A visit to the island of misfit foods

About a mile from my house there's a slightly shabby strip mall housing a Dollar Store, a Ross Dress for Less, and something called a ‘Grocery Outlet'. For two years I've driven past that sign — on my way to Costco, Fred Meyer, and Trader Joe's — without ever giving it a second thought. I'll pick through thrift-store racks for clothes, sure, but I'm a snob about food, and ‘Grocery Outlet' smacked of discards and dregs.

After six months of only part-time employment and a pared-down budget, though, I start eyeing the sign more speculatively. One day I gather up my cloth bags and my determination and head over to expand my grocery comfort zone.

Inside the Grocery Outlet

The building is old, with scuffed tile floors and aged metal shelves. The shopping carts are battered cast-offs from other stores. But the lighting is bright and everything is clean. The warehouse-style setup, stacked cardboard boxes cut open for access to the cans and boxes inside, is familiar to anyone who shops in a club like Costco or Sam's. My fellow shoppers are a cross-section of ages, races, and economic classes; the only thing I don't see is someone in a business suit. That's typical of Seattle, though — not even Whole Foods gets customers in suits.

Making the circuit of the store, I discover all of the categories that one might expect from any supermarket — canned goods, produce, dairy, snacks, frozen foods, household cleaners, beauty products, paper goods, pet food, vitamins, and so on. Only the service counters, like seafood and deli, are absent. Everything is well-organized by type and the displays, while low-tech, are tidy. Some of the items are there for obvious reasons, like dented cans or corner-crushed boxes; others are a mystery. I warily check ‘best-by' dates but find nothing alarming.

I recognize a lot of brand names, but there are unknown labels too. I am surprised by the number of ‘organic' offerings, bemused by the aisle of random toys, and startled again to see a wall of discounted wines. The cheapest is $2.99 but some are close to $20 per bottle; I am not enough of a wine connoisseur to assess the savings. I do take home a German Riesling for $3.99. It turns out to be quite good, at least to my uneducated palate. When I come back the next week there are only three bottles left; I hoard them all.

The Island of Misfit Foods

Imagine a grocery store that sells only loss leaders, and you'll have a pretty good idea of what shopping a salvage store is like. There are no ads, of course; every visit is a surprise. A Seattle Yelp contributor calls Grocery Outlet ‘The Island of Misfit Foods,' which is as apt as it is funny. Most of the offerings are one-time bargain purchases; once the current stock is gone it's replaced with something else entirely. One week I snagged two cartons of perfect large organic brown eggs for 99 cents per dozen; another time they had no eggs at all. The ice cream selection might be pints of Ben and Jerry's or something labeled in Spanish.

This particular store is clearly making an effort to function as a regular grocery by keeping certain staples — such as milk, cheese, a cross-section of produce — always available. Prices for these items are equivalent to common grocery loss-leader or sale prices ($1.99 for a gallon of milk, $1 for a one-pound bag of pre-cut carrots). One oddity is that all produce is sold by the piece, with no scales in sight, making it difficult to compare loose items like broccoli or squash that are elsewhere priced by the pound.

There's a clear distinction between what I'll call the ‘stock' produce and the ‘deal' produce, however. ‘Deal' produce comes in much greater quantities and rotates as unpredictably as anything else in the store, and can be a much better value.

As you might expect, produce is also the most hit-and-miss category, quality-wise. I saw avocados that looked nearly mummified, and bought jalapenos that tasted like bell peppers, inexplicably lacking any hint of heat. On the other hand, I found perfectly good red, orange, and yellow sweet peppers at 50 cents each, which knocked my socks off. (For comparison, the best sale I've ever seen was $1 each, and $2-$2.50 is typical.) I walked in last week just as they were setting up a luscious display of Driscoll's organic raspberries at $1.50 per 6-ounce carton. I don't usually pay the premium for organic groceries, but this was a steal, comparatively: later that day I saw the exact same size and brand at a regular grocery for $4.49.

