart scale solution in the IKEA restaurants, bistros and Swedish Food Markets. The smart scale solution is built of a touch screen connected to a floor scale that carries a waste bin to measure food waste. The data collected helps identify ways to prevent food being thrown away. The first smart scale system was implemented in an IKEA store in December 2016 and is now implemented in 170 stores who have avoided wasting 1.5 million meals since the initiative started. Many of the stores working with the system have shown great results and the first stores that implemented the program more than two years ago have maintained their level of waste reduction in their operations, proving that these results are long-lasting. 

At the moment we are only measuring the food waste in our own operations, i.e. in our Restaurant kitchens, Bistro and Swedish Food Markets but we are, together with our technological partners, exploring how we will also use technology to diminish the post-consumer food waste in our stores. We have even started to work together with IKEA product developers who are designing kitchenware on how we can enable people to diminish food waste at home, so there are many exciting things ahead.

As you look to expand on IKEA’s innovation strategy, in what way are you engaging with food-tech innovators and start-ups? How has IKEA supported emerging food technologies in the past, and why is the Future Food-Tech Summit important to expand on these goals?

The food industry today faces a lot of challenges. One is food waste, as one third of all food harvested in the world goes to waste. Climate change is another thing that is having a huge impact on food production as it is directly connected to food prices and availability. The third challenge is that food related illnesses creates human and economic cost.

We do believe that as a global company we have the responsibility to address those challenges, however we do not believe that we can solve them on our own. That is why we are always curious, looking for new technology and solutions that can help us create a better everyday life for many people.

One example of how IKEA is engaging with food-tech innovators and start-ups is the IKEA Bootcamp project where IKEA invited 10 start-up companies to spend three months in Sweden working together with IKEA on developing their ideas. One of the companies that participated was exploring how fruit flies could be used as an alternative protein source in food production.

Another example is the work that IKEA is doing with Space 10, which is an external innovation hub for IKEA to get inspired, gain fresh perspectives and discover new talents and ideas to invest in and bring forward. 

With the reach of more the 660 million people, we know that even though we might seem to make small changes in the way we work and what we offer, it can have a big impact. We want to work together with people that share our vision and are willing to join us on our journey where we will try, fail and try again.

What is your vision for the future of food innovation? Beyond the areas of innovation you are currently looking at, what other areas could you look to tackle? How do you see technology making an impact?

I think that we are looking at an industry that will go through an end to end change in the coming years. Technological innovation will play a vital role in that change. Facing the challenges that I mentioned earlier, I think we should see this moment in time as a golden opportunity to engage with smart, useful technology that can have an impact throughout the value chain. Whether it’s the smart scale for food waste or digital supply chain solutions, with the emergence of the internet of things and blockchain I think that we’ll see some radical changes ahead which can form part of not just our business processes and how we work, but how we address issues like health and sustainability: food waste, data from farms in our supply chain, clean meat, bio-simulated materials like milk and insects to name a few. The whole industry is abuzz with these kinds of initiatives. Again, I would refer to a quote from IKEA’s Founder Ingvar Kamprad: “Most things remain undone. Glorious future.”

Michael La Cour will be speaking at Future Food-Tech New York on The Role of Technology in Reducing Food Loss and Food Waste during Production and Distribution at 2.15pm on Tuesday June 19.