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grocery store strategy [moved from L.A. board]

  • j

I was wondering if anyone had insight concerning grocery shopping and budgetary concerns.

I have been doing most of my shopping at Albertson's, with occasional trips to Trader Joe's and the Fish King(in Glendale). I once went to a Food4Less (Sunset and Western) and was thinking about poking into a Smart and Final.

My husband and I live in an average one bedroom apartment, no garage space, no balcony, so space issues influence my buying in bulk. I have started to cook (much!) more and I have a real interest in buying good, affordable ingrediants.

Would a CostCo membership be worth it? Do two people need to buy 5,000 trashbags at a time? Neither one of us are big drinkers, if the liquor deals make the club membership desirable, then maybe its not for me.

Thanks for any advice.

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  1. First of all IMHO Costco is well worth the price. Many items are not in giant bulk sizes so I would guess that you would be able to do quite a bit of your shopping there. You should drop by and inquire - I believe they will let you in without being a member if you tell them you are thinking of joining (note: you can't buy anything without joining - you can just look).

    The other part of your system is logical (if you take advantage of double coupons), but I might also suggest one additional diversion. When you really need nice produce (or cheese, baked goods, etc...) you might also check out Bristol Farms or Gelsons. We use Bristol Farms for key ingredients but never use it as our "normal" market.

    Have Fun!

    5 Replies
    1. re: Ray

      actually, you CAN buy alcohol w/out having
      membership at Costco. I was buying some beer and liquor for a party and had forgotten our card and the cashier mentioned that I need not a membership. very convenient!!!

      1. re: coco puff

        Was this in California? I knew the policy varied state to state (i.e. when I visited the Boston area membership was not required). I was under the impression that our local stores require membership.

        1. re: Ray

          nope..it was at the Marina Del Rey Costco on Washington Blvd. The cashier said that I don't need to be a member when buying alcohol...you might want to double check though.

          1. re: coco puff

            Oh, very interesting, the alcoholic beverage industry cut some deal with Costco? I'll bet MADD is real happy about that.

      2. re: Ray

        I wonder if Sam's has the same policy?

        Does anyone know if you can buy milk and cigarettes without a membership also? It seems like these products may be controlled, too (by either state or federal).

      3. I love Costco, and I almost never purchase alcohol. They have a great selection of meats and generally have very knowledgeable butchers. They also bake a lot of their own bake goods, including yummy cookies, cakes, and breads. Besides food, they sell other goods not in bulk such as books, clothing, towels, furniture, bakeware, electronics, etc. Costco also has its own pharmacy. I am in a similar situation to you (live w/my SO in a small apartment w/o a lot of storage), but I have found that buying paper towels and toilet paper there in bulk is well worth it. Anyway, this is getting off the subject of food, but I think the membership is worth it even if you just go there to buy a couple of things, be it food or other goods.

        1. Make sure to find out where the nearest farmer's market is to you and go. I buy a lot of really great produce at really low prices compared to what they charge in the supermarket.

          I'm fortunate enough to live a half hour drive from the farmstands in Fillmore as well, and take advantage of that as well.

          If you do get a Costco membership, you could find friends, family or coworkers to split some things with you.

          I always buy trashbags and water there, the trashbags don't take up much storage space, and I go through water so quickly, its a cost savings

          1. This is my two-years-of-being-a-broke-grad-student strategy:

            1. Farmer's Markets. I use the Sunday Hollywood one. You get produce for about lowest-supermarket prices that's at least as good as Whole Foods, maybe better. You also get to see the seasons come in and out. It's nice. Get in touch with nature. Actually, I think the thing that made me most in touch with my California locale and cheap was the purchase of two extraordinary vegetable books - Waters' Chez Panisse Vegetables and Willinger's Red White and Greens - which assures me that, no matter what vegetable I find good-looking, I can take them home and be assured of knowing how to cook them with a minimal pantry. This has changed me style of cooking. There is no meditate-over-a-recipe-and-then-go-to-supermarket-and-buy-what-I-need-no-matter-how-bad-it-looks.

            If you are switching over to the find-cheap-and-good-and-improvise strategy, I recommend the best two books I know for detaching one from recipes - John Thorne's Outlaw Cook and Simple Cooking.

