FIKA in the City: An Interview with Lars Åkerlund / by Rachel Eva Lim

New York and Stockholm operate on completely different wavelengths. New Yorkers dash around frenzied sidewalks clutching takeaway coffee in one hand while they fiddle with a cell phone in the other. Across the Atlantic, locals devote hours to lingering over afternoon cups, connecting with friends without batting an eye that they’re doing so in the middle of the workweek. Swedish native and New York transplant Lars Åkerlund wants to marry both personalities—and he hopes his Manhattan cafes, called FIKA, will do just that. 

The idea dates back to 2001, when a visit to the Big Apple revealed a dearth of satisfactory fika options. So he quit his lucrative property-flipping business in Sweden and plunged headfirst into the New York cafe scene. What began as a single outpost on 58th Street and Central Park South has since ballooned into a 17-store operation with big plans for further expansion. 

Åkerlund views FIKA as a transcontinental hybrid—born in Sweden and raised in New York, infusing Scandinavian standards with a touch of Manhattan flair. It’s a way of assimilating fika, an idea he’s exported from his home country, and his ambitions are to acquaint New Yorkers with that traditional fika experience while providing a welcoming respite from their hectic lifestyles. Here, Åkerlund waxes poetic about his love for New York, how growing up Swedish nurtured his particular outlook on coffee, and why convincing construction workers to pony up $2 for a cup of joe paved the way for FIKA’s success.  

What was your relationship with coffee like before you got into the business? 
Being a Swede means that coffee has an automatic and important place in your life. It’s an integral part of socializing in Sweden, so I started drinking and enjoying coffee at an early age. We’re also spoiled with having great quality coffee at our fingertips, which has always made me a bit of a coffee snob. 

What were you doing before starting FIKA?
I’m a trained chef and spent a few years in the Stockholm restaurant scene. But I quickly grew bored of working in the kitchen and became a bit of a serial entrepreneur, starting and running my own businesses in various fields. 

How would you describe yourself as an entrepreneur? 
I think any entrepreneur has to be a bit of a risk taker, and I’m certainly no exception. I go with my gut a lot but am also quite thorough. I believe in doing a lot of research prior to entering any new venture. I also don’t believe in problems; they are only mental blocks standing in the way of solutions. That’s really my number one rule. If you let things or people stop you too easily, you’ll never get very far.

What kinds of businesses were you running before you moved to New York?
I was renovating and flipping apartments in Sweden; it’s actually how I raised the capital we needed for our first FIKA location. It took me over five years of house-flipping to raise that initial funding, but it turned out to have been a great way to spend my time. It gave me good practice for building the first eight FIKA locations with my own hands.

How did FIKA first come about? 
I took my first trip to New York way back in 2001, fell head over heels in love with the city, and knew I had to create a life here. During that trip, I was having a very hard time finding quality coffee and nice cafes where I could sit down, relax, and take in the city. That’s when I realized that Swedish fika culture was needed in New York; I made it my mission to introduce it to the city. The present New York coffee scene is huge and great, but back in 2006—which is when I started FIKA—there was a real void.

What about New York lured you in?
It’s been said many times, but New York is truly the greatest city in the world as far as I’m concerned. It can be tough, yes, but I find that it’s quite fair—you often get back what you put in. I love the diversity, the endless inspiration, and the constant hustle that can be felt day and night. It’s good for a restless soul like mine.

New York is a tough place to try to open a food business. How’d it go at first?
Oh wow, I could give you enough material for a book! There was nothing but challenges initially, but that’s part of the fun. I had to figure everything out the hard way and by myself. Just securing the first space was a huge challenge, as no one really understood the type of place I was trying to open. They all assumed I wanted to open a deli. I read through 34,000 ads and physically visited 97 spaces. Luckily, at the 97th space, I met Kate, who was the only landlord who believed in my vision and was willing to take a chance on me. That ended up being our first location on 58th Street by Central Park South. I’m eternally grateful to her for that.

Why do you think FIKA has been so successful?  
We offer something unique. There are great espresso bars, chocolate shops, bakeries, and lunch places in the city, but can you name one other brand that offers all those things at once? I also think that New Yorkers love a genuine concept and story; they also appreciate the time and quality we put into our products and our spaces.

You now have 17 stores. Was expansion always part of the plan? 
I set out to build a strong New York brand, and I knew I needed a significant physical presence to do so. Finding the right spaces is hard work, and they’re often few and far between or can all become available around the same time. With FIKA, we made sure we we ready to strike when the opportunities presented themselves. I know it seems like our growth happened very quickly—and in some ways it did—but the first seven years were really slow and steady. We took our time building each location, testing out the concept, and creating the infrastructure to allow us to grow at a quicker pace without compromising on quality. That’s why we felt ready and confident enough to seize the opportunities to expand when they presented themselves.

You initially imported your beans from Sweden. Why did you eventually put an end to that?
We did this in an effort to be as patriotic as possible. However, it became a logistical nightmare and ultimately very hard for us to control the quality of the beans given the complicated transportation procedures. I also really wanted to be able to select my own beans, create my own recipes, and work locally to ensure a fresh, premium product. Our beans are still roasted according to traditional Swedish methods—for a longer time at a lower heat—even if we’re not importing them.

How do your bakery and chocolate options contribute to the FIKA experience?
They’re essential. Ultimately, at FIKA, we’re trying to tell a story. And any good story needs more than one character. We’re really working to create an experience and an environment where our guests can create their own perfect fika moment. 

What environment were you hoping to create when brainstorming initial designs for FIKA?
I wanted our guests to feel like they were stepping into something different, as we’re trying to be a window into the Swedish culture and way of life. I wanted there to be a certain thoughtfulness to the space and we made sure to use as many Swedish design elements as possible in order to create different miniature environments throughout a single location. The whole idea is that you should feel comfortable coming to FIKA at all times and for all purposes, whether it’s a quick breakfast, a business lunch, or an afternoon date.

What attracted you to partnering with Johanson Design to provide FIKA’s furniture? 
It’s always been a fun challenge to see just how far we can take our Swedish concept. As Swedish design is so special, it felt natural to extend this to the furniture we selected for our spaces. Johanson Design’s products are of exceptional quality and they’re one of the few companies who design and manufacture their entire collection in Sweden. 

What value do you think the fika ritual adds to one’s daily routine?
I think the biggest luxury we can give ourselves is time: Time to relax and time to enjoy. That’s exactly what having a fika is all about. It’s also about making that moment special by enjoying high quality items instead of something average that you’ll end up regretting half an hour later. Best case scenario: It can set a positive tone for how you treat yourself and your other moments for the rest of the day.

What’s been some of the best feedback you’ve gotten from customers? 
I will never forget the first few days of being open on 58th Street. We had a group of construction workers come in and ask for coffee. These were classic New Yorkers, just like in the movies. When they learned that a cup of our brewed coffee was $2 they almost walked out right there and then, saying that it was ridiculous to pay more than 90 cents for a cup! I offered them their coffees on the house. The next day, they all returned saying that they now understood what that extra dollar was for. That was a really cool moment for me.

What are some of your favorite cafes to visit in Stockholm?
If I want something a bit more modern, I’ll go to Mellqvist in Vasastan. They’re always consistent and make one of the best espressos in the city. For something more traditional, I’ll visit Tössebageriet in Östermalm. It’s old school, high end, and a true Stockholm institution.

What’s next on deck for FIKA? 
We have two more key locations opening up in New York. After that, we want to start growing nationally and eventually internationally. We’re also looking at having a presence in select airports and firmly believe that FIKA communicates a tradition that will be embraced worldwide. 

As first published in Volume 4: Stockholm of Drift