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  IKEA, Savior Of The European Destitute
Many low-earners prefer eating in the familiar atmosphere of this temple to consumption to standing in line at the soup kitchen. Indeed, the stigma of poverty is hidden behind the company's cheep and cheerful designs. What started out as an extra service to improve customer loyalty, has developed a life of its own, separate from the shaky wooden furniture and fold-out sofas. Many people feel that they belong when they mingle among well-off customers -- even if all they can afford is a hot dog.

The main draw is the price: a hot dog costs €1, a beer €1.30 and apple pie and vanilla sauce 50 cents. On average guests at an Ikea restaurant spend €4.30 per meal -- a price which allows them to eat in a half-way decent atmosphere instead of grappling with food packed in plastic at fast-food chain stores. "When I go out to eat with the family, I go to Ikea. I can afford that," says Stephan Panther. The 47-year-old taxi driver from Hamburg earns just €1,200 per month, before tax, to feed his four children.

Flocks of people wait outside early every morning in order to storm the buffet at 9 a.m., when the store opens its doors. Long-distance drivers like to use IKEAs as rest stops since most of the stores are easy to see from the highway and are located close to an exit. During vacation months, for example, hotels in the far northern German city of Kiel see a surge in customers. "They're tourists on their way to Sweden or Denmark who count on a meal at IKEA before they board the ferries," says IKEA's Sabine Nold.

The Swedish buffet is also an El Dorado for people who like to scrounge. Used cups can be rescued from the plate-return stations, washed in the bathroom and refilled forever. And tips for stockpiling food can be found on the Internet: "Just fill out a customer feedback form, give your address, write down something unfriendly like, 'I had to wait 30 minutes.' Then you'll get a coupon for breakfast at the store," writes Daniela at a German site, "Frag-Mutti.de."

IKEA also offers free Alete baby food. The offer has caught on: Cheapskates collect the 190-gram bottles like batteries and stockpile them up at home -- around 1,500 a month go missing from the Schnelsen store alone. But the company is catching on to people who abuse its complimentary services and cashiers have a new trick: they twist the lids of the jars at the register.
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