Cafe Society

IKEA's Swedish food shopping spree: I slept in a parking lot for free fish

When IKEA opened its 38th U.S. store in Centennial last week, the offers of free sofas, mattresses, chairs, meals and even baby spruce trees turned what would already have have been a stampede of eager customers into a veritable feeding frenzy of folks feeling the Need for Swede. But what kind of people would camp out overnight just to get a grocery bag filled with free eats from IKEA's Swedish market?

This writer sure would, and did. But as it turned out, while my genuine affinity for IKEA's edibles and drinkables was sufficient motivation for me to sleep on asphalt surrounded by strangers, I was the only one so moved. Everyone else I talked to in the monstrously long line only cared that the food was free, and didn't give a brown moose's under-tail about it being from IKEA or anywhere else.

My nutritive vigil began Thursday night at 8:45 p.m. I arrived to witness an incredibly packed store, which had officially opened the day before; a parking lot overseen by security guards with vests and light saber-esque batons; and police cars everywhere -- and this fifteen minutes before the store closed. I'd come prepared with a pillow, blankets, a tarp and umbrella, a gallon of water, flashlights, a bag of mixed nuts and a to-go Scrabble game, and asked the first IKEA employee I saw about the rules for the night's campout. He gave me the lowdown:

Campers could park across the street and form a line there, but could not officially return to IKEA's property until 12:01 a.m. The Swedish-food shopping-spree promotion the next morning was limited to the first 38 adults in line, who would be given a stylish, insulated IKEA tote and a coupon to fill it up with whatever they wanted from the grocery area. Although I was the first one insane enough to show up before the store closed on Thursday night, several carloads of campers arrived shortly after me, and I gave them line cuts so I could be number seven. I wanted to be seven of 38.

Daphne was number one in our de facto line across the street. She was a repeat offender, as she had previously camped out to get a shot at the free furniture but hadn't made the cut. Out of the first ten people in line, seven were back from the previous night. Numbers three through six were Jessica, Dean, Prudence and Rebekah, who had also lost out on the freebies the last two nights; this night they'd actually hung out in the IKEA store until security gave them the Swedish boot, and then they'd wandered the parking lot until they were sent over to where the rest of us were waiting. The repeaters told me stories from the nights before, including the two teenagers getting down in a tent, the dreaded emptying of the port-a-potties at dawn, and also a yarn about some lady getting busted taking a hooker bath in the sprinklers. Daphne said she'd witnessed another lady (#42 in line) offering $150 cash to a gentleman (#24 in line) to take his spot for the free mattress. "Would it be worth it?" I asked her, to which she replied, "The mattress is $300, so he took the money."

That is some intense bargain shopping, but as I was slowly discovering, the campers around me were serious bargain shoppers -- that's why they were there.

In line next to me was a large family, kids and all, who told me they had never been to IKEA, and they weren't even sure what food items were available. "I thought they just had candy -- like Swedish fish," the mother laughingly confessed. When I asked why she would camp overnight for candy, she said, "We actually do this all the time." I gazed over at the family -- every member sitting in their chairs with gear beside them, electronic devices in hand to stave off the inevitable boredom -- and I had no doubt this was true.

Down the line was a couple who I suspected was indigent, but I wasn't rude enough to ask. They didn't say much. Next to them was a couple who seemed rather young to care about either IKEA or bargain hunting, but after a few minutes of speaking with them, I realized I was wrong. Chica Brussels (#12) and Barney Powers (#13) gleefully shared their case of root beer as well as their surprisingly vast knowledge of how to get good deals; they were there just for the chance to fill a bag with free fish. Barney and I even came up with hand motions to accompany our "recession-broke-ass-wanting-free-fish" song that we made up to kill time before our midnight move.

But the real empress of bargain-shopping was Brutus Columbine (#16), who, along with her husband, Rob Koehn (#15), possessed an almost encyclopedic awareness of how to get and use coupons, promotions and freebies for everything from oatmeal to laundry detergent to restaurant two-for-one meals, evidenced by the P.F. Chang's takeout they were enjoying, augmented by a free-lettuce-wraps-with-entree coupon that they'd downloaded from the website.

This is the point where I figured out that nobody was really there for IKEA at all. In fact, most of my fellow campers were either unemployed or underemployed/underpaid, and were doing the best they could to feed, clothe and house their families and themselves by whatever means necessary.

Including camping at IKEA.