If you also shop a warehouse club and have the ability to store large quantities, you'll find that some items are still cheaper that way. Grocery Outlet has one-pound bags of frozen edamame for $1.29; I buy a 6-pound bag at Costco for $6.99, or $1.17 per pound. It helps if you keep a price book (or have an exceptional memory).

My grocery needs skew heavily toward fresh and frozen items and away from the ‘shelf-stable' cans, bags, and boxes that of course make up most of a liquidator's stock, but I've found plenty of pantry items I could use: cans of olives, vegetable broth, Heinz ketchup, a box of Kashi cereal at $2.49. Right after I started making my own bread I found five-pound bags of whole wheat flour for $1.99 each, 46% cheaper than the best local grocery price.

Locating Grocery Liquidators

I don't see Grocery Outlet wholly replacing any of my current stores, but it's earned a solid place at the front of the rotation. I'm accustomed to checking the loss leaders and produce sales each week, then planning meals around what's cheap; this is just an extension of that strategy. A chat with an employee reveals that my store gets shipments on Mondays and Fridays; produce and frozen foods come in Monday morning and are on display by early afternoon.

How do you find an ‘Island of Misfit Foods' near you? In the western states, try Grocery Outlet's web site. Otherwise, gnivas.com has a list of salvage food stores organized by state. (Call ahead though, as some of the listed stores have gone out of business.)

If neither of these turn up something in your area, don't give up — there are thousands of independent stores not listed here. Try searching the web for your location plus ‘grocery surplus', ‘grocery salvage', ‘banana box', ‘discount grocery', or — if you live in Ohio, Pennsylvania, or Indiana — ‘Amish grocery'.

Most grocery liquidators are independently owned, and even the chains like Grocery Outlet are independently operated franchises. So your local store may be quite different from mine. It's worth checking out, though, even if you're a food snob like me.

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Lara
Lara

Check unit pricing carefully at a place like this. While I’m sure that it varies from store to store, the grocery outlet in our area had few things that were better priced than the Winco grocery store where I usually shop.

Martha
Martha

Another tip: shop local ethnic grocery stores. We have a large Vietnamese community in our area. I’ve found that produce can be as much as 50% cheaper, and common spices show the same savings. Excellent tips Karawynn.

Baker @ ManVsDebt
Baker @ ManVsDebt

Wow, I’ve never heard of this concept, but it’s a fantastic idea. “Grocery” is an area of our budget that we struggle with at times and this would certainly help us with select items. Lately, we’ve been trying to ONLY buy what’s on a pre-determined list in order to control our impulse purchasing. Have you found that it’s a little harder to control yourself in a set-up like this? I can imagine I might go a little crazy buying stuff I might not need just because it’s a great deal. On the other hand, if you are getting it at… Read more »

Michael
Michael

We love the local Aldi store, just remember they don’t take credit cards (at least ours doesn’t!)

Jason
Jason

Good article with interesting links and well-written. Checking the links, though, there’s nothing in our area. Also, at this point with two working parents and two children, we only have a finite amount of time to make it to the grocery store. We plan meals in advance and shop from a list, so it’s more critical that we get what we need when we need it. Visiting more than one store in a trip becomes very time consuming — although we will hit up Trader Joe’s and BJ’s about once every 6 weeks, as TJ’s has a lot of stuff… Read more »

guinness416
guinness416

Interesting … don’t think we have these in Toronto, at least not that I’ve heard of. From the photos it looks nicer than several of the non-liquidator supermarkets around here! I’m guessing the “element of surprise” aspect could go either way … fun or very annoying.

J.D.
J.D.

Kris and I have a Grocery Outlet near our house, too. I included it when I did my survey of which has the best prices: grocery stores or farmers markets?

We don’t shop at Grocery Outlet as much as we could. I’m not sure why. It is a sort of adventure. And a Big Lots lives next to our Grocery Outlet, so we could conceivably hit up both at the same time.