            2. Trader Joe's for cooking cheeses, pre-made stocks, dried fruits. Avoid their fresh veggies. Also very good cheap alcohol. Costco has the cheapest handles - good for parties - but they don't have the really great stuff. Just the name-brand stuff. Seagram's, fer instance. TJ's has a really great selection: to name a few, Macallan 12, Maker's Mark, etc. for at least 25% cheaper than anyone else. And REAL SMIRNOFF, FROM FREAKING MOSCOW FOR GOD'S SAKE, FOR $9 A LITER. Nothing like American-bottled Smirnoff. The Moscow stuff tastes of potato and clawing-up-from-misery. Great. Also Plugra - holy French cooking butter - for 1/4 the price of Bristol farms. Really. Seriously. 1/4.

            They also have a really smart port-and-sherry buyer.

            3. Ralph's with a club card for some basics. They have the best pasta I know - Delverde - which about 1/3 of the time is on club card special for really cheap. Much better than TJ's, which otherwise has the best dried stuff. Also, they frequently have Muir Glen Organic tomatoes on club card special, which are the best canned tomatoes I know of. I load up during the non-summer months.

            4. Whole Foods for good cheeses. Also their in-house orange juice is the equal of the best large-market brands, for considerably cheaper. Also their bulk dried goods are high quality and cheap.

            5. Asian markets for fishes. There's the Hong Kong in Koreatown, the Bangluck Market in Thaitown, and for the OC crowd, Murukai in Torrance. If you know what you're looking for (look under the gills for redness) you can get insanely good fish for ridiculously cheap. Got very good sea bass for $3 a pound the other day. But there's terrible stuff too. The advantage is that it's out and you can poke at it. Feel it. Make sure it's good. Make sure it's got the love.

            6. Bay Cities for the expensive stuff. I've found that buying really ridiculously expensive parmesan and quite-more-expensive olive oil is worth it. You use much less for more flavor.

            7. Tortillerias for fresh tortillas and masa. I used to buy it packaged at the supermarket. Ridiculously fresh and cheap at a good tortilleria. There are many in every vaguely Hispanic neighborhood I've been in, so I just try 'em out.

            In general, I've tried to figure out what I like and find what place has it cheapest, instead of going for the very cheapest. I've been much happier since I abandoned my Costco card - I had no willpower and bought.

            -thi

            1 Reply
            1. re: Thi N.

              ok...Gotta chime in on this thread...

              One thing I have found, as a regular shopper at:

              TJ's
              Gelsons
              Bristol
              Whole Foods
              Ralph/Pavilions
              Bay Cities
              Costco
              Farmer's Markets
              (and) the list goes on

              .is that there are certain items MUCH cheaper at certain stores. For instance, everyone "knows" Gelsons as a high-end super market. That's true and some of their stuff is laughably high-priced! But, there are some items that are actually cheaper than anywhere else I have found. Like Baxter's Soup. Vons has the same canned soup for 25% more than Gelsons. Who would've thought?!

              Also, I concur that TJ's has great prices on good scotch, tequilla, chocolate, cheese -- I won't buy anywhere else.

              Bottom line is: I have certain items I ALWAYS get from certain stores. The price differences are amazing at times. There is a chocolate bar sold at Bristol Farms for over $5.00 (can you imagine?!) and the exact same item at TJ's for just over $2.00 -- no coupon, no sales...every day!

              Just keep your eyes and ears open and soon you will know what to get, and where.

              P.S. Yes, it means going to a lot of different stores, but that's the price you pay. Of course, there are rare times I'd rather just pay a little more for something and do one-stop shopping -- it all depends if you want to save TIME or MONEY! I always get a thrill buying stuff at the cheapest possible point...even if I have to drive 30 minutes to specialty shop. There have been times I have used a coupon, had it doubled, on a sale-item, and got it for FREE by the time all was said and done. This, for a fairly expensive ($3.00-range) item like high-end ice cream or anti-persperant.

              P.P.S. There are also a TON of little ethnic food markets -- independent -- that I frequent, like the indian spice markets, etc. Places you can really stock up on supplies and hand made foods at rock-bottom prices.