At exactly 12:01 a.m., the IKEA security team escorted us to our new campground -- in the too-well-lit sidewalk area just left of the entrance. The place was roped off to keep line-straying to a minimum, and the potties were a few yards away.

We all had a peaceful night, with plenty of ghetto bonhomie. We told jokes (someone congratulated Amy Winehouse on being sober for almost a week) and stories (Rob had a good one about interning at Inside Edition and Bill O'Reilly having a tantrum), and eventually the discussion came around to politics. Not surprisingly, the consensus was that partisan politics are fucking up the debt-ceiling negotiations, both Democrats and Republicans look like a bunch of dooder-wits, and I got to explain Rick Santorum's "Google problem."

Although a few more people joined the line, the number waiting was still well under 38 at 2 a.m., when I finally curled into my pallet and slept. I awoke around 7:30 a.m. to loud groans and a tanker truck entering the parking lot. It was time to clean the crappers, and the air was not sweet.

The food grab was to begin at 10 a.m., when the store officially opened, but Friday was also the "Early Birds Eat Free" promotion day. Anyone who showed up before 11 a.m. got a free breakfast, and by 8 a.m. the line had grown to a couple hundred people. While we waited for the restaurant area to open at 9:30, those of us in the front of the line talked food-grab strategy.

The idea was to get the most -- and the most expensive. The smoked salmon, shrimp, crayfish, jams and desserts were the most coveted items, and I got some tips on how to cram the edges of the bag with candy bars and tins of sprat. One mother wisely commented that, "It doesn't matter if things get smashed; they're still edible." The big question on everyone's minds was whether the bag had to be zipped. If not, then Brutus outlined how to balance a six-pack of pear soda on the top of the full bag.

During this discussion, two IKEA employees, Hans and Vanessa, greeted everyone and began the systematic process of determining the lucky 38, having them all sign waivers, putting numbered yellow bracelets on every wrist, and passing out the coupons to give to the food-market clerks. The coupons stated that the bags had to be zipped, and the total food cost per bag could not exceed $100. And then Hans brought out the bags.

I found #38, Jackie Snapp, who was thrilled to be 38, and #39, who was pretty pissed. "This is unfair," she said. "The rules are ONE per household, and they should follow the rules."

At exactly 9:30 a.m., the doors opened and the IKEA staff led us into the store, which was filled with bright-eyed, turbo-friendly employees who guided us upstairs to breakfast. I was impressed by the military precision with which the store operated. There were close to 500 people waiting in line, and the restaurant got everyone fed, seated and content with no visible snags in service or lags in food timing. Breakfast was scrambled eggs, bacon strips and home-fried potatoes, and it was both adequate in portion and well prepared.

The actual shopping spree was fairly uneventful. There was no time limit on the food grab, so the winners skillfully played food-Tetris until each of their bags was stocked, and then they headed over to the register to ante up. Everyone made it close to the $100 limit, except for one winner who bagged light: His total came to $62, and he demanded that the clerk allow him to go back and get more items to make up the difference. This was a jackass-y thing to do, since the clerk would have to void and re-ring all of his stuff, and the line behind him was rather long. He argued, raised his voice, and continued to harass the female clerk, who kept her cool and finally told him to take what he had and leave.

It's poor etiquette to throw a fit over a free gift, and we campers had little sympathy.

But then, we were too tired to do much more than take our own bags and exit -- back through the labyrinthine parking lot and then home for a shower, a real bathroom and a nap on a bed.

But first, I put away my free grub, some of the packages a little beat up from the smoosh, but still a tasty loot list:

3 packs of smoked salmon 1 package frozen salmon filets 1 bag frozen salad shrimp 1 shrink-wrapped pack of Swedish cocktail wieners 1 each of IKEA's apple cake, blueberry tart and almond cake 6 chocolate bars (the hazelnut ones are the best) 1 bottle of lingonberry drink concentrate (it makes 16 servings, so it's a better grab than the pre-made drink boxes) 3 three jars of herring marinated in sour cream, onion and dill 1 jar of gooseberry preserves (IKEA is currently out of cloudberry jam, a coveted but seasonal item) 6 cans of anchovy-style sprat fillets that I crammed in every nook and cranny 1 tiny jar of vegan caviar made from seaweed, the weirdest food item I've seen in a long time

This was not a bad haul, and it more than balanced out my socio-existential night in the IKEA parking lot. The gravlax alone was worth the trip.

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Jenn Wohletz
Contact: Jenn Wohletz