Many Swedes Swallowing Higher Food Prices With a Shrug

James Owen in Stockholm, Sweden
for National Geographic News
June 10, 2008
Part nine of a special series that explores the local faces of the world's worst food crisis in decades.

Even in the wealthy Scandinavian country of Sweden, food shoppers have seen dramatic price increases in recent months tied to the skyrocketing costs of wheat, fuel, and other basic commodities.

But during a recent lunch hour on the well-heeled streets of central Stockholm, there are few signs of belt-tightening among the gourmands, as crowds flock to the bustling eateries.

It's a telling reminder of the disparate effects of the global food crisis, which have left many of the world's poor too cash-strapped for basic meals but have merely inconvenienced wealthy Americans and Europeans.

"We've had to put up the price of some of our dishes, but business is better this year if anything," said Per Lindelöf, manager of the Stockholm restaurant Stadshus Källaren.

The posh establishment inside City Hall is famous for hosting the annual banquet for Nobel Prize winners, which in 2007 cost 1,450 Swedish kroner (about U.S. $244) a head.

A typical meal at Stadshus Källaren could consist of a lobster velouté starter ($30) followed by fillet of turbot ($55).

"The turbot has really gone up a lot," Lindelöf noted.

But "the kind of customers we have aren't really price sensitive—if prices go up 10 Euros [$16 since] last year, they don't care so much."

Ethics, Not Prices

In Sweden, overall costs increased 7.3 percent from April 2007 to April 2008, according to Statistics Sweden.

Bills for food staples have jumped by large margins, such as fruit, up 12 percent; bread, 10.9 percent; and dairy, 10.4 percent, the government agency said.

But far from spurring riots, strikes, and murders like those witnessed in developing nations, the price hikes have had little noticeable effect on Sweden's higher-end restaurants, markets, and butcheries.

At Mäster Anders in the ritzy Kungsholmen district, lunch was already getting underway by 11:15 a.m. as black-clad hostesses showed customers to their tables.

The restaurant serves traditional Swedish cuisine such as herring ($22), char ($40), and raw minced beef ($33). The set lunch featuring fish is 115 kroner ($20).

"Beef has gone up the most, but Swedish meats are always very expensive. I guess fish has increased too," said head chef Anders Palacios.

"We have raised prices on our menu recently, but not too much because I don't want to intimidate people. It hasn't affected the number of customers. It's a busy place."

The food cost increases also haven't forced any menu alterations, he said.

"The only change has been because of ethical reasons—so no more charcoal prawns," Palacios said.

The prawns, farmed intensively in Asia, have been dropped because of concerns over their ecological impact.

Money to Spend

Down the street at the British-style butcher Taylors and Jones, co-owner Gareth Jones is replenishing his stock of bespoke sausages after a hectic weekend.

"The small price increases we've seen so far we're swallowing," Jones said.

"If you're at the premium end of the market we're at, I don't think prices have gone up too much. I think the supermarkets and out-of-town shops have been more affected."

Nor have rising food inflation and grocery bills apparently dented the spending of his clientele.

"Most of our customers are upper to middle class," the Welsh butcher added. "We've only been open six months and our customer base is growing—all we're seeing is an upward trend."

Retailers tell a similar story at Hötorgshallens, an upmarket food hall in Stockholm's Norrmalm area.

Kajsa Karlsson of the delicatessen Bondens Matbord is busy slicing up organic label salamis and cheeses. She can tell you the Swedish region and even the farm each product is from.

"People want this sort of food, so we don't have a problem," Karlsson said. "We haven't had to change our prices, and we couldn't lower them because we are so small."

Ken Fujinuma is a sales assistant at Hav, a downtown fishmonger and party caterer. Lobster, octopus, Baltic herring, pike, perch, salmon, and halibut are among the items on display.

The wholesale price of farmed fish hasn't budged, Fujinuma said, adding, "It's our local Swedish fishes that have gone up.

"We have raised the cost of some of our homemade products like picked herring," he continued, "but, you know, our customers tend to have more money."

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