MichaelM
MichaelM

“We plan meals in advance and shop from a list…Visiting more than one store in a trip becomes very time consuming” And if you’ve got kids in tow, it can be simply impossible! If you’re already planning meals in advanced, then you’re most of the way to our solution. If you can plan meals out 3 weeks, you can hit up Costco/Sams Club one week, a discount store the next, and a standard grocer the following week. We typically buy our meat and staples (flour, rice, sugar, etc.) at costco. The next week we’ll go to a discount grocer and… Read more »

Stephanie
Stephanie

You’ll have to add “Western Maryland” to the list of places with Amish grocery stores; I live in the farthest-west county in Maryland, and we have one not far from where I work that my family and I shop at quite frequently. They are fairly small, but they do a pretty good amount of business in their specialties, which are things like sodas/bottled drinks, canned fruits, bagged chips and pretzels, etc. They also sell locally made jellies, jams, and cheeses that are well worth the trip on their own. It’s always a scavenger hunt, and Karawynn and others are correct… Read more »

RB @ RichBy30RetireBy40
RB @ RichBy30RetireBy40

Don’t have one of these in California. Interesting though. Makes me a little hesitant going to an “outlet grocer” bc I immediately think of lower quality food, rightly or wrongly.

The only grocer we have that’s cheaper, but awesome is Trader Joe’s! Love Trader Joe’s as it always comes out 25% cheaper than Safeway. Wholefoods is the best though. Love their dry-aged rib-eye steak for $20/lbs.

Rgds,

RB

Lisa A.
Lisa A.

I like your tip of keeping a price book. I have a spreadsheet I keep where I put the regular price at Wal-Mart and at the regular grocery store. Then every week when the sale ads come in, I record the sale price of items that I would normally buy. I also keep a column for the lowest sale price that I have ever seen on that item. This lets you know if the sale is really worth it or not. My family was making fun of me for it until they saw the grocery store receipt that said our… Read more »

Jay
Jay

When I was a poor college student in Cleveland we made a game out of grocery shopping, we had plenty of time and no money. The two stores we hit up the most were Marc’s, which was a cross between a low end grocery store and discount department store, and the Everything is a Dollar store. Marc’s was like the store in the article, and adventure every time you went in. I once bought yards of fabric so my mother could make curtains out of them. Another time I bought luggage for Spring Break. Though my best trick was their… Read more »

Matt B.
Matt B.

Since you mentioned Big Lots, I’ll add this. I tried buying groceries at Big Lots for a while, and I assume it’s likely comparable to the Grocery Outlet in terms of where the food is coming from. Doing some unrelated legal research, I came across a case that discussed how Big Lots “re-dates” foods to permit lengthier expiration dates and how this practice was nevertheless compliant with FDA regulations. After that, I was a little hesitant to buy food there again.

sandy
sandy

I don’t think we have something like this in our area, but I’ll start googling to see. One idea that did pop into my mind while reading this, and I’ve done this for years is this: Whenever you find a great deal on something foodwise that can be shelved to use later, or preserved (I found an awesome deal one time on peppers in the middle of winter one time, for example, and bought about 20 of them, came home chopped them up and pooped them in the freezer for later use in chili, etc..). If it is something that… Read more »

Kristin @ klingtocash
Kristin @ klingtocash

I have a PriceRite close to my house. It’s an awesome place to pick up staples like flour, sugar, herbs and spices, canned beans and pasta. The produce is hit or miss. I’ve been very pleased with the bagels and bread selection also. I save a ton of money shopping at the PriceRite. I know a lot of people who won’t shop there because of the area of town it’s in. If it’s going to save me 40 to 60% on my groceries, I really don’t care where it is.

Lesley
Lesley

I’m with Jason. A neat idea for those with the time to do multiple grocery trips looking for bargains, but not useful for those under significant time pressure. And while I do love a good deal, I’d rather just use that time to make more money. 🙂

James
James

We have an Aldi nearby that has lots of great discounts. Also on weekends there’s an unofficial produce market at our nearby flea market. Fresh avocados for $1 each, fresher and cheaper than anywhere in town. look around, there’s always somewhere for cheap fresh food!