            2. Hi Julia,

              You face a task that all of us have gone through, are going through, or will go through at some point. How you handle it determines whether it is an enjoyable experience or a dreaded task.

              First of all, membership clubs. My wife and I belong to both Costco and Sam's Club. Yes, there is a membership fee, and yes, many items come in "bigger-than-I'll-ever-use" packages. But the real downside of the membership clubs is the nagging temptations to buy more things than you intend to. That being said, I enjoy shopping at both places for food. The prices are not ALWAYS the lowest around, but they are always very competitive. The meat departments at both stores are superb, with USDA Choice Beef. The selection of prpared food is wonderful. One advantage of Sam's Club is they are the ONLY place around that sells single gallons of milk at good prices. Seems like a little thing, but to me, it's something that sets Sam's apart from grocery stores, whose "buy 2 and save but we are gonna screw you on 1 gallon policy" does not set well with me.

              Chain grocery stores: by all means, get a Vons/Pavillions and a Ralph's Club card -- they make saving easy and painless. I don't know about you, but every week on Tuesday, I get sale flyers in the mail from the major grocery chains. I take 10 minutes and make a list of what looks good and on sale for wach store for the week and keep it in my car for when I'm out. And look for good buys with coupons as well, especially with Vons/Pavillions and Ralph's doubling their value. Nothing like buying an item on sale and then using a double coupon on top of it. Finally, know the price points for commonly bought items. For instance, when Diet Coke goes below $1.00 per 6 pack or 2 Liter, I know it's time to stock up. 2 weeks ago, a 6-pack of Diet Coke was $2.29 at a local store, This week it was on sale for 99 cents, plus I had a 30 cent coupon that when doubled, lowered the 6 pack price to 39 cents.

              Independent Markets and Farmer's Markets: This is where to shop for produce! Seems to me that the major chain supermarkets have VERY high prices on produce, with the exception of a few sale items each week. When I lived in Ventura COunty, I shopped some farmer's stands for produce, now here is Orange County, I shop 2 independent markets, whose produce is fresh and often less than half the price of the big guys. Most noticeable is the larger size single baked potatoes...89 cents/lb and the supers, 29 cents/lb at a small indie market. Weekly Farmer's Markets can work the same way.

              Yes, I also make occasional stops at upscale markets (Gelson's Whole Foods, Bristol Farms) and TJ's as well, but those are the exception rather than the rule. Hope some of my strategy works for you or at least gives you some ideas.

              6 Replies
              1. re: RSMBob

                Where do you shop in OC for cheap and good produce? I would be interested in checking some of those places out. Thanks!

                1. re: Samantha

                  Try the Farmer's Market at the Pier in Huntington Beach on Friday afternoons. On the Seal Beach/Long Beach border, there's a Sunday morning (8 or 9 til 1 pm) farmer's market at Alamitos Bay (behind the new Wild Oats market on PCH just south of 2nd/Westminster).

                  1. re: Samantha
                    t
                    torta basilica

                    Grower's Direct on 17th & Newport in Costa Mesa is great. I always am hauling huge bags, 5 or more, of wonderful stuff out of there for under $25. Eggs - jumbo @ .99/doz, great mangoes, berries, etc. Caveats: eat any berries immediately - very short shelf life; don't buy the celery - the only yuckky thing there. Tasty grapes, tangelos, corn, etc, etc. Just try & get out of there with under 5 bags!

                    1. re: Samantha

                      My favorite place for produce is the Farm To Market grocery store in Laguna Niguel (Crown Valley & Alicia). I believe FtM has another location as well. A former FtM im Mission Viejo on Los Alisos is now a Mission Rancho Market, which is also decent for produce (and geographically more convenient), but not as good for baked goods and fresh meats.

                      1. re: RSMBob

                        Alert to RSMBob! Farm to Market at Crown Valley and Alicia. has been closed for 5 or 6 months now. Their store on Del Obispo (in San Juan/Dana Point was still there last time I checked.

                      2. re: Samantha

                        Growers RANCH on Newport Bl next to Shosh Monahan's , they also have a wholesale dept next door, for those larger quanities. They supply most of the restaurants in OC.