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski

This whole article could have been: Grocery savings tip: Try shopping at a discount store, they’re often cheaper. And maybe a short list of discount chains in different parts of the world. At least, I think it could have been. I mostly stopped reading around the time you decided to list all the different sections in a grocery store (They have canned foods!? How novel), and skimmed the rest. No more grocery store reviews, please. I know this comment comes across as harsh, but I couldn’t think of any way to make it not seem that way and still get… Read more »

Sarah
Sarah

I love the Grocery Outlet in my town. The cheese section is my favorite. I have found great prices and new types of cheese. Its always interesting what they have. Once there was a new brand and cheese that I liked and it actually showed up at Costco and Whole Foods a few weeks later! Probably one of the worst things is the candy selection is cheap!!! I’ve found great chocolate buys, darn it! Oh and the people that work at my store are really nice too!

Esther
Esther

I shopped, all the time, at Grocery Outlet when I was in college; they had the best deal ever! Especially, with my lack of income as a college student. Ah…I remember those days.

Winco is very new to me. My family, who frequented Costco, now shop there and have great things to say about it. I’ve been hoping to stumble upon a location near my home. So, thanks for the tip on gnivas.com.

KC
KC

I thought this article was great. The detail helps with the comfort level for those who have not tried discount stores.

I have recently begun shopping at a Grocery Outlet and I go once a month or so The time commitment isn’t very big, but its a great place to get things like granola bars which my 2 year old loves but I don’t like to spend $$ for.

Samantha
Samantha

Great article. Interesting read, I found a few places in Ohio but none close enough to drive there. It did make me think outside the box though, in regards to saving on grocery money.

Donna
Donna

Great article!

leukothea
leukothea

I’m so pleased you reviewed the Grocery Outlet right by my house! I, too, went through a very similar thought process over this store, eventually embracing it in all its quirkiness. The only problem is that as a mom of two young kids who switches off work with her husband, I’m usually the “single mom” and can’t take both kids out grocery shopping with me to more than two places in a single trip. My best deal ever at the Grocery Outlet was a huge, and I mean huge, plastic bin of laundry detergent for $6. I have been using… Read more »

Erica Douglass
Erica Douglass

@J.D. – Never buy food at Big Lots. Seriously. Wasted a ton of money figuring that out. Most of it is bad. Only good food I’ve ever bought there is canned tuna. Even their canned sodas were expired — bleh! @RB: The equivalent in California is Food 4 Less. If you live in an outlying area (*really* outlying), you can also shop at Winco, which is AWESOME. (My boyfriend turned me on to Winco since he’s from Oregon.) We have, on occasion, made a “date night” out of Winco by driving up there with a big cooler and buying tons… Read more »

The Tim
The Tim

We have a Grocery Outlet within walking distance from our house, and shop there all the time.

One important thing that wasn’t mentioned in the post: make sure that you check the expiration date on perishable foods such as dairy or meat products. It is not uncommon for us to find sour cream or lunch meat for sale at GO that is only a day or two away from the printed expiration date.

Overall though, we love it. We’ve also noticed a lot more people shopping there lately…

kate
kate

I had the same initial wariness about Grocery Outlet for a long, long time – it always looked kind of sketchy to me – but now I go there weekly. Some of the prices you can’t beat.

Paul
Paul

Nice article about a fun store. We go fairly often and stock up on staples and some of the fun, discounted items that they sometimes carry. For what it’s worth, after working for years in the food-processing industry, I can tell you that most of the “off-brands” are the same product sold at the regular stores under recognized labels. In the case of canned foods, when the product is initially canned, it typically isn’t labeled, but simply stored. It gets labeled just before shipment, depending on which distributor/brand places an order. If there is a surplus, the cans will get… Read more »

KSR
KSR

How exactly did the author determine there was a “cross-section…of economic classes” represented? I prefer that the bloggers I read NOT stereotype by appearance…

Darwin
Darwin

For those in Seattle, I find it’s worth it for me to drive an extra 20 min to MacPherson’s Fruit and Produce in South Seattle. They have fantastic deals on fresh produce – 2x to 3x cheaper than QFC or Safeway on many items. Note that they tend not to stay fresh as long (maybe 1-2 weeks as opposed to 2-3 weeks from supermarkets). You can read more on Yelp. My favorite quote from a review there is: “The hallelujah chorus should be playing at MacPherson’s all the time, because that’s how I feel here; especially after going to the… Read more »

SweetCoffee
SweetCoffee

Solid present tense usage if you ask me 🙂

Sibyl
Sibyl

You’re shifting between your tenses.

Chickybeth
Chickybeth

I liked this post because I never would have gone into a place called “Grocery Outlet” but I might have to check it out.

@J.D. and others who posted about BigLots. Definitely do NOT ever buy anything edible from there. I used to work there in high school and so I know how disgusting the food can be. Just because it has a name brand, doesn’t mean that was the original label. Also, anything seasonal is probably from 3 or 4 years ago because they just save everything that doesn’t sell and put it out the next year.

Brenda
Brenda

Great article, and interesting to read!
I don’t have any Misfit Food type stores near me, but I do have a Dollar Store, which is great for things like toothbrushes, hairbrushes, laundry baskets, etc. You can get name brands (ie, Colgate, L’oreal, Rubbermaid) for a buck. (they have some groceries, but they’re usually suspect).

Karawynn @ Pocketmint
Karawynn @ Pocketmint

Lara: I’ve read about Winco; it’s said to be far cheaper than the other chains we have here, even Trader Joe’s. Sadly, the nearest one to me is almost an hour away. Baker, Jason: I’m more of an opportunist; I buy loss leaders and work out ways to use them on the fly. If you’re a hard-and-fast list shopper, or stick to a strict meal plan, Grocery Outlet might be of less use. That said, if you buy much in the way of shelf-stable products (cereal, cookies and crackers, bottled juice, canned anything …), I’d still suggest hitting a liquidator… Read more »

SMB
SMB

Karawynn, you live in my neck of the woods. I occasionally shop at the Grocery Outlet (or, the “Gross-Out” for short) myself.

corey
corey

Very helpful article!

Like the writer, I’ve been driving past a grocery outlet for much of the past year. I drive by, slow down, take a long hard look, like I’ll somehow be able to discern whether it is truly a bargain somehow without actually going in. Sounds like it might be worth a stop by occasionally. I especially appreciate the fact that you talked to the employees and got the scoop on how/when the inventory changes.

kristen
kristen

Yeah, but do places like this take coupons?

Tiffany
Tiffany

In regards to Tyler Karaszewski’s comment. Ugh… never more have I wanted to follow a link and send them a message about what a camel’s hind end they are.

I loved this article.. very informative for moms and those who spend a lot on groceries (aka people with families). GRS needs more estrogen.

Sarah
Sarah

Oh I also wanted to add that we have a “Stupid Prices” in my town. They are very interesting. One thing is ours sells items discounted from Costco. For example I recently got Kirkland tuna cans. At Costco they sell in packs of 8 or so and if the cans get loose from the pack they don’t sell them individually. Stupid Prices gets that inventory and then sells them individually even cheaper then per can price at Costco. Also leftover clothes from Costco come in at a discount. Worth checking out.

Karawynn @ Pocketmint
Karawynn @ Pocketmint

The Tim: I did check the expiration dates on dairy but found them to be in line with our regular supermarkets. (I don’t eat meat, so I don’t even know what’s normal there.) However, that’s one of those things that probably varies from store to store. Caution is good. Thanks for the BigLots warnings, everyone. I’m frightened now … 🙂 As several people have pointed out, you’re basically trading time for money, which makes it most useful for people who have more of the former than the latter. (JD asked for ‘frugality’ posts, which does sort of skew toward money-saving… Read more »

Emmy
Emmy

Love this. I’ve been putting off checking out the Grocery Outlet in town because I, too, am a bit of a food snob. Now I might try it out! Apparently they have great deals on cases of wine, like bottles that would sell for $10 at Safeway at $20 or less per case.

Jim
Jim

We have Grocery Outlet here and we go on occasion. They can have very good deals there. They often have misc. non-grocery items too. My wife found some very good bargains on her brand of makeup and I’ve bought Sudoku books for 50¢ each.

I think the name is unfortunate. ‘outlet’ doesn’t really make people want to buy food. But the food is just fine in my experience.

From their website, Grocery Outlet has locations in the West coast in these states: California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Nevada and Arizona.

Joe
Joe

Hey, for everything finance related (grocery shopping tips included) check out this awesome Q&A with Daniel Bowen, a guy who was featured in Forbes last month:

http://thepopfix.com/2009/08/03/bowen/

Budgie
Budgie

@kristen, I’m sure that places like this don’t accept coupons. I usually save BIG money on groceries using coupons by stacking sales, promotions, double coupons, rebates, ect. to get things dirt-cheap or even free! I realize not everyone wants to take the time or energy to use and collect coupons, but it can be worth the time for familes who are really struggling with their grocery bill. For instance, last week I ended up with 10 boxes of Chez-It crackers and 10 boxes of cereal for free after rebates. Of course, you have to take the extra time to mail… Read more »

Chiot's Run
Chiot's Run

Very interesting. Food is one of those areas where I refuse to bargain shop, I figure I’m eating it (I don’t want to encourage potential future health issues by eating cheap processed food). That being said, several years ago I quit buying prepackaged food, and oddly I’m actually spending much less now that I eat real food (food as close to it’s natural form as possible). Meat is the most expensive to buy fresh locally, but I’m eating a little less and since I’m saving so much on my fruits & veg by shopping at the farmer’s market and growing… Read more »

Cathy
Cathy

We moved here from a small town a couple of years ago. When first living in the small town, people used to mention the “Bent Can Store”. We finally checked it out, and it was much as described in the above article. We’d go in every few weeks and check out the deals. Now as a busy mom of four small children (from 8 down to 18 months) with no such store anywhere around, I still manage to keep to a pretty reasonable budget by planning ahead and shopping with a list. Yep, it can be done even with children… Read more »

The Tim
The Tim

RE: Karawynn @ 40 – Indeed. It even varies considerably from week to week at our local GO. We frequently purchase dairy and meat products and most of the time there’s no problem. We just have to be careful to make sure they’re not going to “expire” a day or two after we buy them, because that does seem to be the case occasionally with what we find on the shelf. I also agree with the other commenters that local fruit stands are the way to go for produce. My wife and I have a couple of rules about things… Read more »

Abbie
Abbie

This is so interesting! We have a Korean grocery near us, actually quite a few in Northern VA, and they have good, very varied produce at good prices. But I think they make up for the low produce prices with the very expensive imports. I was astonished to see that you pay around $1.99 per gallon of milk. Here in NoVA, it is $3.50 for conventional milk, $2.99 if you are lucky. Wonderful article! Abbie

AJP
AJP

My family has been going to the Grocery Outlet since I was about 10. We used to call it “The Canned Foods Store” cause that’s about all we got there. You cannot beat their prices on canned tomatoes (a staple around my house) and cereal. Often they will be a test market for certain products, hence the cheeses that you wind up seeing at Whole Foods after a month or two. I find I go there about every 3 months to stock up on certain items like canned tomatoes, fruits, shredded cheese, cereal, oil, and frozen lunches and pizzas (they… Read more »

danielle
danielle

Canned Foods Outlet! That’s what it used to be called!
My mom and I used to go there every week to conserve the grocery money. I’m still alive, and I have fond memories of all the awesome shampoo with yellow price tags

Amy
Amy

My 2 cents: My initial reaction to this article was “oh no, not another save-money-on-groceries article”. Then I saw that it was a post from a potential new writer for GRS and I thought “oh noooo, why did she shoot herself in the foot with this topic? Did she not read the monthly rounds ups and comments to know that some people don’t really care about this?”…and then I went over to simple dollar and read a much more valuable article (to me anyway) on finding the balance between buying the basics and making it yourself to save money versus… Read more »

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